Stewart sees big things for Mountaineers

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Bill Stewart has won nine games in each of his first two full years as West Virginia's head coach, making the Mountaineers one of only 17 BCS teams to have back-to-back nine-win seasons or better.

Yet that's not good enough for a lot of West Virginia fans. They remember their team winning 11 games in each of the three seasons before Stewart took over on a full-time basis. They saw Stewart inherit legendary quarterback Pat White for his senior year and finish the 2008 regular season just 8-4. They have noticed Cincinnati whiz past them as the new Big East power.

Standards are pretty high in Morgantown. Heck, receiver Jock Sanders said he considered 2009 a losing season because the Mountaineers -- who finished 9-4 -- lost their Gator Bowl game to Florida State.

Stewart's standards are just as high.

"I don't like being 9-4," he said. "I know a lot of people would like to win nine games every year, but I'd like to win more, and that's what my goal is."

With 18 starters back this year, Stewart thinks big things are possible. In fact, he believes the Mountaineers could challenge for the BCS title in the 2011 season, if not this year.

"We have a chance if we stay healthy," he said. "If I didn't think that, why should I coach? I'm not boldly saying we're going to go win it, because that's dumb and crazy.

"But this year we have a chance to be pretty good, and by 2011 we should be pretty darn good. And if I don't put the challenge of playing for a Big East championship, a BCS bowl and a national championship out there for them, who's going to do it?"

Stewart points out that his first team, in 2008, lost eight defensive starters from the previous year as well as Steve Slaton, Owen Schmitt and Darius Reynaud on offense. That squad had all kinds of trouble converting short yardage plays or coming up with key defensive stops, and yet two of its four losses came in overtime.

Last year, Stewart likes to say, the Mountaineers had one senior (Selvish Capers) on the offensive line and none on the defensive line. The O-line is still young and growing, while the defensive line is building depth. There's a true sophomore (Geno Smith) at quarterback, along with the return of senior stars Sanders and Noel Devine and budding young speedster Tavon Austin. The Mountaineers have lost only one assistant coach in the past two years, so they have more staff stability than any team in the Big East.

Stewart also likes to remind people that the team GPA has never been higher and that all 23 seniors in this year's class are on course to graduate.

Of course, in college football, little of that matters if you don't win big. Stewart is by no means on the hot seat, but with a new athletic director coming on board this summer, he probably can't afford to fall far short of his stated ambitions the next couple of years. But he is confident that the Mountaineers are on the way toward meeting their fans' high expectations.

"I know what I'm doing, and I'm in control," he said. "I know my plan, and we've got great coaches and great players. Maybe the ball bounces our way in a couple of close ones and we get over that 10-win barrier this year and win the Big East.

"I go to bed every night peaceful. And I wake up every morning with a bounce in my step and a great attitude, knowing I have the best job in football."