By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — Whenever I think about Bill Stewart, I remember back to one specific incident at a Southern Conference media day in the mid-1990s.
Stewart was trying to rebuild the long moribund football program at VMI, but had already won over realms of friends with his infectious smile and warm personality.
But on this afternoon, he wasn’t talking football. He was reaching in his wallet to show me pictures of his baby boy, Blaine. And I responded by showing him photos of my baby daughter, Charlotte.
We immediately had a bond that went beyond football. And we always asked about each other’s kid after that, whenever we met.
While most people knew Stewart for his exploits as a football coach, as a friend, I was able to get several glimpses of a deeply religious, family man, who cared about the people he met and the players he coached in a genuine way.
Those of us that have been around football as long as I have know that football is ultimately as much about relationships as it is wins and losses and Bill Stewart was someone who epitomized this realization.
When I learned of Bill’s death on Monday afternoon at the age of 59, from an apparent heart attack, my heart immediately sunk as I thought of his teenage son, Blaine and his wife, Karen.
I ask that our readers keep Karen and Blaine in their thoughts and prayers as this tight-knit family deals with this tragedy.
While Bill was straight laced and conservative off the field, he was far from that on the gridiron. Bill was the riverboat gambler, who wasn’t afraid to go for a first down on fourth and three from his own 30-yard line.
He was also a master at motivating players to play at their highest level.
Two games, ironically his first win at Virginia Military Institute and his initial victory at West Virginia were the capstones to his head coaching career and illustrated his motivational abilities perfectly.
In 1994, Stewart was trying to get his VMI Keydets to buy into his program in the midst of an 0-10 season that was so bad that the team had lost its previous nine games by an average of 35 points per game.
The final game on the schedule was a trip to Boone, N.C. to take on an Appalachian State program that was beginning to flex its muscles as a I-AA powerhouse. Four weeks earlier, the Mountaineers had defeated top-ranked Marshall, 24-14, and all No. 10-ranked ASU needed was a victory over hapless VMI to clinch a share of the Southern Conference title, the league’s automatic bid to the postseason and a home playoff game.
It would have been easy for VMI to have gone through the motions for another 40-point defeat that day, or for the Keydets to fold when Appalachian State tied the game three separate times in the second half.
But led by 277 all-purpose yards and two TDs from Thomas Haskins, a defense that forced four turnovers and three Geoff Goff field goals — the final one from 44 yards barely creeping over the crossbar in overtime — VMI shocked ASU 26-23 for the greatest upset in Southern Conference football history.
I was the last reporter to track down Stewart after the game, finding him alone with his thoughts in the cramped visiting locker room at Kidd Brewer Stadium. It didn’t take long for Bill to reveal his sensitive side.
Tears began streaming down his face as he tried to put his feelings into words.
“I’m so proud of these young men,” Stewart explained, “because they kept banging, playing and believing. We played a great football team. For our guys to even hang with them means the world. It’s a heck of an upset in the history of VMI.”
Stewart might have been the best motivator to walk the halls of the Lexington, VA. campus since Stonewall Jackson and this writer always thought that this high-strung coach, not the general, would be the one to turn the Keydets into winners.
One of Stewart’s proteges at VMI was a young man who had just concluded a I-AA career at William & Mary. Stewart took a chance on Mike Tomlin and watched him develop into a Super Bowl championship head coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
University racial politics kept Bill from finishing the job, though VMI did win four games in 1996, his final season.
Stewart wasn’t sure he would ever get a chance to coach again until a fellow Southern Conference coaching exile, former Citadel headman Charlie Taaffe, recruited him to the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League in 1998.
After another year in the CFL as an assistant with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Stewart was hired by legendary West Virginia coach Don Nehlen to work with quarterbacks for the Mountaineers in 2000 and he stayed on to coach quarterbacks and coordinate special teams for Rich Rodriguez in 2001.
The next seven seasons vaulted the West Virginia program to unprecedented heights with the development of the spread and no one was more at home than Stewart, who was coaching in the state where he was born and raised and had played at Fairmont State.
When Rodriguez left for Michigan at the end of the 2007 regular season, Stewart became the focal point for frayed emotions in his home state when he took over the West Virginia program as interim head coach.
Like many, I was watching on Jan. 3, 2008 when the Mountaineers took on Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. I couldn’t help but cheer on Stewart.
Harkening back to that win at Appalachian State all of those years earlier, Bill had West Virginia ready and the Mountaineers crushed the Sooners, 48-28, in a game that was nowhere as close as the score.
The next day, the university president was offering Stewart the permanent head coaching job, complete with a base salary of $4 million and an eight-year deal.
The honeymoon at West Virginia didn’t last as long as it should have, even though Stewart posted a 28-12 record in three years and won a share of the 2010 Big East title. It wasn’t enough for one of college football’s looniest fan bases.
Influential boosters tried to sabotage Stewart’s program and athletic director Oliver Luck created more turmoil by hiring Dana Holgorson as offensive coordinator and coach in waiting in 2011.
Holgorson’s off-field behavior led to controversy and allegations that Stewart had asked a reporter to uncover additional dirt on the new assistant. The allegations were never proven, but West Virginia officials still asked Stewart to resign last year and elevated Holgorson to head coach.
It was a convenient excuse for West Virginia officials, who insisted that Stewart wasn’t capable of winning a national championship. Of course, do we really expect the Mountaineers to win that crystal BCS trophy any time soon?
What was lost was the reason that Stewart was hired in the first place.
His loss is one that West Virginia won’t soon overcome and the character he displayed to his players and friends has left a hole in many hearts that will not be filled.