Gator Bowl Bigger Than It Appears

News, notes, and thoughts concerning the nationally ranked football and men’s basketball teams at West Virginia University – one of seven schools ranked in the Top 25 in both sports.

  • There might not be a more important game to win in the Bill Stewart Era than the Gator Bowl.

That’s not from a job security standpoint – the man is 19-7 and is coaching his third bowl game in what will be 27 career outings – but it’s a big one for the future of the program, probably a little more than most bowl games.

Sure, all the noise surrounding the Gator has to do with it being Bobby Bowden’s final game as Florida State’s coach. And wouldn’t it be nice for him to ride off into the sunset with a trophy? That’s the general sentiment, but as Stewart has pointed out, there are two teams in play here.

”I just tell our team that there is going to be a lot of passion and love for Coach Bowden, but don’t forget who we are,” Stewart said. ”We have a slogan here at West Virginia football. We will respect all and fear none. I gave them another slogan last week. Never trust anyone who doesn’t stand to lose or gain as much as you do.”

Other chatter overheard was that it was almost a slap in the face for the No. 18 Mountaineers to have to play against a 6-6 team in a fairly prestigious bowl (because of the Bowden retirement, most observers are ranking the Gator second or third after the BCS bowls in terms of relevance).

From this seat, it’s a perfect scenario. Play a supposedly inferior opponent that is already plenty familiar with defeat on some of the country’s most fertile recruiting grounds, and ride off into the Morgantown hills with a Gator Bowl victory and potentially a few recruits who were on the fence about WVU.

That would also give the program its fourth 10-plus victory season and fifth bowl victory in the last five years, something very few, if any, programs around the country can boast.

West Virginia owes the Florida high schoolers a good showing after that flat 31-19 loss to South Florida earlier in the season, but if numbers like that – all team-oriented – can’t sway those fence-sitting future college football stars, the Mountaineers probably don’t want them anyway.

  • Perhaps the guys in the blue helmets with the Flying WV on the side would benefit from a few minutes with the best motivational speaker on campus – men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins.

The football players could go to Jacksonville, win by four touchdowns, and still come back hoping not to run into Huggins in a hallway or sidewalk on campus, fearing he might have noticed they missed a block or something.

In two seasons and six games, he’s where he was at Cincinnati. Superior players, don’t-just-win-but-destroy attitude.

The No. 6 Mountaineers, who play host to Coppin State tonight at 7 at the Coliseum, led by 22 at halftime Wednesday against the Duquesne Dukes, which would seem to be plenty.

”He didn’t cut us no slack,” backup forward John Flowers said. ”He got on us – that’s what I like about Coach Huggins – he makes sure we don’t stop playing.

“He pushes us and challenges us at all times. I like that.”

Said point guard Joe Mazzulla: ”That’s something we have to work on is playing with a lead. That’s something Coach stresses a lot. Hopefully we play with a lead a lot this season, so we’re going to have to get better at it.”

Mazzulla, by the way, will be handed his degree Sunday in 3 years and begin graduate work while continuing to play basketball at WVU this season and next.

A staple of Huggins’ teams is to play an all-out, in-your-face, man defense that makes opponents want to quit the game of basketball and try something a little simpler – like diagnosing Crohn’s Disease based on early signs.

”They were just deflated,” Mazzulla said of the Dukes, “and I think we did a good job of just stepping on their throats and just moving forward.”

West Virginia nearly won by 30 and no one was happy. Not even Kevin Jones, who scored a team-best 16 points.

”Nah,” he said. ”This is nowhere near our best basketball. Our best basketball is in the future. It’s coming up though.”

The football guys are betting on the same thing.

  • And finally, the other six schools ranked in this week’s Top 25 in both sports are: Texas, Cincinnati, Florida, Ohio State, Georgia Tech, and Wisconsin. Texas has to like its seat – the Longhorns are No. 2 in both.

Jim Elliott can be reached via e-mail at: