In Stewart, WVU's successor to Rodriguez right under their nose

Updated: January 4, 2008, 5:32 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Bill Stewart didn't need an actual job interview. His performance in the 2½ weeks since Rich Rodriguez resigned, punctuated by West Virginia's resounding victory over Oklahoma in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, was enough.

Now he's the coach of the Mountaineers, a promotion for a man who calls himself a "West Virginian all my life."

"I had the longest job interview in America," Stewart joked Thursday, hours after the 48-28 victory over the Sooners and before the team boarded a flight home.

The 55-year-old coach agreed to a five-year contract worth $800,000 a year, plus incentives. The base salary totals $4 million, the same amount West Virginia is seeking in a buyout of the seven-year contract, worth almost $2 million a year, that Rodriguez signed in August.

Stewart was appointed interim coach when Rodriguez left Dec. 16 to coach Michigan. West Virginia formed a search committee that, according to athletic director Ed Pastilong, interviewed "a large number of candidates." Central Michigan coach Butch Jones, a West Virginia native, was considered a leading contender.

But the committee had its eyes on Stewart all along.

"In reality, he was being interviewed every day," said Pastilong, who has known Stewart for nearly four decades. "I heard somebody say that last night he had the ultimate interview. But he always was one of our most serious candidates."

Gov. Joe Manchin was among the enthusiastic group of boosters who attended the announcement at the Scottsdale resort where the Mountaineers had stayed.

"I couldn't be more happy," Manchin said. "I've watched this team come together and this gentleman right here, Billy Stewart, bring it together. He's the glue. There's not a mother or father watching today that wouldn't be proud to have their son play for this man."

Pastilong called Stewart to his room in the wee hours Thursday to offer him the job. Stewart has not signed a contract but agreed to terms with a handshake.

"I don't have a lot of experience in these negotiations and things. That's my agent right down there," he said, pointing to his wife, Karen.

Stewart had the backing of the team, including Pat White. The quarterback began stumping for Stewart on the field after running for 150 yards and throwing for 176 and two touchdowns in the victory over the Sooners (No. 4 BCS, No. 3 AP).

"He deserves it," White said. "A great man. A great coach. All the players respect him and all the players love him. You couldn't ask for a better man to lead us to victory today."

Stewart said he wanted the entire staff to return, although some are expected to join Rodriguez in Michigan. Tony Gibson, secondary coach and recruiting coordinator, was the only assistant who has resigned so far, Pastilong said.

WVU president Mike Garrison said Stewart, as a native West Virginian, fully appreciates the school.

[+] EnlargeBill Stewart
AP Photo/Matt YorkWest Virginia administrators and players said longtime assistant Bill Stewart has earned the chance to lead the Mountaineers.
"At this university, loyalty and trust are important," Garrison said. "We know we now have a coach who truly values the opportunity to work as the head football coach at West Virginia University."

Stewart earned $139,000 this year in his position that also included coaching tight ends and fullbacks and being the special teams coordinator. He came to West Virginia as quarterbacks coach in January 2000 after two seasons as offensive coordinator in the Canadian Football League.

Don Nehlen, the retired Mountaineers coach who hired Stewart, was glad his former assistant had landed the job.

"He's just such a good person and the kids love him," Nehlen said. "It's such a good fit with the program."

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin got his first coaching job when Stewart hired him as an assistant at VMI. Tomlin was elated to see Stewart get the West Virginia job.

"Bill Stewart!" Tomlin said at the Steelers' practice when told of the hiring. "That's the best news of the day!"

A message left for Rodriguez early Thursday was not immediately returned.

Not everyone with an intererst in West Virginia football was pleased by the hire, however.

West Virginia booster Ken Kendrick, who was outspoken in his support of Rodriguez following his departure, called it a "sad morning."

"He is so overmatched it's not even funny," said Kendrick, managing partner of Major League Baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks. "He's a nice guy and a father figure. But they had a wonderful architecht and they hired the painter to build the next house. I want Bill Stewart to win and I want our program to be successful. But I feel bad for our future. I'm very concerned."

Stewart was head coach at VMI from 1994-96, compiling an 8-25 record. He also had stints as an assistant at Salem College, North Carolina, Marshall, William & Mary, Navy, Arizona State and Air Force.

Stewart acknowledged he had mellowed since his difficult years at VMI, which ended with his resignation in December 1996 amid reports he used a racial slur aimed at a black player.

"I'm a little more settled in. I'm a little more laid back and I'm a little more wise," he said. "It's called maturity. I'll be as demanding, but I found out there's other ways to get the results."

Information from The Associated Press and ESPN college football reporter Joe Schad was used in this report.

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