By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It was the kind of cosmic happening that defies description. We all come across them from time to time, leaving us in a state of disbelief.
This one came about on what should have been a wonderful Monday, a day when the news broke that Patrick Beilein was returning to West Virginia to coach Wesleyan’s basketball team, a day that was warm with little more than a soft wind blowing.
On Facebook, sometime in mid-morning, there was a posting by former West Virginia safety Eric Wicks: “WOW I JUST FOUND THIS. I REMEMBER THESE DAYS LIKE YESTERDAY,” it read.
Attached was the YouTube version of Coach Bill Stewart’s greatest moment, his pregame speech as an interim coach just before going out and tearing Oklahoma apart in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl. It was the speech that came to be known as “No Doubt Speech,” and if it wasn’t quite on the level of Rockne chocking a bulldog, it was enough to tear the heart out of a favored Sooner team.
“Let ’em know! Leave no doubt! LEAVE NO DOUBT!! Let them know they shouldn’t have played the old Blue and Gold, not this night!” he shouted.
Why today? Why did Eric Wicks come across that on YouTube on this particular Monday, a Monday when he would make another posting in late afternoon?
“RIP COACH STEW! WE WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU!”
Bill Stewart, just 59 years of age, had died.
How do you explain it? He had gone out that morning to try and take advantage of the beauty of the day, partnered in golf with West Virginia’s former athletic director Ed Pastilong in a charity event at Stonewall Resort.
Certainly he was making the day brighter for everyone around him on the course, just as he had in all those years of coaching football, spinning yarns that always had a moral, ready to greet you with a smile and handshake.
Part of it was that country boy ruse that put you at ease, but he was quicker and smarter than he let on, especially in those days when he was talking about an opponent’s football team and how he had no idea how he would be able to keep up with them, be it East Carolina or Oklahoma.
He had risen out of New Martinsville to become a coaching nomad, wandering near and far in search of the job he always wanted — head coach at West Virginia University.
That was where he had started college, and while he wound up at Fairmont State for most of his playing career, he was first and always a Mountaineer.
The heart that gave out on him on the golf course pumped red blood, yes, but if he’d found a way he would have transfused in enough blue and gold dye to change its color.
Of all the things said of him in the hours after his death, the one that would have meant the most was a simple sentence.
“He was a great Mountaineer,” former Coach Don Nehlen said.
It was Nehlen who brought him home and it was Nehlen whom Stewart adored. While others also praised his loyalty and dedication to the school and to the state, they were the ones who believed he was not the right man for the job and those words, while heartfelt, rang just a bit hollow.
Stewart’s reign was short, that interim victory over Oklahoma and then just three more years, but measured up against other WVU coaches in history it was a huge success with not only a BCS victory but 28 victories and 12 defeats.
His dismissal to bring in Dana Holgorsen, in retrospect, was not really the wrong move, and Stewart made some mistakes in his effort to keep the job that meant all this world had to offer to him that forced athletic director Oliver Luck’s hand.
He went off into his forced retirement bitter at his treatment but fulfilled in that he had attained the coaching job at WVU and had produced what history will surely show us all was the singular most important win in school history. Had this team come apart when Rich Rodriguez skipped town, the entire program may have gone to shreds and West Virginia might be sitting with Rutgers and Connecticut still looking to escape the Big East.
He left the gift that keeps on giving in the form of talented players such as quarterback Geno Smith, wide receiver Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. If Holgorsen came in and was the offensive genius that he certainly appears to be, he was so with a locker room full of Stewart’s players and defensive coaches who were loyal enough to him and the school to not skip out when Rodriguez left.
Perhaps the one statement that showed what kind of person Bill Stewart was — and is it far not better to be a great person than a great athlete — came from Cheryl Jones, RN, director of WVU’s Children’s Hospital and a Stewart family friend. Stewart had made Children’s Hospital his own charity and never was too busy for the kids and their needs there.
“Coach Stewart meant the world to all of us at WVU Children’s Hospital. He was selfless of his time and always had the children’s best interest at heart,” Jones said. “He brought himself and the players to visit the kids and families because he wanted to, not for show or because he had to.
“Coach Stewart visited us on scheduled times but also came whenever a child or family requested his presence. He always acted like he knew everyone he came in contact with personally and made every child and adult feel like they were the most special person in the world.”
That is a gift that few of us have, but a gift that Bill Stewart gave to all.
He’s gone now. They say it was an apparent heart attack that did him in.
That may be the medical term for it.
I think Bill Stewart died of a broken heart.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.