New Martinsville lost one of its favorite sons and the entire state of West Virginia lost a beloved coach Monday when former West Virginia University Head Football Coach Bill Stewart died of an apparent heart attack.
Stewart, 59, was golfing at Stonewall Jackson Resort with former WVU Athletic Director Ed Pastilong and Nick Mavromatis, director of player development at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort in Chester. The golf outing was part of a West Virginia Hospitality and Tourism Association conference. Pastilong has said Stewart was in a good mood and gave no indication of feeling ill. But in the middle of telling a coaching story Stewart collapsed and, despite earnest efforts by Mavromatis, emergency medical personnel, and staff at Stonewall Jackson Memorial Hospital, was never revived.
In the wake of the terrible news, the overwhelming sentiment is sorrow for Stewart's beloved family-namely his wife Karen and son Blaine. Family was very important to Stewart and he emphasized to his players the need to appreciate and cherish loved ones.
Former head WVU Football Coach Bill Stewart runs on to the field at Mylan Puskar Stadium. (Photo by Amy Witschey)
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said of the loss, "Bill was a proud West Virginian in every sense of the word, and he was the best cheerleader this state ever had. For me and Gayle, our hearts go out to Bill's wife, Karen, and his son, Blaine. I hope that they know just how much Bill meant to the people of this state and how much we all will miss him."
"My heart aches for his wife, Karen, and their son, Blaine, and we should all keep the Stewart family in our thoughts and prayers," said U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).
"Coach Stewart brought a new found pride to the Mountaineer faithful as he led the football team in both competition and character," Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said. "Joanne and I are deeply saddened by the sudden loss of Coach Stewart and offer our sympathies to his family. Together, we ask that Mountaineers everywhere keep the Stewart family in your thoughts and prayers during this sad time."
Stewart joined the Mountaineers in 2000 and served as interim coach after the abrupt departure of Rich Rodriguez at the end of the 2007 football season. Stewart coached that team to a 48-28 victory in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl against the Oklahoma Sooners, ranked third that year. The win was a great gridiron and moral success. During the victory celebration Quarterback Pat White declared that Stewart should be their next head coach. The next morning that was the case as then Governor Manchin announced his appointment in a press conference from Phoenix, Ariz.
He followed up the Oklahoma victory with three consecutive nine-win seasons, including trips to the Meineke Car Care, Gator, and Champs Sports bowls. Stewart's nine victories in 2008 represented the most ever by a first-year Mountaineer coach, and his 28-12 career mark included a .700 winning percentage that ranks fifth among all WVU grid coaches.
Stewart coached quarterback White, considered one of the greatest players in school history; 14 of his West Virginia players were drafted by NFL teams; and he led two Mountaineer squads to Top 25 finishes in 2008 and 2009.
Stewart resigned his head coaching post last June, to be replaced by Dana Holgorsen the same day. Stewart signed a six-year contract in September 2008, but Athletic Director Oliver Luck changed the agreement in 2010. Luck hired Holgorsen to serve as offensive coordinator and head coach-in-waiting, while Stewart was to serve his final season in 2011. Six months later, both Stewart and Holgorsen made unwanted headlines in the weeks leading up to the coaching change.
But in the wake of his untimely death, Stewart is remembered as a great man, role model, and West Virginian.
Magnolia Head Football Coach Mark Batton called Stewart "a very, very special man." Saying he is the kind of man a person might only get lucky enough to know once in a lifetime, Batton said, "I feel that Coach Stewart stood for everything that's right in the world. He loved the Lord and his family; he was dedicated to his job. We are proud of what he accomplished and never forgot where he came from."
Passing on that heritage, MHS Principal Kathi Schmalz said she made sure the students never forgot where Bill Stewart came from. "We've used Bill a lot as an example to our students that the sky is the limit-that if you dream and work hard enough, you can accomplish anything," said Schmalz. "Bill Stewart walked the halls of MHS and he went out in the world and did something great.
"He was just a role model for kids, for young people, and for those who had an opportunity to learn from Bill, they are very fortunate," she continued.
Perhaps largely because he is also a coach, Batton couldn't help but think about the many players Stewart influenced on the football field. "Just think about the lives this guy has touched," he said. "He was a great builder of character."
Reading the comments from his ex-players shows the influence he had on them, pointed out Batton. Some of those comments put on social media after his death include "Broken and I don't know when these tears will stop, but I'm gonna miss that man," said Indianapolis Colts kicker Pat McAfee. "Such a great man a true gentleman in every sense," wrote Steve Slaton, now with the Miami Dolphins. "I'm honored to have had him as a coach in my career prayers are with his family. True mountaineer Coach Stew was, scouts honor." Former linebacker J.T. Thomas, who said it was WVU's greatest loss, added, "He was a great leader of young men."
He even helped lead the young men of the MHS football team in his own way. Batton noted how Stewart opened up WVU's facilities for them to practice on and made our players feel right at home and expressed the pride he had in them. "He was tickled to death when he got to see the guys and knew their parents and siblings," he said.
"Losing Bill Stewart, we lost a very, very special member of the Magnolia family. Bill never forgot where he came from. His love of his high school, his town, this community, went everywhere with him," said Schmalz.
At his alma mater, Magnolia High School, the flag is at half mast in his honor and the sign out front reads, "Remembering Bill Stewart Class of 1970, a true Blue Eagle"
Fellow Magnolia Class of 1970 classmate Dave Jolliffe wrote on Facebook Monday, "Lots of folks in the Magnolia Class of 1970 knew Bill (never Billy) as 'Dirt'. It wasn't because he played dirty-nothing could be farther from the truth. There was a commercial playing in the late 1970s that characterized some detergent as 'stronger than dirt'. That's where the name came from. If St. Peter's got a football team, he's got Ray Keener and Bill Stewart as pulling guards, opening holes for Doug Douglass. Blessed are the dead."
"Bill never met a stranger. He always, always made time for everyone. As a personal friend, I'm going to miss him a lot. He was always there when we needed him," said Schmalz.
New Martinsville resident Robby Parsons shared a story of just how Stewart was there for his dad, Chester Parsons, when he was at the end of his time on earth. "My dad was the biggest Mountaineer fan I knew," began Parsons, who said his dad always said he knew Stewart. So when Chester was very sick with cancer in 2009, he decided to call WVU before they played Louisville and try to see if he could get him an autographed football or some such memento.
To Robby's surprise, Bill Stewart personally got on the phone with him and invited them to come to Morgantown for the Louisville game. He offered free seats, to let Chester meet the whole team, even offered to have him come out on the field with him when the team ran out onto it. While they arrived too late for the opening ceremonies, Robby said their free seats were waiting for them, along with an autographed football. After the game another football with signatures from Stewart and Defensive Coordinator Jeff Casteel, of Paden City, arrived in the mail.
But Stewart's kindness didn't stop there. Periodically Stewart would send Chester get well cards. "Then one day, out of the blue, we got a get well soon card from Quincy Wilson," said Robby who knew it had to be Stewart behind the unexpected note. "Obviously Bill hooked that up. "I just thought that was amazing. It touched me then and it touched me Monday too."
Robby reflected that although Chester and Stewart came from "different sides of the tracks, Bill Stewart treated my dad like gold."
Friday there will be an opportunity for the local community, and any who wish to attend, to show that same kind of consideration to Stewart and his family. At 4 p.m. an honorary salute for Stewart will take place at the Magnolia High School Football Field. Schmalz said it will not be a major ceremony. "We have offered this because the community needs to say their goodbyes," said Schmalz. "It is the community's opportunity to pay their respects to Bill as he takes one last trip down the Magnolia High School football field."
For further funeral arrangements, see his obituary on page 2A.