Remembering the Bill Stewart era
He’s a household name in his native state of West Virginia.
After all, he led the West Virginia University football program to the greatest victory in its more than 100-year history.
There isn’t much about Stewart Mountaineer fans don’t know. But many may not realize he might well have been just a one-year assistant coach in Morgantown.
After spending two years as an assistant coach in the Canadian Football League, Stewart returned to his native state in 2000 to become the quarterbacks coach for Don Nehlen at West Virginia University.
Little did either of those men know at the time it was going to be Nehlen’s final season after 21 years in Morgantown. But following a tough loss to Syracuse, Nehlen walked into the media room and dropped a bombshell that no one saw coming — he would retire at the end of the season.
For assistant coaches like Stewart, that meant the distinct possibility of losing their job. After all, whoever was hired to replace Nehlen rightfully would insist on bringing in his own staff.
Fortunately for Stewart — as it turned out, in more ways than one — that new coach was Rich Rodriguez. Like Stewart, he had grown up in West Virginia. Like Stewart, he had coached at Salem College.
Rodriguez retained Stewart, placing him in charge of quarterbacks and special teams, positions he held until the fateful year of 2007, when he coached the tight ends and assumed the all-important duties of associate head coach.
Like his first season under Nehlen, Stewart had no idea of the drama that was about to take place. West Virginia was having a banner year. If the Mountaineers could beat arch-rival Pittsburgh in the annual Backyard Brawl, they would qualify for the Bowl Championship Series national championship game. But Pitt stunned WVU, 13-9, in Morgantown, sending the entire Mountain State into a pre-Christmas depression.
Things got worse when Rodriguez announced he was leaving his alma mater to become the head coach at the University of Michigan. WVU had a Fiesta Bowl game against Oklahoma for which to prepare and no coach to lead it into battle.
Veteran Athletics Director Ed Pastilong turned to Stewart and asked him to take charge of the football program and its Fiesta Bowl preparations.
“Yes, sir,” was Stewart’s reply.
West Virginia went into the game as a huge underdog. Even Mountaineer faithful, who had their hearts broken first by the loss to Pitt and then by Rodriguez’s departure, refused to get too excited about this matchup in which it appeared WVU had little chance.
From the day the Mountaineers arrived in Arizona, Bill Stewart became a rock star. He wowed the national media that covered the Fiesta Bowl. They loved his homespun humor. They loved how he always seemed to have time for whoever wanted it. In other words, they loved Bill Stewart.
So did his players.
Minutes after West Virginia stunned Oklahoma, 48-28, quarterback Pat White, while being interviewed on national TV, pointed to Stewart and said, “There’s our coach.”
WVU officials agreed. Before the night was over, Stewart was hired as the head football coach, with the announcement coming at a hastily called press conference before the West Virginia media left Arizona.
Some applauded the move, while many lambasted it, including major WVU booster Ken Kendrick, the owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Stewart’s teams were a model of consistency, going 9-4 and 9-4 prior to this season. The Mountaineers enter the Champs Sports Bowl this season with a 9-3 mark.
That makes him the winningest coach in West Virginia history.
But even that record wasn’t good enough for recently hired Athletics Director Oliver Luck.
Six months after Luck was hired, he announced Stewart would serve as the head coach in 2011, then will be replaced by Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen in 2012.
It is a controversial move that has divided West Virginia fans. Some support Luck. Many support Stewart.
Stewart has been billed by ESPN as the most accommodating coach in America.
Many are the stories of Stewart taking the time to show a family around Mountaineer Field and the football museum in the adjacent offices.
When Stewart walks into a recruit’s home, he immediately impresses mom and dad with his down-to-earth attitude and his West Virginia charm.
After Rodriguez announced he was leaving, Parkersburg High School lineman Josh Jenkins, who already had committed to WVU, reneged. But Stewart managed to win him over and Jenkins is an entrenched starter in Morgantown.
“I’m still the same guy who stole turnips from my neighbor’s backyard in New
Martinsville,” Stewart says.
Spend five minutes with Stewart and you’ll have made a friend for life. And while some view him as a country bumpkin who lacks smarts, it’s likely the next time you meet him, he’ll not only remember your name, but also the names of your family members.
Bill Stewart is a one-of-a-kind, unique character. Whatever you think about his abilities to coach football, you can’t help but love and respect him.
Contact Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org