By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
This is a long and winding tale, one that began in obscurity and stretched all the way into the brightest lights the sports world has to offer, the Super Bowl.
In a way it has nothing to do with the football game here at Milan Puskar Stadium this Saturday at noon, William & Mary coming in to test West Virginia University in the season opener.
And then again it has everything to do with it.
Where do we begin, in New Martinsville, W.Va., or Newport News, Va.?
They are, you see, the hometowns of two football coaches, not coaches who are taking part in this current game but two coaches who are intertwined in their careers and intertwined in the two schools playing in this game.
They are the former WVU coach, Bill Stewart, and a coach who won a Super Bowl named Mike Tomlin.
Again, where do you begin? Stewart had a vagabond career, coaching here and there and everywhere until finally saving the West Virginia program by upsetting Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl after Rich Rodriguez had left for Michigan following the devastating loss to Pitt.
Among his stops, from 1981 to 1983, was one at — yes — William & Mary, coached by Jimmye Laycock, who brings his 34th Tribe team to Morgantown this year.
A decade and a year after leaving William & Mary, Stewart found himself trying to build a staff at VMI as head coach. He was drawn to a young wide receiver who had just graduated from William & Mary, where he still owns several pass receiving records.
That would be Mike Tomlin, and it was Stewart who gave him his first coaching job.
Stewart, along about the time Tomlin was first hired by the Steelers, thought back on the man he had hired.
“He could have been a great receiver in the NFL if he’d had more speed,” Stewart said, then the quarterbacks coach and special teams coordinator at West Virginia. “Mike was a great receiver in college. He came over to coach our receivers and he did a tremendous job — we had the best year we ever had throwing the ball.
“The man was born to coach,” Stewart continued. “He is going to be a great, great, great coach in the NFL — his players will respect him and play for him. That’s the thing about Mike: He was a great player, but he’s an even better coach and an even better person.”
The two had remained friends, close friends, really, through the years.
In fact, when word reached Tomlin, who was at practice, that Stewart had been named to replace Rodriguez, he reacted with glee.
“Bill Stewart! That’s the best news of the day!” he said.
The relationship didn’t end with Stewart’s untimely death from a heart attack while playing golf with former WVU athletic director Ed Pastilong in May 2012.
Indeed, that fall, when Stewart’s son Blaine played his first football game of the year at Morgantown High, there were a couple of special guests in the stands — Tomlin and Kevin Colbert, the Steelers’ general manager.
This is what Blaine Stewart tweeted that night: @BlaineStewart3: Special shoutout to Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert (Steelers GM), and my cousin Corey from NC for coming to my game tonight. Meant a lot to me!!
Not a bad substitute dad for the evening.
Make no doubt if Stewart were still coaching WVU, Tomlin would have been emotionally torn apart in where to place his loyalties, although you suspect that in the end it would have to lie with his alma mater, for it meant much to him as he revealed when he returned to give the 2008 commencement address.
“This place, although small, it prepares you to deal,” Tomlin said in an interview. “The level of professionalism within the football program, the things that are required of you outside the football program, interaction with people, all those things prepared me for what I do on a day-to-day basis.
“I’m extremely comfortable with what it is I have to do for a living, whether it’s directly related to my job or the things that go with my job. And the reason that I’m comfortable is because of the experience I gained here as an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old. That’s what makes this place special.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.