MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Days after allegations of in-fighting and attempted sabotage on the part of West Virginia football coach Bill Stewart came to light, Stewart resigned Friday night after three seasons in Morgantown and Dana Holgorsen was introduced as the new coach.
“The program is more important than any individual,” West Virginia Athletic Director Oliver Luck said at a news conference. “Clearly this was becoming a distraction for the program.”
On Tuesday, former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Colin Dunlap said in a radio interview that the 59-year-old Stewart asked him in mid-December to dig up “dirt” on Holgorsen, who was hired to be the team’s offensive coordinator and head coach-in-waiting. The university has been investigating Dunlap’s claims this week.
In a telephone interview with The Post this week, Dunlap added that a school official told him West Virginia knew the identity of a second reporter who claimed he had a similar telephone conversation with Stewart in mid-December. Dunlap said he did not give the school the reporter’s name.
Stewart, who was 28-12 since succeeding Rich Rodriguez as the Mountaineers’ coach in 2008, could not be reached to comment. Luck did not return a message left on his cellphone.
“People who love the Mountaineers are not used to this soap opera,” said Hoppy Kercheval, a longtime radio personality in the state who is known as the dean of West Virginia broadcasters. “It pains them to go through this.”
The controversy has divided the fan base and has raised doubts in even Luck’s mind about head coach-in-waiting plans. When asked in a radio interview Tuesday on Pittsburgh’s KDKA-FM whether he would do the same head coach-in-waiting agreement again, Luck said, “I don’t know.”
Luck announced in December that the newly hired Holgorsen, who had been Oklahoma State’s offensive coordinator, would take the head coaching baton from Stewart following the 2011 season. Head coach-in-waiting plans have caused varying degrees of awkwardness or tension at a number of schools, including Maryland, Florida State and now West Virginia.
Don Nehlen was West Virginia’s head coach for 21 seasons, coached Luck three decades ago, hired Stewart on the Mountaineers staff in 2000 and maintains a good relationship with Holgorsen. But despite relationships with all three, Nehlen acknowledged his “misgivings” about the head coach-in-waiting agreement because “personally, with coaches-in-waiting, I don’t understand that concept myself. Where it works is when the guy who is the head coach has announced he is going to retire in a year and he announces that early. This new-fangled stuff, I’m just an old guy.”
Martinsburg, W.Va., resident Rick Rohn, a longtime Mountaineers season ticket holder who donates about $2,000 per year, recalled a lump in his throat when the head coach-in-waiting announcement was made because he felt an awkward transition period was sure to ensue.
“It was that feeling in the stomach, ‘Oh, boy, what are we getting ourselves into?’ ” he said. “It had all the makings of disaster written all over it from the get-go. That being said, if anyone was going to pull it off, it was Billy Stewart. In retrospect, maybe we all had the blinders on because obviously it has not transpired as such.”
Ken Kendrick, a prominent booster and current Arizona Diamondbacks executive, said he did not support Stewart being named head coach in 2008 because Kendrick did not feel Stewart possessed requisite leadership skills. But he has faith in Holgorsen’s offensive mind and believes Luck will find an appropriate resolution to the current controversy.
The Drama at West Virginia began in May, when Holgorsen issued an apology for an early-morning incident on May 18 in which he was asked to leave a West Virginia casino. Three days later, the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, citing unnamed sources, reported that Holgorsen had been involved in as many as six alcohol-related incidents the last six months. The university has said the story was filled with “blatant inaccuracies,” and school officials have been investigating the source of the anonymous leaks.
Then came Dunlap’s early-morning interview on KDKA-FM, during which he said Stewart had told him: “You need to dig up this dirt. You need to get it out on this guy [Holgorsen].” Dunlap said he responded, “Hey, man, I am not a part of some witch hunt.’”
Rohn, the Martinsburg booster, listened to the radio interview live and his “jaw dropped. I remember looking up at the clock. It will forever be remembered as the 12:30 a.m. bombshell in Morgantown.”
Dunlap, who left the Post-Gazette in May to spend more time with his family, said he had no intention of ever speaking publicly about the Dec. 14 conversation with Stewart and only did because he was asked about Stewart on the radio show. Dunlap said he has “nothing to gain. I probably have a lot more to lose. And I really don’t care about the situation that much, to be quite frank.”
Since Tuesday’s radio interview, Dunlap said he has spoken to a school official, but he declined to elaborate about specifics of the conversation.
When asked in a telephone interview whether there was any chance he misinterpreted what Stewart told him or whether Stewart was joking, Dunlap said: “No, he wanted action. He wanted [Holgorsen] to never see Morgantown as an employment destination. This was a character assassination to avoid employment at West Virginia University as the successor to Bill Stewart. There was no misinterpretation.”
A school spokesperson referred a reporter to a statement issued by Luck that read in part: “My expectations of all our coaches and staff have not wavered; that is to run a clean and honest program with the utmost integrity and professionalism. Anything less is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.