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Chaos in waiting

Ryan McGee goes inside the alleged smear campaign at West Virginia

Updated: August 25, 2011, 11:24 AM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

PLACE AN ORDER AT ANY MEAT-AND-THREE diner from Parkersburg to Martinsburg and it'll be served with a side of Hatfields and McCoys, Battle of Rich Mountain or Bluefield coal-mining tales. For dessert, it's a helping of local high school football lore.

But these days, this summer in particular, those who pledge their allegiance to the West Virginia Mountaineers haven't felt much like looking back. They've had their foot on the gas and the rearview mirror tilted to where the most recent road traveled is no longer visible. No more regret over squandered offensive talent and fumbled Big East titles. No more talk of Rich Rod or Coach Stew. And certainly no more peek-through-your-fingers analysis of this year's infamous HCIW fiasco. "Head Coach in Waiting," says Don Nehlen, WVU's former head coach and in-house living legend, groaning like he's passing a kidney stone. "Oh boy."

There was a time, albeit briefly, when HCIW was considered the perfect road map for a smooth transition of power. When it works, the process keeps the legend in charge while putting the most coveted coordinator on hold, promising him the top job before his inevitable departure to take it somewhere else. Some of the nation's most storied programs were HCIW believers. Then one attempt failed. And then another collapsed. Even schools that managed to pull it off now admit they paid a price. Still, the believers hung on.

But not now. Not since June, when WVU's once-beloved head coach, Bill Stewart, was shown the door after being accused of trying to torpedo Dana Holgorsen, the heir who was forced upon him. The two coaches, along with athletic director Oliver Luck, unwittingly managed to burn down HCIW's final remnants as if it were an old couch the night after beating Pitt.

"I don't see how it can come back from this," says Jimbo Fisher, who ascended to the throne at Florida State in 2010 via the HCIW plan. He's also a West Virginia native. "In the end, it just puts too much strain on the people involved. Too much strain on the kids."

"At first, it's like, well, at least people are talking about West Virginia football nationwide, I guess that's good," says WVU quarterback Geno Smith. "But about the 50th day in a row you're on 'SportsCenter' it's like, OK, let's get out of the spotlight until winning games puts us there. I don't want to answer more questions. I just want to play."

Maybe so. But after one of the most bizarre seven months in college football history, the whole sloppy Morgantown mess is nothing if not a cautionary tale worth telling.

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