ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — All the emotions Bill Stewart has reserved the last few weeks will be tough to control when he takes the field again as West Virginia’s coach.
While he still has one more season at the helm, part of his staff is being dismantled to make room for coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen. That makes the Champs Sports Bowl on Tuesday night against North Carolina State the last time Stewart will be together with some assistants.
“That’s a personal matter,” he said, taking a deep breath. “That is in my heart.”
The bowl game is the first test of how the slow coaching swap might effect the No. 22 Mountaineers (9-3). Stewart is being forced out — just not until 2012 — with Holgorsen, Oklahoma State’s offensive coordinator, taking over at the same position next year at West Virginia.
As if that wasn’t enough, three players — including starting center Joe Madsen — won’t participate in the game because they failed to meet NCAA eligibility requirements.
“I don’t have any problem focusing,” Stewart said. “My job as the CEO of this program is to make sure the staff and the players are focused. I do not talk about distractions.”
N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien is no stranger to coaching changes.
While at Boston College, he faced Arizona State in the Aloha Bowl in Bruce Snyder’s finale in 2000. He also went against Dan Hawkins in his last game at Boise State in 2005. Nobody benefited more than O’Brien with all the emotions — his teams won both.
“I hope I’m never in that situation. That’s a tough one to have to be in. I really don’t have an answer on how you keep a team focused that way,” O’Brien said. “It’s not a good situation to be in when you’re playing somebody in their last game either. Now, hopefully, this is different because Bill’s going to be there for another year.”
The only lingering issue for the Wolfpack (8-4) is whether this will be the final game for quarterback Russell Wilson, who spent much of the summer playing second base in the Colorado Rockies’ minor-league system. The final decision will not be made until the offseason.
The Wolfpack had the Atlantic Coast Conference’s best passing offense, averaging about 282 yards. Wilson alone had nearly 307 yards of total offense per game, but it won’t be easy to have an encore performance.
The powerful and potent passing attack will be facing a West Virginia defense that ranks in the top three nationally in three of the four major defensive categories. The Mountaineers are also the only team in the nation that hasn’t allowed more than 21 points in any game.
The matchup even has players intrigued.
“Heck, I’m excited to see what the West Virginia defense does against the N.C. State offense,” Mountaineers linebacker J.T. Thomas said. “I’m sure there are a lot of people who want to see that matchup. It will be a great chance for us to prove that we are the real deal.”
The great unknown is what will transpire with West Virginia’s coaching reconstruction.
Holgorsen will take over for current West Virginia offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen on Jan. 1. Holgorsen won’t be the head coach until after the 2011 season.
How it will all work has been the talk of West Virginia for weeks. The transition-in-waiting also has made preparations for the bowl game difficult, although the Mountaineers have said all the right things to stay focused.
“We have some great players who I know will step up and put the distractions behind them and play hard,” West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith said.
Not that it has made preparations for N.C. State any easier.
The Mountaineers’ outgoing assistants, notably Mullen, have nothing to lose. So O’Brien is expecting Mullen to take a ton of chances and put his entire playbook on display.
“If I was him, I would,” O’Brien said. “Why not?”