Thursday, January 3, 2008

Thanks for Reminding Us:WVU's Fiesta Bowl Shocker Truly Inspiring

For the majority of sports fans flipping through the channels this morning, the ticker score of Tostitos Fiesta Bowl: WVU 48 Oklahoma 28 likely merely elicited a 'huh' or a head shake. But West Virginia's stunning throttling of the Sooners represents much more than just the latest college football upset to blindside fans and experts alike. The Mountaineers' win over the traditional powerhouse from Norman symbolizes all that is right in sports.

This game reminds us why we cheer. We cheer for the underdog to do the unlikely. We cheer for the 'good guys' who finally get their due. We cheer for the men and women we strive to emulate. We cheer for the triumph of human spirit.

Consider all the West Virginia football team had been through over the past several weeks. With a trip to the national championship on the line, WVU choked at home to super-rival Pitt in the Backyard Brawl. They were out-coached by a floundering staff and out-played by a team with only pride to play for. No win (not even this Fiesta Bowl victory) will permanently erase the bitter taste of that loss for those loyal to the Mountain State. But that wasn't the most bitter pill the Mountaineers and their faithful had to swallow.

Soon afterwards, WVU's poster boy suddenly darted out of town. Head coach Rich Rodriguez, a state native and one of the most embraced coaches in the country, parted ways with West Virginia for greener (the color of money) pastures in Ann Arbor. He felt it would be easier, and more personally satisfying, to win there. He said goodbye at a very brief team meeting which some players stormed out of, curse words flying. Rodriguez left for Michigan that very night while students and fans followed his car to the local airport and verbally assaulted him, two members of his staff and their wives as they boarded the plane. Signs in Grant Town (Rod's hometown) promoting their pride of his accomplishments were removed for fear of vandalism and theft. Boosters threatened to withdraw millions in donations. Players and fans watched Rodriguez shuffle through his introduction as Michigan's new coach, and later grimaced as Rich strutted the sidelines during the Wolverine's excellent Capitol One Bowl victory over Florida. Rodriguez even agreed to an 'in-the-booth' interview during Lloyd Carr's final game. The Mountain State literally seethed. Mixed feelings of bewilderment, rage, anxiety and despair. But Rod, the ultimate upstager, was upstaged.

Back in Morgantown, the team was undaunted. Team. Is there a better word? Can any other word summon such strong emotion and comradery? While fans pulsed with anger, these young men remained focused on a singular objective. Performing superbly in their final game. They were led by Bill Stewart. WVU's 'aw-shucks' good guy assistant coach. The last man many thought could lead them to victory.

Always the bridesmaid, only once the bride. Stewart's only head coaching stint came over a decade ago at VMI were he went an underwhelming 8-25. Stewart had since traversed the entire football world, returning to his home state to play a small role as an assistant coach. He became as associate head coach but was then relegated to coaching the tight ends this past season. Coaching tight ends at WVU is like coaching fullbacks at Hawaii or Texas Tech..."stay on the other end of the practice field and we'll call for you when we're finished." All the while, Stewart remained the grounded, humble and sincere man he has always been. 'Stew' hands out hugs as if he expects he'll never see you again. That's his life and those in it. He gives direction to his players, following it up with 'Cub and Boy Scouts Honor.' He is the assistant coach that every player adores but never makes the paper. Until now.

Last night, WVU went up against a team that many experts felt was among the top 3 in the country. Oklahoma, along with Georgia and USC, was supposed to be playing their best football of the season. While WVU was supposed to quietly lick their wounds and exit stage left. Someone forgot to tell them. The Mountaineers played with a consistent passion that had not been seen on their sidelines in quite some time. Gone was the timid team we saw against Pittsburgh. This was a team playing with purpose and with energy, something Rodriguez struggled to bring out of them when it mattered most. But Bill Stewart found a way. Like a modern day Lou Holtz, Stewart rallied his team by talking, smiling and genuinely enjoying his players. He told them to play with heart and to play for each other. Damn (or, if you're Stewart...Darn) the odds. Beat OU and prove once again that WVU is home to an elite football program.

48-28. The Sooners never matched WVU's strength, commitment, determination and grit. They were out-hustled, out-coached and out-hearted by a team that wasn't supposed to even show up. Oklahoma was embarrassed by a team that desperately wanted to win. As time ticked down, players drowned Stewart in Gatorade and each took time to hug their man. After the game Stewart acknowledged it was his first 'Gatorade bath' and said it was for all of the assistant coaches out there. He called the moment, 'special.' As fans cheered in the stands at Arizona, hulking fullback and comic book-esque hero Owen Schmitt apologized to a reporter for nearly weeping during an interview. A super-jock with a mohawk brought to very rawest of emotional highs.

Right this moment in Arizona, WVU has hired their new head coach. After chasing down highly-touted assistants and 'big name' candidates all across the college football world, the university is about to hire a man they didn't formally interview until after he hoisted the Fiesta Bowl trophy. Bill Stewart. The New Martinsville, WV man who apologized for stealing turnips and throwing snowballs at train cars as a child during a pre-bowl press conference. Stewart is to college football what 'Ralphie' and The Christmas Story are to our holiday memories. He is all that is good in human nature. He isn't perfect but, like Goldilocks' porridge, he's just right.

On FOX's stage after the game, WVU's legendary junior quarterback and leader Pat White (the games deserved Offensive MVP) told the crowd and a national TV audience that Stewart was the team's choice to be the next head coach. He reiterated that in a press conference minutes later. White may have been the most influential source in the entire coaching search. WVU administrators immediately made up their mind. Bill Stewart is their man. He is a Mountain State man. He IS the Mountain State. Hard-working, humble, sincere and kind.

He inspired his team. His team inspired all of us.

I, for one, am grateful.

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