Bill Stewart is out at West Virginia, as suddenly and strangely as he came in

Matt Hinton
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West Virginia didn't invent the concept of a "coach in waiting," and even after the rapidly unfolding melodrama of the last three weeks, it hardly deserves to go down as the only program that failed to make it work.

More than anywhere else the mentor/successor dynamic has been attempted, though, West Virginia's decision to begin the year-long transition from head coach Bill Stewart to incoming offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen last December amounted to an experiment in having two head coaches at the same time. Friday, just shy of six months after Holgorsen was introduced as Stewart's successor, starting in 2012, the results of that experiment are in: Stewart is officially out as head coach after three seasons, an apparent casualty of an internal investigation into possible media leaks and outright sabotage aimed at undermining Holgorsen, who becomes the new head coach effective immediately — seven months earlier than expected, and less than two months after reportedly being tossed from a local casino at 3 a.m. on a Wednesday morning.

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Though his departure is likely to be announced later Friday night as a resignation, Stewart will reportedly be fired with cause for conduct detrimental to the university, presumably over allegations that he lobbied at least one (and possibly two) West Virginia reporters to start a smear campaign against Holgorsen and that he may have been behind the report that (falsely, according to the university) painted Holgorsen as a serial drunk. The fate of the buyout money in question on Thursday is uncertain.

The morbid soap opera that bookended Stewart's tenure is bizarre not only for the spectacle of a doomed old man* attempting to actively undermine his younger, freewheeling replacement, but specifically because that man is Bill Stewart.

Not that anyone is surprised his tenure has ended in calamity: Almost from the moment of his impetuous hire by ex-athletic director Ed Pastilong following the emotional triumph of the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, Stewart's critics have persistently hammered his thin resumé. He was criticized for his failure to win a Big East championship despite inheriting a top-five team featuring the likes of Pat White and Noel Devine. And oftentimes mocked for his Mayberry-esque demeanor — too grandfatherly, out-of-touch with young players and recruits, occasionally folksy beyond comprehension. He was the kind of coach who other coaches get fired for losing to. But of all his possible flaws, "loyalty" was always at the end of the list.{YSP:MORE}

This was a guy, after all, who was born and raised in West Virginia, went to school in West Virginia at Division II Fairmont State and had spent eight years as an assistant to both longtime Mountaineer head coach Don Nehlen and fellow West Virginia native Rich Rodriguez. When Rodriguez left for Michigan after coming four points short of the BCS Championship Game in the 2007 finale, it was Stewart who took the reins for a 48-28 upset over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, before which he gave a rousing speech about "Mountaineer Pride" and never bailing out on your brother. That win helped replace the mood that inspired fans to burn Rodriguez in effigy with one that inspired a mohawk'd fullback to nearly break down in tears on national television over his love for his state — and the mood that inspired Stewart's promotion to his dream job as the full-time Mountaineer coach a few hours later.

Whatever else happened, there was never a question that Stewart might contemplate following his predecessor out of West Virginia, even if anyone else wanted him. This is a guy who told stories about West Virginia folklore and local Civil War battles and evoked the power of coal in motivational speeches. Where else could he possibly go?

It could be that Stewart felt someone betrayed himself to be shoved onto the world's slowest iceberg on the heels of three straight nine-win seasons, or just the usual disgruntlement that comes with being shoved out of any job, much less one in which you have so much invested and have not obviously failed.

It could be that he's just very bad at keeping his emotions in check.

But given the only slightly less explosive turmoil that accompanied the exits of Bobby Bowden and Ralph Friedgen at Florida State and Maryland, respectively, over the last two winters, the idea that establishing a succession plan for a man who isn't ready to be succeeded will somehow ease the eventual transition should be thoroughly discredited. When the rubber meets the road, even loyalty can't overcome self-preservation.
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*Actually, at age 58, Stewart isn't nearly as old as his weathered features and front-porch persona has always suggested.

Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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