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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Somewhere here in the desert, Bill Stewart is probably hugging a cactus right now.
That's because he's already hugged every living human who's crossed his path. Every West Virginia player he interim-coached in the Mountaineers' thunderous 48-28 Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma. Every assistant coach. Every sheriff assigned to walk him on and off the field. Every fan, woman and child wearing blue and gold.
Reporter with a question for Bill? Have a hug first. Then pause while he thanks you for all you do for college football. Then be prepared for him to talk your ear off.
So I figure he's squeezing a saguaro at the moment, and complimenting it on the sharpness of its needles.
West Virginia is hugging him back. According to sources, he will be named the Mountaineers' next head coach at a news conference at 11 a.m. ET on Thursday.Already a relentlessly cheery fellow, the guy they call Stew has extra reason to be jubilant right now. This dismantling of the Sooners completed the greatest on-the-job interview since Steve Fisher won the 1989 NCAA Tournament as the interim coach at Michigan.
Oops, sorry to say the M-word. Michigan. That's the school that pirated Rich Rodriguez out of Morgantown, sending the Mountain State into anarchy.
Rodriguez's departure was supposed to kill the Mountaineers' chances to win this Fiesta Bowl against fourth-ranked and heavily favored Oklahoma. Instead, it let the nation meet Sunny Bill Stewart, the 55-year-old football lifer who probably terminated what had been a painful and divisive West Virginia search for a new coach.
I sidled up to Mountaineers athletic director Ed Pastilong in the closing minutes on the boisterous WVU sidelines and asked the obvious question: Does this result alter your coaching search?
|Bill Stewart had one of the best interviews possible on Wednesday night.|
Forgive the man. He's been border-to-border besieged for his perceived mishandling of Rodriguez, and for his efforts to find a replacement. His candidate pool (Butch Jones, Terry Bowden, Doc Holliday) hadn't sent many pulses racing. Having just watched his alma mater earn what most people think ranks among the top one or two victories in school history had to make him feel better than he has since November.
"He's the greatest interim coach I've ever seen," Pastilong continued, when he'd finally stopped laughing. "And he has been through a long interview."
A few feet away, school president Michael Garrison was grinning broadly as well. But also playing his cards closer to the presidential vest.
"We're going to let him enjoy the winning of this game," Garrison said.
But he will be a candidate for the head-coaching position?
"Bill Stewart will be part of our program no matter what," Garrison said. "Period. End of sentence."
But hardly end of story. Because the Mountaineers players couldn't step forward fast enough to declare their support for Stewart as the next head coach.
"He's the glue that kept us together," declared senior fullback Owen Schmitt, whose 57-yard touchdown rumble shocked Oklahoma. "West Virginia would be stupid not to hire him as head coach."
"If I had a T-shirt, it would say 'Stew for the head job,'" said kicker Pat McAfee, who punted brilliantly and made two field goals. "Front and back."
And splendid quarterback Pat White, who flashed through Oklahoma's defense for 150 rushing yards and threw for 176 more, declared from a podium at field level that Stewart deserves the job.
"Great man, great coach," White said. "All the players respect him and love him."
Stew was standing just a few feet from White when he pimped him for the job but couldn't understand what he said.
"It makes me feel good," Stew said, "but I couldn't hear with the acoustics."
Actually, he didn't have to. If he'd looked out at the West Virginia players facing the podium, he'd see them all holding up the first three fingers on their right hands together.
That's Stew's pet phrase: "Cub and Boy Scout's honor," an indication of his sincerity in whatever he's saying. For instance, he told his players during the week leading up to this game that if they missed curfew, he'd send them home.
"Cub and Boy Scout's honor."
|Pat White showed off all his skills against Oklahoma.|
Belichick can suck the joy out of almost any victory. Stew will bathe in the joy he experienced Wednesday night.
Literally. When the players dumped a cold bucket on his head, it was a career first.
"I never had a Gatorade bath," Stew said. "Never. And it is special. Never had it. So for all the assistant coaches out there that never had it, this is for them. This is for them because there is a lot of fine coaches out there, a whole lot better than me."
Closest thing Stew ever got to a Gatorade bath was sitting in the dunking booth as an assistant coach at Sistersville (W.Va.) High School in the mid-1970s. It's a long way from there to absolutely thumping Okla-freakin-homa in the Fiesta Bowl, but the man has made the journey.
Because on this night, West Virginia had the best player on the field and the best coach on the sideline.
One of those facts was expected. White is that good.
The other was not. Stew was that good -- but also, millionaire Bob Stoops was that bad.
He was outcoached by a guy who last was the boss during a game 11 years ago at Virginia Military Institute. Stew lost that one to Appalachian State, one of 25 losses in 33 games as head coach there.
That was a different lifetime, though. With different players. Given enough talent, Stew punked Stoops on a national stage.
Stoops and the BCS have got to stop meeting like this. For most of the year, he does plenty to earn his $3 million-plus annual salary -- but not in January.
Stoops has lost four straight BCS bowl games, all of them ignominious in one form or another. The Sooners were favored by a full touchdown in the 2003 BCS Championship Game but lost by seven to LSU. Next year they were humiliated 55-19 by USC in what everyone thought was an even matchup. Last year against Boise State, Oklahoma was trick-played into stunning defeat, again as a touchdown favorite.
|Bob Stoops and OU have struggled to find bowl magic in recent seasons.|
At the time Stoops ordered up the onside, Oklahoma had taken over the game. It had reduced a 20-6 halftime deficit to 20-15 and had forced consecutive three-and-outs.
But kicker Garrett Hartley stubbed the onside attempt and it didn't get the full 10 yards before defensive back Brandon Hogan fell on it at the OU 39. Six plays later West Virginia scored a touchdown -- and then scored touchdowns on its next three possessions as well.
"Those aren't the kind of things you do without momentum," Stoops said. "We had momentum."
And they promptly surrendered it on that play. For good.
The Sooners should have a full-blown case of Arizonaphobia by now, after once again being favored by seven -- this time against a team that lost its head coach 19 days ago and choked away a BCS Championship Game spot a month ago against 5-7 Pittsburgh.
Given the disarray in Morgantown and Oklahoma's impressive thumping of No. 1 Missouri in the Big 12 championship game, the nation heavily favored the Sooners in the ESPN.com Bowl Mania fantasy game: 84 percent of America picked OU, a fact trolled across the ESPN crawl all bowl season.
The Mountaineers noticed.
"We don't ever like to prove America wrong," Stew said, "but that's pretty good cannon fodder for us."
That's why WVU receiver Dorrell Jalloh toted a grease board on the sidelines late in the game that read, "84 percent wrong."
And that's why powerful defensive lineman Keilen Dykes was shouting on the sidelines what he said two days earlier, on media day: "He doesn't coach everything, baby!"
That was reference to Rodriguez. Dykes' point was that the departure of a head coach who specialized in offense wasn't going to slow down a pass rush that wound up devouring Oklahoma's massive offensive line in the first half.
"All that stomach?" Dykes asked. "You gotta be able to move."
Dykes can move. So can end Johnny Dingle. Dingle put on a pretty good job interview of his own, recording one sack of Sam Bradford and harassing him several other times -- often while being held.
"I thought Johnny Dingle had a saddle on his back," Stew said, in reference to the holding. "I was waiting for the spurs to come out."
Stew was full of quips and quotes on this night, the best of his 33-year coaching career. Now he needs to work on some new material for what should be an announcement of his promotion soon in Morgantown.
"I would cherish the opportunity to be the head football coach at the state flagship university," Stew said. "The finest institution in the country, West Virginia University."
Cub and Boy Scout's honor.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.