Philadelphia, PA – Just like the state slogan says, West Virginia's Bill Stewart was both wild and wonderful in his own way.
Stewart, who passed away of an apparent heart attack on May 21, was a home- grown treasure in the state of West Virginia as he led the Mountaineers to several wonderful moments as the football team's head coach during a three-year span. Unfortunately, the manner in which he fell from grace in Morgantown was a bit too wild for many to grasp, and unfortunately that downfall just might be the ruling factor in his legacy.
Born in Grafton, West Virginia in 1952 Stewart, for the most part, never strayed far from home during his 59 years. He played college ball at Fairmont State where he was a three-year letter winner and a team captain for the 1974 champions of the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and then moved on to Salem International University where he became an assistant coach.
Eventually Stewart did venture out west to join the staffs of both Arizona State and Air Force, but his first head coaching opportunity came back at VMI in the mid-1990s. Following a stretch with the Keydets he made a trek to the Great White North to try his hand in the Canadian Football League with both Montreal and Winnipeg, but those were short dalliances that ended once he was named an assistant at WVU under then head coach Don Nehlen.
Stewart was retained by Rich Rodriguez when the latter was named head coach following the 2000 campaign, and then took the reigns himself as the interim head coach when Rich Rod bolted for Michigan in an ill-fated decision. Stewart directed the Mountaineers to a significant upset of third-ranked Oklahoma (48-28) in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, earning him the respect of his players and fellow coaches, and in turn a permanent post with a five-year contract a day after the monumental triumph.
The coach went on to have three straight seasons with a 9-4 record, managing to slip by North Carolina by a single point (31-30) in the Meineke Car Care Bowl following his first full season at the helm.
However, Stewart was never quite able to get his team over the hump and into a BCS game and it may be because of that fact that his record of 15-6 in Big East play and 28-12 overall was never good enough for the people who really run the show in college football; the boosters.
Those fueling the WVU money machine never saw Stewart as a treasured commodity. Instead, he was little more than someone who fell into the position of head coach because he had paid his dues and was in the right place at the right time, and that simply wasn't good enough for the high-ranking financial supporters.
The Mountaineers bowed to NC State, 23-7, in an uninspired effort in the 2010 Champs Sports Bowl, prompting a shake-up in the coaching hierarchy. It was announced that Stewart would be retained for one more season after which he would step down and accept another position within the athletic department while giving way to incoming offensive coordinator, Dana Holgorsen.
The notion of having a head-coach-in-waiting has never been a good idea, but Stewart was left with no alternative -- or so it was believed.
Turns out, the wild ride was just beginning for coach Stewart as he went on the offensive, undercover of course, trying to dig up dirt on the man who was positioned to take over perhaps the only job Stewart really ever wanted.
A relationship that was strained from the very start, there were whispers that the coaching staff had become fractured, with position coaches trying to remain loyal to one side or the other. Needless to say, that lack of teamwork on behalf of the coaches wasn't going to work and it would inevitably send the wrong message to the players who struggled to find their comfort zone in such a tumultuous situation.
Reportedly, Stewart reached out to local journalists even before the arrival of Holgorsen in an effort to dig up dirt on his successor and begin a smear campaign, reminiscent of political mud-slinging, attempting to save his job. Unfortunately, coach Stewart's alleged backroom tactics became even more of a cover story and it was then that new WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck asked for Stewart to tender his resignation.
In other words, Luck was all but firing Stewart for what he deemed "conduct detrimental to the university" as he hoped the messy divorce would simply go away. The coach may have had the support of his players and the fans, but the bottom line still remains; college football is big business and Stewart lacked the charisma to lead the charge.
Somewhat ironic is the fact that Stewart collapsed while playing golf with former WVU AD Ed Pastilong, which meant he still had ties to the former administration at the school.
"Billy was a wonderful family man and my sympathies go out to the entire Stewart family," Pastilong said after Stewart's passing. "He was a true West Virginian and led WVU to a great Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma, which is still the most significant win in school history. He won 28 games in three years, and recruited some excellent student-athletes."
A wonderful man done in by a wild ending.