By Cliff Nichols
Times West Virginian
The last opportunity I had to chat with Bill Stewart was at the Fairmont Senior-Morgantown boys’ basketball game at the Woody Williams Armory just before Christmas last year.
The setting was perfect. The former West Virginia University head football coach, who died of an apparent heart attack Monday afternoon while playing golf, loved athletics, and he loved Fairmont.
When I heard of Stewart’s passing, my mind went back to a long conversation I’d enjoyed with the coach on the practice field of North Florida University in Jacksonville, a few days before the Mountaineers’ 38-35 win over Georgia Tech in the 2007 Gator Bowl.
At the time, he was on then-head coach Rich Rodriguez’s staff as quarterbacks and special teams coach. On that sunny afternoon, Stewart reminisced about a long coaching career where he always — no matter the distance from his home state — maintained close strong ties to Fairmont.
The New Martinsville native was a 1975 Fairmont State graduate who was a three-year letterman for the Falcons and a team captain in 1974.
Friends such as Terry Brake, Doug Kiger and Harold Bailey kept him well informed about the scene in North Central West Virginia during a career that included college stops at North Carolina, Marshall, William & Mary, Navy, Arizona State, Air Force and VMI along with time in the Canadian Football League at Montreal and Winnipeg.
“They sent me clippings,” Stewart recalled. “I got the Fairmont sports pages more than if I had subscribed to the darn thing.
“I followed it my whole life. It’s important to me. I’m so proud. It’s a great place to call home. I’m honored I can say I’m a Fairmont man. ... I’ll take that with me until I have no more steps on this Earth. I’m a Fairmont man.”
Stewart, in fact, began his coaching career as a student assistant at Fairmont State in 1975. After two years as a coach and teacher at Sistersville High School, he began his full-time college career as an assistant at Salem in 1977.
He credits Fairmont coaches such as Deacon Duvall, Bill Kerr, Gary McCutcheon, Joe Bundy, Larry Hill, Jim Sypult, Squibb Wilson and Joe Retton for helping to shape his life.
“Those are the guys who gave me my foundation,” said Stewart, whose brother Ted also played at Fairmont State. “I don’t know where in God’s name I’d have been without those fine men at that school.”
They shaped how life should be led on and off the field, Stewart explained.
“We had some ornery guys. I was one of them,” Stewart said. “The relationships, the foundation and all my philosophies today from hard work to being a good teammate to doing things the right way — the Falcon way, the positive way — I got there.”
Stewart added that “the community in Fairmont helped raise me into manhood.”
“I’ll forever be in debt,” he added. “I’ll forever be grateful — forever.”
The first opportunity I had to meet Stewart came in 2000, just after he joined Don Nehlen’s WVU staff. I was absolutely amazed at how much he knew about what was happening here. The coaching profession may have taken him across the United States and Canada, but in his heart, he’d never left.
“He might have had to go in different parts of the country for his livelihood, but he never left West Virginia,” U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., recalled Monday evening. “That’s in the bank. His roots were so deep. His love ... I’ve never seen anybody as committed and anybody who was so proud to be a West Virginian.
“To say that we’ve lost a tremendous fellow West Virginian would be an understatement.”
While in Fairmont, Stewart lived on Pennsylvania Avenue near Colasessano’s and on High Street as a senior. His friends included retired Grafton High School coach and Fairmont Senior and Fairmont State graduate Mike Skinner.
“I flat loved it,” he said. “I knew everybody in the neighborhood. They knew me — the young and the old.”
Stewart remembers Duvall’s reaction when the legendary coach caught Stewart cutting a class.
“Coach Duvall said, ‘Come on,’” Stewart recalled.
“I said, ‘What do you mean, coach?’
“He said, ‘I want to talk to you.’
“We ran three miles up on the Falcon track. He never cussed. He never raised his voice. He talked to me and told me what it meant to be a Falcon. He talked to me about what it meant to be a gentleman. He talked to me about how lucky I was with the mother and dad I had.
“He didn’t make me feel bad, but he humbled me. He talked to me about what it was to be a Falcon. I’ve never forgotten it. I don’t mind getting tears in my eyes telling you. I’ve never forgotten it.
“He jogged with me the whole time. When we were done, he said, ‘Falcons don’t miss class, Billy Stewart. I expect you to be a Falcon and do it right.’
“I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ I think it’s the last class I ever missed.”
Stewart never lost appreciation for Nehlen for the opportunity to come back to West Virginia for for Rodriguez, who retained him following Nehlen’s retirement after the 2000 season.
“It’s a blessing,” Stewart said, labeling his time at WVU as the “joy of our life for me, my bride Karen and son Blaine.”
Stewart said “there is a closeness, a love and a bond between these players and this state,” something he did not see in other stops during his career.
“It’s a very proud state,” Stewart added. “I’m very proud to be from what I think is the greatest state in the union.
“We’ve got the hardest-working people. They’re good, God-fearing people. They don’t mind working overtime. They don’t mind pitching in and helping. They don’t mind getting their clothes dirty when they go to work.
“That, to me, is what we were raised on in New Martinsville, my hometown, Fairmont State and then here coaching at West Virginia.”
Stewart and I didn’t talk about coaching during that visit last December. He really couldn’t following his departure from WVU in favor of current head coach Dana Holgorsen last year. He talked about some fun he had as an ESPN analyst, and you could sense his pride at some players such as Geno Smith and Tavon Austin he’d helped bring to WVU.
I had to leave the game a bit early to help with a family Christmas event in Clarksburg.
“You don’t have to go yet. You’re not headed to New York,” Stewart said with a laugh.
With that, our last, all-too-brief meeting ended.
Stewart’s time on Earth was also way too brief, but his life was full of love for family, his faith, for athletics, for West Virginia, for Fairmont.
“With Bill Stewart, you weren’t an acquaintance. You were either his friend or you hadn’t met him yet,” Manchin said.
Athletics can be a cruel business. A 28-12 record and a Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma wasn’t enough to enable Stewart to keep his dream job at WVU.
A man shaped by his years in Fairmont, though, left a major impression on WVU and all he met. Bill Stewart never forgot, and anyone who knew the coach will never forget him.
E-mail Cliff Nichols at firstname.lastname@example.org.