By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It was Monday, the first anniversary of Bill Stewart’s sudden death while playing the 16th hole of a charity golf tournament with West Virginia University’s former athletic director and his former boss, Ed Pastilong.
As you can imagine, Stewart was talking as he stood in the rough that day just seconds before his heart would stop beating, some say from a heart attack. Others wonder if it might not have more to do with his dismissal as WVU’s head football coach despite a winning record and being the author of the most relevant victory in the school’s history.
One minute he was telling one of those stories that would entertain you no matter how many times you had heard them — and rest assured Pastilong had heard this one numerous times — and then he was gone.
You thought about that all year and about the football program at West Virginia, as well you should on such an anniversary, for certainly the jury is out on where that program is today ... and you allowed yourself at this moment to wonder just what is important in an athletic program and coach.
As you thought back upon the death of Bill Stewart, you thought of the things that were being said about him.
“I would fight a war for that man,” guard Jeff Braun said as the mechanics of passing the torch from one regime to another began.
Braun always was a rational sort, an offensive lineman who put football in its place as part of a well-rounded university program, a player who would have to work and scrap to get the NFL chance he now has.
“I know day in and day out for the past six years that I’ve known the man, he takes a step in the right direction and he treats each and every one of his players like he was his son,” Braun said a day after Stewart died. “I’ve seen that firsthand.
“He would tell you things, and they wouldn’t hit you until you went home,” Braun continued. “He cared about you as a person.”
“Coach Stew changed my life. He will be missed and remembered always in my heart,” former fullback Owen Schmitt tweeted that day. “Thanks for always believing in me. I feel like I lost a father.”
“He pounded in our head to be great Mountaineers but challenged us to be better men in the community, church and school,” was linebacker Anthony Leonard’s memory.
The transformation over the course of a year was away from a football program that was part of the West Virginia fiber, that represented the people of the state and that produced a game with the taste of a pepperoni roll and a beer, to the point that the coaching staff had to teach itself — to its credit — what the state is about and pass it on to its players.
Good ol’ Stew, the country boy coach who was in love with his home state and that state’s university, was the man who won the most important football game in the school’s history, upsetting Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl after Rich Rodriguez had turned his back on the program and sneaked off to Michigan following the most devastating defeat in WVU history.
Stewart pulled off that upset, then took a program that was supposed to crumble with Rodriguez gone and won nine games for three consecutive seasons, something that always had been a creditable standard.
True, it became evident Bill Stewart would not build a contender for a national championship, which led to his dismissal, but as it turned out two seasons later the victories were down to seven. The losses were embarrassing, including one in a minor bowl to Syracuse ... and rather than Stewart spreading his own brand of sunshine, there now were clouds of doubt.
“To be part of this is something no one can know about unless you live and experience it; it’s who we are; it’s what we are,” Stewart told me three years ago, speaking of the WVU program. “These people came to these hills for a better life. We are one big clan in this state, whether you’re a miner, a construction worker, a banker — everyone cares about everyone.
“We don’t have a pro team. We tell all our players — don’t you ever forget the pride of playing before the hardest-working, God-fearing, most wonderful people you’ll ever meet in your life. That’s what we are; that’s who we are.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.