It was Oct. 8, 1994 and I was in the second year of covering Marshall football.
I ventured to Lexington, Va. to report on Jim Donnan’s Thundering Herd, as they often did in those days, cruise to a 49-7 victory over the homestanding VMI Keydets.
When first-year VMI head coach Billy Stewart found out I was from Beckley, he immediately asked about his old Fairmont teammate, and Beckley native Miller Hall and insisted on showing me around.
He took me around the facilities and into a kitchen area where he made coffee. We drank a cup and talked for 30 minutes.
I really didn’t know what to make of it.
Fast forward nearly 14 years later.
It was the early morning hours of Jan. 3, 2008 the phone rang in my bungalow in the Arizona desert. And yes, it was a bungalow, reportedly used in the filming of a Lucille Ball movie, or so the pamphlet said. I digress.
On the other end was West Virginia University Sports Information Director Shelly Poe.
Seemed the school was calling a press conference in a few hours at the team’s hotel headquarters and could I make it before I departed back to the Mountain State.
Turns out Stewart was the subject. Stew, as he was largely known, had come back to his native state (he was a Grafton native) as an assistant coach for Don Nehlen at WVU and he was one of the few coaches that Nehlen’s successor Rich Rodriguez kept around.
When Rodriguez abruptly left for Michigan on Dec. 16, some 15 days after a now infamous 13-9 loss to Pitt that cost WVU a shot at the national championship, Stew was named the interim coach for the Mountaineers Fiesta Bowl game against Oklahoma.
It was supposed to be a one-off gig.
Look, nobody expected WVU to win the game, least of all Oklahoma, which never seemed to take the matchup seriously. Well, nobody except those in West Virginia.
After the game noted runaway beer truck Owen Schmitt recalled seeing a map on ESPN of who fans thought would win the game. Every state was lit up in Oklahoma colors except one. Yep, West Virginia. Schmitt choked up when he said it after the Mountaineers’ 49-29 drubbing of Oklahoma.
WVU Athletic Director Ed Pastilong, who had been interviewing candidates in the days leading up to the game, saw enough that night. After the game the two sides, WVU and Stew, met and, with nothing more than a handshake, agreed to terms. Stew was the new Mountaineers coach.
It was sadly eight years ago today that Bill Stewart passed away on a golf course at Stonewall Jackson Resort. Pastilong was playing golf with Stew that day.
Everyone knows how Stew’s career ended. How Dana Holgorsen, made out to be some type of an offensive genius, was hired by new AD Oliver Luck, who is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with wrestling guru Vince McMahon over wrongful termination from his gig as the commissioner of the XFL. Let that sink in.
Nothing more needs to be said about that duo.
At the time of that hastily called press conference Stew said where he came from, a man’s handshake was good enough for him. And that, in essense, was Stew.
He was a throwback of sorts, referring to wife Karen as his “bride” and his players as his “lads.” WVU was referred to as “the old gold and blue.”
Perhaps that game against Oklahoma will be Stew’s legacy. It was prior to that game that Stewart made one of the all-time great pre-game speeches, the “leave no doubt” speech.
“Let them know, leave no doubt tonight,” Stewart said, pacing the locker room like a caged lion. “Leave no doubt tonight, no doubt, they shouldn’t have played the old gold and blue! Not this night! Not this night! Don’t leave your wingman, ever, ever, ever bail out on your brother. You help, you strain and you fight. Start fast. Stay on top of them. It’s a game lads, let’s go have fun and get us a victory.”
Get a victory the Mountaineers did.
Stew was 28-12 overall at WVU. History has, as suspected, been kinder than the actual end was for Stew at WVU.
But you’d be hard-pressed to find a Mountaineer who didn’t love the homespun coach.
Late in Stew’s tenure, Bruce Irvin told me that people who weren’t inside the program didn’t understand how much the players loved their coach. Irvin said he would “run through a fire or a wall” for the man.
When the Mountaineers fell back to 9-3 records, fans quickly cooled on the man who simply loved the university more than anyone I knew. Fans and, I guess more importantly donors, turned on the man.
The Stewbirds I dubbed them, as in boobirds.
Critics said Stew did a great job with Rich Rod’s recruits during that early Jan. 2008 night out in the desert against Oklahoma. If that is true, I guess you can say the same thing about a certain coach’s job four years later in Miami when the Mountaineers would drub Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Heck of a job with Stew’s recruits, coach.
Irvin today is an NFL player known for his unabashed love for the state of West Virginia. It’s not phony, it’s real. And that was Stew tenfold.
If he was a good coach, he was a great man.
Twenty-six years later I have a better understanding of that meeting with Stew back in Lexington, Va. in 1994.
Stew’s favorite Bible verse was Galatians 6:9 which reads: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for in due season we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
Rest In Peace coach.