By Mickey Furfari
For the Times West Virginian
Bill Stewart, who has been deceased since May 21, 2012, was one of the most widely liked and most highly respected football coaches West Virginia University ever had.
Don Nehlen hired him in 2000, the last of Nehlen’s 21 years as the school’s winningest head coach. Then Stewart served under Rich Rodriguez from 2001-08.
When Rodriguez departed hastily for the Michigan job, the New Martinsville native took over the Mountaineer reins as interim head coach for the 2008 Fiesta Bowl battle against nationally No. 3-ranked Oklahoma. What followed was that most memorable 48-28 smashing of the Sooners.
That tremendous triumph earned Stewart the head job on the spot. It was his before daybreak that Jan. 2 night, then-athletic-director Ed Pastilong recalls.
“We had already interviewed several people before that bowl game,” Pastilong said. “Bill did not politic for the job. But he did tell me that he’d ‘like to be considered.’
“So when we got back to the hotel, we made sure we contacted the (WVU) president, the chairman of the board of governors, the athletic council chairman and others involved in the decision.”
By 3 a.m. the next day they had already named Stewart as the permanent head coach. And word went out to the media that a press conference would be held at 9 a.m. the next day.
The rest is history.
Stewart, who died of an apparent heart attack while playing golf with Pastilong and others at the Stonewall Resort, had addressed a West Virginia Tourism Association function there the previous evening.
He had the most successful first three years of any WVU head football coach in history. His teams combined for records of 9-4, 9-4 and 9-4.
Stewart’s overall 28-12 mark rounds out to an overall percentage of .700. His teams were 2-2 in bowl games.
A gentleman in every respect, he was a great coach who certainly knew football and loved his players, his coaches and Mountaineer fans. Stewart also loved people generally and the state of West Virginia.
I saw him at his folksy best just six days before he died. Having breakfast at a local restaurant, he spotted a group of men nearby and was invited over.
Stewart chatted briefly, then went and shook hands with all 15 Tuesday breakfast club members.
I’m told that was typical of him.
Stewart, who coached as an assistant at 11 colleges during his career, served two separate stints at North Carolina and the Air Force Academy.
Stewart, who also was head coach at VMI from 1994-96, was forced to resign at WVU one year earlier than had been projected. So Dana Holgorsen took over in 2011 and went 10-3 with the popular Stewart’s players.
Truth be known, Bill Stewart’s legacy is even greater in the minds of loving Mountaineer fans in growing numbers who knew him, respected him and loved him.
Here’s what quarterback Pat White said following that 2008 Fiesta Bowl:
“He deserved it. A great man. A great coach. All the players respect him and all the players love him.
“You couldn’t ask for a better man to lead us to victory.”
Pastilong has never doubted that Stewart was the right man for the job.
“He was respected tremendously by other coaches in top programs throughout the nation,” he said.
“He knew all facets of football. He also was pleasant, sincerely genuine. And I think his players and coaching staff knew that.”