By Cliff Nichols
Times West Virginian
Bill Stewart enjoyed that headline victory.
It came as West Virginia University’s interim head coach, 48-28 over Oklahoma on Jan. 2, 2008, in the Fiesta Bowl, prompting the removal of interim before his name the very next day.
Then came three straight nine-win seasons for the New Martinsville native and Fairmont State graduate as the head football coach at his home-state university.
It wasn’t enough for Stewart, who died of an apparent heart attack Monday afternoon while in a golf tournament at Lewis County’s Stonewall Resort, to keep the job, but the respect he earned on and off the field lives on.
“He is a model for how it should be done,” former WVU President Mike Garrison, who held the job when Stewart was named to replace Rich Rodriguez, said Monday evening.
Stewart took over the WVU program at a difficult time, when Rodriguez elected to take the coaching job at Michigan following the Mountaineers’ 13-9 loss to Pitt in the 2007 regular-season finale. That defeat, as a four-touchdown favorite, cost WVU the chance to play Ohio State for the national championship.
Stewart, though, will be remembered for more than keeping the Mountaineer football program afloat.
“As a person, he was as kind and as loyal a person as you would find,” Garrison said. “With Bill’s passing, I think it’s important to recognize the man that he was. When you look around in comparison, I think that is the measure of what we should be looking for in our leaders.
“I know there are a lot of people out there who recognize that. I’m very proud to say it loudly. I’ve always said it very loudly. Bill Stewart was an absolute gentleman and a great leader.”
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., was the state’s governor when Stewart was named WVU’s head coach and first knew him from Stewart’s days at Fairmont State, where he was a 1975 graduate who was a three-year letterman for the Falcons and a team captain in 1974.
“Anybody who had ever met Bill, it was contagious and infectious, his enthusiasm and his upbeat mode,” Manchin said from Washington, D.C. “He was just a pleasant person. I enjoyed being around him all the time.”
Stewart had a way of remembering virtually everyone he met.
“You were either Bill Stewart’s friend or you just hadn’t had the chance to meet him, because as soon as you met him, you were his friend,” Manchin said. “That’s a pretty special person, and Bill was that special person. There was just nothing like him.”
Stewart loved talking about his “bride,” Karen, and his son, Morgantown High School student Blaine. Stewart was frequently in the stands at Morgantown sports events.
“To Karen and to Blaine, my heart goes out to them,” Manchin said. “My goodness. It’s such a sad day. Bill leaves us with a lifetime of memories, but, man, it’s hard. It’s just hard when you lose someone in his prime such as Bill and how much he always gave back and the love of his state.
“I never had to worry about Bill’s enthusiasm and his upbeat tempo all the time. Wherever he was, he was always selling the state of West Virginia and the great people in the state. That was just him. It was so genuine.”
Manchin remembers “all the challenges” in the days leading up to the 2008 Fiesta Bowl.
“He said, ‘We’ll be ready now. We’re going to suit them up, and we’ll see what happens. We’re going to be there. They’ll know we’re there,’” Manchin recalled. “By golly, they knew we were there.
“The bottom line is he stepped in at a most difficult time and was able to keep it on top. It was a tremendous accomplishment for Bill Stewart and his love for our state. He was the right person at the right time. I will say that, absolutely with no questions at all in my mind, that Bill Stewart was the right person at the right time.
“I think everyone knew you were dealing with a true, blue West Virginian when you dealt with Bill Stewart.”
West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said, “Coach Stewart brought a new-found pride to the Mountaineer faithful as he led the football team in both competition and character. Joanne and I are deeply saddened by the sudden loss of Coach Stewart and offer our sympathies to his family. Together, we ask that Mountaineers everywhere keep the Stewart family in your thoughts and prayers during this sad time.”
WVU basketball coach Bob Huggins said, “My prayers go out to a wonderful man and my friend. We lost a great Mountaineer and a true West Virginian. Coach Stewart, we will miss you.”
Former WVU player Pat McAfee, now a punter for the Indianapolis Colts, posted:
“Coach Stew was a man that took me in as a freshman. He treated me like I was a son. He always had my back, even when it wasn’t the popular thing to do. He taught me so many things about life and being a man that I could never pay him back for.
“When he became the head coach we chatted for an hour in his office. I kept telling him how happy I was for him and how amazing this was for him. And he told me, ‘Patrick, no matter what you’re doing with your life, never forget to stop and smell the flowers. It doesn't matter what you’re doing or what your title is, if you stop smelling the flowers you miss out on life. That’s why I’ll never change.’
“I’ll never change or miss out on life because that quote puts everything in perspective. And it was told to me by a man that I can honestly say I loved. My heart is broken and I don't know when these tears will stop, but I’m gonna miss that man.”
“A true gentleman, friend, man, coach, teacher, husband, etc., is how I view coach Bill Stewart,” former WVU running back Steve Slaton said. “I’m at a loss for words to express how much respect I have for this man. Every conversation that I have had the chance to be involved with him he made me feel as an equal. I am honored to have had him as a friend and coach. I know every player that has had the opportunity to be around him would say the same. Mountaineer Nation has lost one of its biggest fans. My prayers are with the entire Stewart family.”
Former quarterback Patrick White, who pushed for Stewart to get the head coaching job following the Fiesta Bowel, posted: “Take care of ol’ Bill Stewart up there Lord!”
“To a great man, friend and coach. RIP,” said Mortty Ivy. “Coach Stew will be missed but never forgotten.”
Fullback Owen Schmitt pointed out that “Coach Stew changed my life. He will be missed and remembered always in my heart. Thanks for always believing in me. I feel like I lost a father.”
Anthony Leonard said that “he pounded in our head to be great Mountaineers but challenged (us) to be better men in the community, church, school, etc. RIP Coach Stew.”
Adam “Pacman” Jones said that it’s “a sad day for all WVU fans and players. Coach, I will always love you. Thanks for everything you have done for me. He helped me with a lot.”
Email Cliff Nichols at firstname.lastname@example.org.