April 22, 2008
Morgantown, WV (UWIRE) -- As the West Virginia University football team's spring practice came to a close on Saturday, plenty of questions were left unanswered.
How will the team adapt to the new motion and movement aspects being implemented in the Mountaineer offense?
How will the defense - especially the secondary - deal with the loss of key seniors from last season's unit that ranked seventh in total defense?
And will the team's overhauled coaching staff match the success of its predecessor?
Time will bring the answers to all of those questions, though the answer to the last question may not come for a few seasons.
But no matter how those questions are answered, the Mountaineer players and coaches alike will likely be having a blast doing it.
And that's due to the infectiously positive atmosphere first-year head coach Bill Stewart has brought to the program.
"It's a lot happier atmosphere," said WVU kicker Pat McAfee. "Everybody's positive. Everybody wants to be here."
It's not shocking to hear McAfee say that. After all, anyone who has ever met the colorful kicker can probably tell you that he might be one of the happiest players to ever wear a Mountaineer jersey.
"We have a very tight-knit team," he said. "I'm a kicker, and at most places, the kicker is kind of out by himself, but I'm good friends with everybody on this team."
But Stewart also readily admits, "What we're working on right now is the most important thing in the Mountaineer program, and that's chemistry."
Building a positive atmosphere has been central to fostering that chemistry.
Not to say the old administration was focused on keeping things negative, but the differences in the two staffs' practices are marked. As it has been noted before by other writers, the vulgar language and negative comments that serenaded practice in past seasons have been greatly muted over the past spring.
Most importantly, though, the intensity at the practices hasn't waned.
"It was a complete different atmosphere when Coach Stew got hired," McAfee said. "Everybody knows he's a light-hearted man and he's a happy guy, but there's seriousness to him.
"I think he respects us, and we respect him."
It all leads up to happier players, which will certainly lead to them playing looser. And with the talent-rich players that lace the Mountaineer roster, that's something that should lead to plenty more wins and high-profile bowl appearances.
In the team's last such appearance, the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, then-interim coach Stewart introduced the positive atmosphere. At the time, the players, still smarting after one of the worst losses in the program's history, glowed over how much fun football was again under Stewart.
And, of course, the result was a pretty victory over a BCS-bowl staple in Oklahoma.
Surely, it took more than Stewart treating players well and setting a honky-dory atmosphere to beat the Sooners, but it had to help.
At the end of the day, with the money football programs produce for a school, it can be forgotten that football is a game and it's played because it's fun.
But that's one concept Stewart hasn't forgotten.
And because of that, the question of whether his staff will match his predecessor's success is likely to be one that Mountaineer fans are going to enjoy seeing get answered.
Almost as much as his players will.
(C) 2008 The Daily Athenaeum via UWIRE