Death threats rile up, offend West Virginia's Stewart


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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- When is winning not enough?

When West Virginia University football is involved -- at least it seems that way sometimes to coach Bill Stewart.

So much so that he received a death threat last season -- after a win.

"I can't get frustrated if people -- the common fan, a sports writer, even one of my players -- question my place here as head football coach," said Stewart, 58, who carries a 19-8 record into his third full season. "I can't get side-tracked, I can't lose sight of my goal. I have to stay on course, believe in my daily walk, believe in my plan as a leader and that's it. That's all I can do."

This is a man who produced, arguably, the most memorable bowl win in the program's history -- a 20-point romp in the desert against Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl after former coach Rich Rodriguez bolted for Michigan. He has guided the Mountaineers to consecutive 9-4 seasons, his team finishing in the Top 25 at the end of both and winning one of two bowl games.

Last season, the Mountaineers enjoyed their first undefeated home season since 1993. No matter.

When his team beat Division I-AA Liberty by "just" 13 points in the season opener last year, then had to fight until the closing stages to pick up a 15-point victory against East Carolina the second week, Stewart drew plenty of ire from message-board inhabitants and fans grumbling as they walked out of Mountaineer Field.

"You are not going to win every game by four or five touchdowns or shut every opponent out," Stewart said in an interview with the Post-Gazette last week. "I've taken a knee at the end of a game out of sportsmanship, and I've gotten booed. I don't believe in that, I just don't. If there's any bad of college football, that's the bad. These are just young men out there trying the best they can."

The detractors shouted loudest when an early November game against Louisville (which won one Big East Conference game last season) was closer than anticipated, West Virginia winning, 17-9.

This time, though, something far more alarming happened.

"I got death threats, a guy e-mailed me death threats," Stewart said, sitting in an office, his index finger pointing to a computer on his desk. "And I know it was because we didn't beat [the point spread]. I turned it over to the authorities, but that bothered me. I mean, you have to be kidding me. That's not what this is supposed to be about."

Stewart, the sociable, deeply religious son of a pipefitter from New Martinsville, W.Va., rarely shows much emotion. Still, months later, he was visibly frazzled by the menacing correspondence.

He grew quiet for a moment before continuing, this time churning with more force.

"It's a Big East win!" Stewart said. "I can't make us score 46 and 44 points all the time, I can't script that.

"The first thing I hear from some people are, 'The days of beating UConn, 66-21, are over,' and they complain about it. Hell, yeah, they might be over. You know why? Because these other teams are striving to get better. The UConns of the world are getting pretty doggone good now. That's what the common fan forgets sometime. We aren't the only team out there practicing; West Virginia isn't the only team trying to get better every day."

Stewart gave an inch to the detractors, admitting that this year, while relying on senior running back Noel Devine and senior receiver Jock Sanders heavily, his team might need to win more convincingly.

"Absolutely," he said. "In a league game, like the Big East, it is very difficult to have lopsided wins, it just is. But we do have to get better at putting teams away."

Or, as Sanders put it, "We have to put up some numbers."

Because, under Stewart, the offensive numbers have dipped.

In 2007, the Pat White-led Mountaineers averaged 39.6 points per game and 5,931 yards of offense. Last season, using a pro-style set, the Mountaineers gained 4,907.

Since Stewart took over, the Mountaineers never have scored 35 points or more in consecutive games. Under Rodriguez, West Virginia scored at least that many points 17 times. In '05, the Mountaineers had a four-game conference string where they scored 46, 45, 38 and 45 points. In '06, they scored 35 points or more three times in a row.

When Stewart agreed to become head coach Jan. 3, 2008 -- just after that Fiesta Bowl victory against Oklahoma -- he was granted a six-year contract, which runs out after the '13 season. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt recently was granted an extension running through '14.

That means when Stewart tries to recruit a player for the class of 2011, he is unable to guarantee he will be the head coach at West Virginia when that player is a college senior. On the other hand, Wannstedt can.

"Not something I worry about," Stewart said. "The good Lord takes care of things such as that. I just try to mold the lives of these young men, the best I can, every day."

When asked what comes to mind first about their head coach, few players mentioned football plays or tactics.

"You go to Walmart or anywhere and people are asking you about stuff, and they always ask you, 'Is Stew a good coach, is he the right guy,' " said redshirt junior Don Barclay, a starter on the offensive line from Cranberry. "I tell those people all the same thing. You aren't there every day, you don't understand how this man has our back, how he wants the best for us, how he cares about us like sons."

Barclay, recruited by Rodriguez, then opened up. "As much as Stew is about football, he's about a lot more.

"In meetings, he will teach us about what it will take to be a good father, or a good husband, or a good businessman or a good person. There are a lot of coaches who can teach you about football, but he teaches us about life."

Devine, who has received some mention as a possible Heisman Trophy candidate this season, can make plays. He has rushed for 3,381 yards in his career, scored 13 touchdowns last season and was the 17th-leading rushing in the country last year.

But he comes from a less-than-ideal home situation, Devine has overcome the death of both parents to complications from AIDS -- his father when he was a baby, his mother when he was 11 -- and was raised by a grandmother who, many times, he clashed with.

In Stewart, Devine has found a male pillar of stability.

"Coach Stew, he's a different kind of coach," Devine said. "He's the kind of coach there needs to be more of in college football, I'll just put it out there like that. It isn't just about me, the football player, with him. It is about me, the man with him. For that, I'm thankful."

So is Sanders, a speedy receiver also from Florida, who was arrested in Morgantown for drunken driving Feb. 7, 2009, and was suspended indefinitely by Stewart after the incident.

The suspension lasted about six months. He was reinstated in August. In a peculiar way, his time away from the team is when Sanders grew closest to his head coach.

"When I was going through my DUI, I was talking to him every day, even though he was the man who suspended me," said Sanders, who like Devine was recruited by Rodriguez.

"We weren't talking about football, but about me becoming a better man, about me making better choices.

"Times I thought about transferring, because I thought the grass might be greener somewhere else. But, when I saw that love coach Stew had for me, I stopped thinking about going anywhere else, I realized I wanted to better myself and, also, make Stew proud of me for changing."


Colin Dunlap: cdunlap@post-gazette.com .


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