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Waiting for the Fall (Mike Casazza Interview)

By Jude

As the calendar rolls over to August and another season of Mountaineer Football is nearly upon us once again, these last few weeks of waiting can drag on forever for fans of the Old Gold and Blue.

This year, the Mountaineers are coming off of a season that saw a first-year coach take the team to a Big East Championship, an Orange Bowl berth, and a thrilling 70-33 curbstomping of the ACC Champion Clemson Tigers. Expectations are sky high among Mountaineer fans for a new season in a new conference, with the hopes that maybe, just maybe, THIS is going to be the year that finally brings a national championship to the Mountain State.

Of course, these lofty and perhaps unrealistic expectations aren't anything new in Morgantown, and Mountaineer fans counting down the days to a new season and a new beginning can pass the time by checking out the book, "Waiting for the Fall: A Decade of Dreams, Drama and West Virginia University Football" by Charleston Daily Mail WVU beat writer Mike Casazza.

The book details all the exhilarating, head-scratching, drama-filled, thrilling, heartbreaking, heartwarming, and otherwise amazing events that have shaped the Mountaineer football program over the course of the past decade. It also provides a brief history of the entire Mountaineer program before going into specifics of the Rich Rodriguez, Bill Stewart, and Dana Holgorsen eras and all of the unbelievable highs and lows in-between.

Author Mike Casazza was kind enough to talk about the book and answer a few questions for WeMustIgniteThisCouch through a few emails.

And before we kick it off, I couldn't more strongly recommend picking up a copy of the book here. You'll get your football fix, and even the most ardent Mountaineer fan will learn a few surprising details about an amazing segment of WVU football history.

(My questions are in bold. Mike's responses follow verbatim.)

- A major theme of the book is that Mountaineer fans are conditioned to heartbreak, constantly waiting on the other shoe to drop. (The double entendre in the title of the book even suggests as much.) Do you think our heartbreak just comes from unrealistic expectations for a school that really should just be happy to compete with the big boys, or do you think it's more likely that the Mountaineers have just been extremely unfortunate?

This is probably the most important and most delicate question within the book and requires constant maintenance, but I think the answer borrows a little from both.

Expectations are unrealistic everywhere, though to varying degrees. WVU is not immune to this, but it’s not an epidemic like it is at other places. Still, people invest so much into the football here and they want so much in return. That’s just not going to happen every year here and the realization stings.

I don’t think there’s any problem with aspiring to compete with the big boys, though. Not here. WVU has showed it can do just that.

As for the extremely unfortunate part? I definitely think that exists and I don’t think you can deny it. There are way too many examples from the past to argue against it. Put the combination in a canister, shake it up and you’re left with something that is pretty potent.

- You were in the process of writing this book as last season progressed. As I read about and remembered all the different times those "other shoes" dropped on us (ie. Major Harris getting injured on the 3rd play of the national championship game, Quincy Wilson's wild scamper against Miami being immediately followed by Kellen Winslow's 4th down catch and FG, etc.), I couldn't help but think that the LSU game from this previous season was the all-time example of that for Mountaineer fans.

We had about 30 seconds to fully enjoy being in a ball game with the best team in the country before having it ripped away from us again by Morris Claiborne's TD return. I know you covered it in the book, but knowing the narrative you were telling in the book, were you dumbfounded as that play happened in real time?

Cue despair.

Uh, no. Rather than waste words or risk hyperbole about how bad WVU’s special teams sometimes were through the years, let’s just agree to say that very rarely have they been good. I don’t want to say there was always a chance for high comedy, but Yackety Sax became the unofficial theme song for whenever a ball was kicked in a game involving the Mountaineers – and I’m serious about that … check my live game blog posts through the years.

A major concern last year, and for that game in particular, was the return game. The Mountaineers didn’t have much depth and in that game had inferior sideline talent. LSU’s special teams talent was much better than WVU’s. The Tigers had better guys and more of those better guys. Maybe WVU could match its offensive talent against LSU’s defensive talent and maybe some of the physical disadvantages on defense against LSU’s brutish offense could be minimized, but special teams was different. There isn’t as much scheming and disguising there. It’s largely speed and skill mixed with some assignments and you saw a few WVU backups blow that play up on the sideline as Claiborne got free. It was the manifestation of the special teams concern.

Now, that being said, it was just brutal to watch, knowing in the back of your head there was no coming back, but realizing you kind of suspected it might happen.

- I really liked that you didn't sugarcoat that our fans haven't always been the best supporters of their teams or coaches, from a half empty Mountaineer Field at the end of the 2007 Louisville comeback, to flying a plane asking for Nehlen's firing, to cheering Brad Lewis' injury, to planting "for sale" signs in Bobby Bowden's yard. Do you think this is typical college fan behavior or do you think we go overboard?

Again, a significant and high-maintenance question. On the whole, I don’t think WVU’s fans are wildly different in their behaviors. The overboard stuff involves arson, profanities and projectiles, but the people who stay on the boat far outnumber the people who lose their minds. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with leaving a stadium or booing the team or openly criticizing a well-paid coach if you don’t like what you see. That’s what fans do and today fans are too smart and asked to do too much to deny them that.

Now there are people who are neither too smart nor asked to do too much and a few of them take way too many liberties, but that’s not unusual, either. Booing an injured player on senior day in front of his parents? Impacting someone’s family? I’ll draw a line a few steps in front of that one. It seems to me WVU’s fans can bail quickly, though, and that intrigues me entering this season because I do believe the Big 12 is going to test fans in a very new way.

- Obviously a great deal of the drama surrounding WVU over the past decade has come off the field with the shuffling of coaches, and your book does as good of a job as I've seen anywhere to describe why they happened and what drove the principals. Let's start with Rich Rodriguez.

The story of Rich Rodriguez leaving is obviously very long and very complicated, but you point to a number of things that he wasn't satisfied with regarding the University. Do you think he had legitimate criticisms or do you think that he was just always going to find some reason to be unsatisfied until he left?

I’ve come to believe so many years later that Rodriguez was probably ahead of his time. This has nothing to do with his designs and success in the spread offense, but everything to do with how he conducted himself behind the curtain. That was very new to WVU, which went from Don Nehlen and his two decades of stability to Rodriguez, who wanted to a whole lot to happen and was willing to do what he had to do to make it happen.

Sometimes I wonder if I blame him. Remember, he was a Division II guy who had nothing. He went to Tulane and got a taste for a high level of success, but also saw what others had that his school did not and probably could not. Then he was off to Clemson, which wants for nothing. That’s quite a rise in a pretty short period and I think he thought it would be at WVU as it was at Clemson. More powerful than that was the he wanted it to be that way at his alma mater. He was professionally, but also personally invested and I don’t think he and his audience knew one another well enough to pull things off as he was making them happen. He got what he wanted an awful lot early on but he was outpacing the patience others wanted to preserve, all the way to the end.

There came a time, and I believe it was after the 2006 season that left a lot of people disappointed, when he realized he was going to have to be the bad guy if he wanted to have the best program. That eventually ran right into an administration that would not continually capitulate to his demands.

- Speaking of RichRod, you mentioned that you were a Cleveland sports fan. I can imagine you probably feel the same about Lebron James as the State of WV feels about Rich Rodriguez? (Local boy turns his back on the local franchise in heartbreaking fashion to chase a title for someone else.)

That’s probably a pretty fair analogy, though I’m not sure James was firing bazookas over his shoulder as he left town.

- I've noticed that when I bring up the 2007 Pitt debacle on WMITC, the instant response from our users is almost universal: "Don't talk about that. I don't want to think about it." Did you have any concerns while doing this book that by detailing the most heartbreaking moment in Mountaineer history that you might turn off some of your potential audience?

Of course. What I recognize and respect about the fans is how they will defend their teams. There was a line there I had to be super careful not to cross, which wasn’t easy because I’m a very honest journalist.

It’s funny you say what you do about that debacle. WVU fans are very aware of their past and the parts that don’t make them proud are better left beneath the unturned stone. Many of the people I come across who have read the book tell me how hard it was to read that chapter. A few take a break – and I mean, they stop at the 13-9 chapter and won’t pick up the book for days or weeks. But it had to be in the book and it had to be detailed, which, I’m sorry, meant it had to be painful.

I will say this, and I use this to defend other parts of what was included: The book is not merely for WVU fans. In fact, one of the biggest motivations I had for writing the book was so that others who see but do not know what happens here can get a better idea.

- Rodriguez was a highly innovative offensive mind who came in to revive a stagnant program, and following a surprising upset over a high-touted opponent in a BCS game, there were (perhaps) unrealistically high expectations for the team in the following season. We're doing it all over again, aren't we?

This is where you link to my book, right? Look, I have no idea how this thing will turn out, but I have probably a different set of values. If I’m a fan, I’m loving this right now because the anticipation is just too much fun. Then comes the season, which may be one of the most competitive and entertaining ever. That’s all I would worry about right now.

That said, I know it’s very different on the other side of the fence and I know people are worried about having a season that falls well below expectations. I do think WVU has a favorable schedule with regard to home and road opponents and I think WVU has fewer questions than some other Big 12 teams. I also think WVU has legitimate concerns about a new scheme on defense and the depth of players required to play it in the Big 12, though over time both might be addressed. But again, we just don’t know. WVU could finish 9-3. I think that can happen. But where are those three losses? This is why we watch and write, right?

Just when I thought I was out, THEY PULL ME BACK IN.

- So Rod bolts for Michigan, the program is in turmoil, and suddenly Bill Stewart unexpectedly leads the team to a rousing victory in the Fiesta Bowl and the subsequent coronation seems to take President Garrison by surprise. (In one of the book's most interesting back-room insights, Garrison finds himself in a suite with Athletic Director Ed Pastilong, super-booster Mike Puskar, and then-Governor Joe Manchin, who are already drawing up the specifics of a contract.)

I have 2 questions here.

1) WTF was Joe Manchin doing there, and

2) Do you think Garrison would've eventually come to the conclusion that everyone else did, that Stewart was the guy, or do you think he was stalling because he had some reservations?

Manchin was allowed to do whatever he wanted. Remember, he was involved in the coaching search. He endorsed three different candidates to WVU – Doc Holiday, Jimbo Fisher and Stewart. He was just too involved in something he obviously cared about, but didn’t really know about, and it affected things. People went to him because WVU would listen and WVU listened because he was the governor, but I think both sides should have tapped the breaks early in the process.

As for Garrison, in every conversation I’ve had with him about this, I sense he was really torn about it, that he knew the timing was not right, but that he felt Stewart was the right guy. He clearly had reservations, especially with the rush to make the hire and not honor interview appointments or shake the bush and see who might fall out, but ultimately he’s the one who has to make the call and I don’t think he does it that night without feeling somewhat good about it. That guy pulled the trigger on a few things that required certainty before activity.

- Obviously, since the book was released, Bill Stewart passed away unexpectedly and there was a great deal of hand-wringing about whether or not he had been treated fairly with regard to his place in Mountaineer history. I felt like you treated him very fairly in your book, but also that you got the same sense that he was in over his head that many of the rest of us felt. Is there anything you regret including or wish that you had?

- Not to sound cold or callous, but not really. It was an honest account of a time that could not be excluded from the story I was telling.

I believe everyone understands that and knows I was affected by his passing. If it was written now, would it be handled differently? I can’t answer that because it was written before. Perhaps this will one day be addressed in a second edition.

- You seem to indicate that Bill Stewart wasn't quite the "aww shucks" country bumpkin that he made himself out to be on a number of occasions, including lying about having a relationship with the Villanova coach, failing for months to tell coaches Jeff Mullen and Dave Johnson that they would be replaced, and obviously what we came to later find out his role in attempting to smear his successor. Were we all fooled to think that he was any different from any other college coach when it came to suiting his own interests?

If you believed he was different and that he was insusceptible to the pressure of coaching high major college football, and all the human elements that are attached, then you were fooled.

But if you were fooled, he did his job. That’s what coaches do. They land on a very small island and the beaches are beautiful, but when they see that ship approaching from the distance and realize there are angry people on board with guns and swords, everything changes. Some make friends, some make enemies, but the best ones do everything they can to keep their feet on that island.

- You point out the number of perceived flaws with Stewart, but the one that I always felt to be severely underreported was the ridiculously small recruiting classes for what a major D-I program should be pulling in. What is your best guess as to why the classes were so small?

The short answer is he didn’t get a high number of recruits and some players weren’t good.

One interesting bit of feedback I’ve gotten from the book is that the theory of undersigning was a prescription penned by a spin doctor. He made it sound like strategy, but I’m told it was reality. The Mountaineers tried to get guys, and maybe aimed a little too high, and perhaps too often, but ended up with a smaller number of players than they needed and wanted.

I think the bigger problem was the misses. The equivalent of one full class of players didn’t make it in his three or four recruiting classes – three or four depending on how you count post-Fiesta Bowl and pre-resignation. Imagine having a six- or eight-scholarship reduction across four or three years. That was a factor in Holgorsen’s first season, to be sure. They were really low on scholarships, even for a Division I team that had a sanction against it.

- Tell the truth. How pissed were you at the "2 percent fact 98 percent hooey" article? (For the record, the Couch had your back.)

Truthfully? Not pissed at all. I’m sure that disappoints, but my reaction was very different. I knew the story back to front and I knew how it was going to end.

We at the Daily Mail worked that first story for weeks, I think to the point that it started to get out the day before we printed it. But just stop and think about the implication that was being made. We were not going to rush that out there with a chance of any hooey.

But since we’re on the topic, I was very aware of the reaction the story generated. You can’t ignore phone calls and text messages and email and Twitter and all that stuff now and I happen to run a blog with a lot of traffic at times like that. I have friends who are big WVU fans and they scoured the Internet at that time to fully digest the story. A few of them would email me things that troubled them – including some stuff from the message boards in your corner of the worldwide web.

Three things bothered me then and, on some level, bother me now. First, people thought we were wrong and that a loose story would blow up in our face. Those people didn’t even consider that we’d taken considerable time and paid careful attention, or that that time and attention is standard in all the things we do. On top of that, and this is covered, I hope, in adequate detail in the book, is that WVU was on this story before I ever was.

Second, the initial story generated a very odd reaction. People were racing to take credit for the news and where and how it broke – and, fine, whatever. Who keeps score? But people were trying hard to advance the story, seemingly just to be involved, and people were freely offering up their own strong opinions without knowing what was actually happening. There were a lot of bad and dangerous moments after that first story.

And third is the role of Colin Dunlap. Without getting too much into it, because it’s also covered in the book in what is the only time Colin has discussed it with anyone, Bill Stewart was in trouble well before Colin said what he said on the radio and Colin will tell you that. Obviously it contributed to the outcome, but WVU truthfully was on this story before I ever was.

Nobody thought this would end well, but I don't think anyone thought it would go so badly so quickly.

- You provided the best, and as far as I could tell, the only plausible explanation I've seen as to what Bill Stewart possibly hoped to achieve by sabotaging Holgorsen when you suggested that maybe he thought that lightning would strike twice, that his employers would once again realize that the only guy for the job was the guy they already had. Is this anything more than pure delusion or do you think there were forces inside WVU that could have possibly been swayed in this direction?

Well, that’s my theory and apparently it’s not a popular one, but there is something to it. Again, some coaches will do anything to stay on the island.

I’m not sure he was crazy to think it, which is not to say he wasn’t crazy to actually do it. Remember, Stewart still had a lot of allies. He’d also become something of a sympathetic figure with the way Oliver Luck forced Holgorsen upon him.

It’s funny, because it wasn’t long ago, but I think people felt very differently then about how to manage people and situations than they do now. Many people didn’t like how Stewart was being treated – and remember, he was 28-12 as a head coach and people liked him personally, if not professionally. On top of that, thanks to whatever happened in that casino, Holgorsen had, at the very least, embarrassed himself and shamed the situation Luck orchestrated.

The best way I’ve found to explain the whole thing is to think of it as a prison break. You’ve got the plan, but you have to wait for the night when the clouds cover the moon and the tide is low enough to navigate the channels. When your moment comes, you go. Maybe Stewart saw his moment and pounced.

- I was surprised that the book didn't delve more into the apparently icy relationship between Holgorsen and the defensive holdovers from the Stewart/Rod era. From what (limited) sources, I have, the two barely communicated, the defensive staff didn't participate in the Man Trip, and other various uncomfortable working conditions existed in the same building. Do you have reason to believe these rumors were untrue, or was the information too late in coming out to include in the book?

There was legitimacy, so much so that the coaches’ offices are no longer set up with offensive coaches on one half of the building and defensive coaches on the other, but I think the bigger story was there were no clear signs of friction. They didn’t talk much and probably didn’t like one another, but that was in private.

Publicly, they were pretty professional about it. Even the Mantrip thing was explained away rather easily. Bill Kirelawich had bad knees. Coaches preferred to entertain recruits inside the Puskar Center. The weather was awful once or twice. David Lockwood made the trip on occasion, too.

I just didn’t feel like it was a very big deal or that it had much to do with the story. I love to barbeque. Sometimes I feel like grilling ribs. When I do, I don’t smoke a turkey, too.

- On that line of thought, is there anything that's happened since the Orange Bowl victory covered in the epilogue that you wish could've made it into the book?

Certainly the Big 12 fiasco needed further detail, but that was unexpectedly ridiculous and it was happening at a time that didn’t work too well with deadlines I had set for myself.

I’ve since come to learn and understand more about that episode than ever before and the whole process is actually very interesting and entertaining. It was a rather brief courtship that involved a few surprising characters.

And I think keeping Luck and not losing him to Stanford was a big deal. I don’t think he was close to accepting the job and I don’t even know that it was offered, but that’s something fans have grown to worry about these days. Maybe at another stage of the school’s history, the A.D. would have left and it would have fit into the pattern. This time, he stayed and kept his aim fixed at the top. That would seem to work well with how my actual epilogue went. I like it when I look smart. But again, perhaps a second edition would one day address all of that.

- I, for one, couldn't recommend your book more highly for anyone that enjoys college football in general, let alone Mountaineer football. How has the feedback been from other Mountaineer fans?

- Thanks. It never gets old hearing those words. No one’s told me they hate it. Some have said they hate me, but that’s been in a joking manner. I hope.

They didn’t like reliving all of the nightmares of the past, but they understood and some found it therapeutic. A few people said they felt redeemed and rejuvenated by the curveball I throw in the final two chapters, which makes me feel great because, seriously, the end of the season was threatening to ruin my book. Instead, I happen to think it actually made my book.

The most uplifting and, at the same time, deflating compliment I get is when someone says they read the book in one sitting. That’s flattering, of course, but also oddly frustrating because this was not written in one sitting. Not even close.

The only negative stuff I get isn’t really negative, but a number of people have said they knew a lot of what I wrote and didn’t learn a whole lot. I don’t have a counter for that, except that those people are a definitive minority, but this book wasn’t written exclusively for WVU fans. I feel strongly that a lot of people misunderstand WVU and what has happened here through the years. This seemed like a perfect time to explain it and I just hope my book did a good representing those events in a fair, accurate, sometimes funny, sometimes frightening manner.

Thanks again to Mike for taking the time to answer a few questions for The Couch. You can check out Mike's blog at http://blogs.dailymail.com/wvu/, his Twitter account at twitter.com/mikecasazza, and once again, if you haven't already, buy his book at Amazon by clicking here.
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Poster Thread
Posted: 7/31/2012 10:54 pm  Updated: 7/31/2012 10:54 pm
Pitt Hater
Joined: 9/5/2010
From: Nashville via Elkins/Motown
Posts: 1555
 Re: Waiting for the Fall (Mike Casazza Interview)
Nice interview Jude. I'm a sports site polygamist but this kind of content is why WMITC is the only Mountaineer page I go to on a regular basis.
Posted: 8/1/2012 6:21 am  Updated: 8/1/2012 6:21 am
Pitt Hater
Joined: 9/8/2007
From: Beckley
Posts: 1824
 Re: Waiting for the Fall (Mike Casazza Interview)
Thanks for the interview Jude. I read this book while on vacation last month. I also recommend it highly for any football fan from any school. If a Big 12 fan want to know a little bit about the new kid on the block, read this book!

While I enjoyed the reading, I do think that Mike's generalization that Mountaineer fans tend to be people with high hopes and higher let downs is a tad overstretched and a pretty common theme among programs that maintain consistent tastes of success. I realize that WVU continues to be the winning-est program in college football history to NOT win a national championship. But regardless, when the pre-season polls come out, there are 25 teams who have fans that annually think, if things fall in place, maybe, just maybe, this could be the year.

I guess what I'm saying is, Mike makes this high hope thing sound almost like a negative, yet I see it as a positive. Mountaineer fans love their football as rabid as any other school in the country. And when things look like "this could be the year", I'm glad we are optimistic. To the contrary, I pity the schools who are not optimistic (should I mention Pitt? Of course! They still suck!).

Again, great read, packed full of great moments and many forgettable moments.

The Truth
Posted: 8/1/2012 7:08 pm  Updated: 8/1/2012 7:08 pm
Pitt Hater
Joined: 12/20/2007
From: Rockville, MD
Posts: 2457
 Re: Waiting for the Fall (Mike Casazza Interview)
Good read and so I ordered 3. For Christmas for my WVU family of friends.
Posted: 8/3/2012 9:08 pm  Updated: 8/3/2012 9:08 pm
Pitt Hater
Joined: 7/31/2007
From: Athens, GA
Posts: 1844
 Re: Waiting for the Fall (Mike Casazza Interview)
Excellent interview Jude. I definitely look foward to giving Mike's book a read.
Posted: 8/5/2012 1:12 pm  Updated: 8/5/2012 1:12 pm
Joined: 7/27/2006
From: Alkol, Lincoln County
Posts: 24872
 Re: Waiting for the Fall (Mike Casazza Interview)
i too only come here for wvu news. i might get an update from yahoo on the college football page, and may watch some wvi/msn videos, but that's it.
Posted: 9/3/2012 12:48 am  Updated: 9/3/2012 12:50 am
Gettin' Schmitty
Joined: 7/20/2008
From: Just barely outside the Beltway.
Posts: 7701
 Re: Waiting for the Fall (Mike Casazza Interview)
I remember December 1, 2007 vividly. I had many friends over to watch the game. At the end of the game I went outside to my driveway and quietly cried, pulled myself together, and went back inside to pretend it was all ok.

That night still stings.
Posted: 12/11/2012 6:16 am  Updated: 12/11/2012 6:16 am
Joined: 12/7/2011
Posts: 12
 Re: Waiting for the Fall (Mike Casazza Interview)
Good interview. The book is also quite good. But I think that there has been too strong expectations about the progress the team this year. We cheat ourselves, the more disappointed by the fact that our high expectations are not met during the season. A feeling that a big win will come only when it is not to wait.

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