Gone But Not Forgotten
Reprinted by permission from
the St. Marys Oracle
The smell of popcorn is in the air, the marching bands are ready to strike up their school’s fight song and fans across the country are ready for some football.
But for folks in the Mid-Ohio Valley, the upcoming season won’t quite be the same as it will be the first without beloved coach Bill Stewart.
Coach Stewart passed away May 21 when he suffered a massive heart attack while on a golf outing at Stonewall Resort. His unexpected death sent shockwaves that were felt around the country as he had touched countless lives during a coaching career that stretched to all points of the United States and even into Canada.Coach Stewart’s heart, however, belonged to his home state of West Virginia. His roots were always firmly planted in the Mid-Ohio Valley. “He never forgot where he came from,” Ted Stewart said. “He was at a lot of different places, but he never forgot where home was.”
Ted Stewart, Coach Stewart’s older brother by two years, said being the head coach at West Virginia University was always his brother’s dream. It was a dream that he turned into a reality in 2008 and lived out for the next three seasons.
Ted Stewart, who now resides in Raleigh, NC, said he always knew his brother would end up in the coaching fraternity.
“After Bill had played his last football game, that (coaching) was pretty much his ambition,” he said. “He always wanted to be a coach and, for as long as I can remember, he wanted to coach at West Virginia University.”
Coach Stewart was always the passionate and caring man that Mountaineer fans came to adore, according to his brother. That was the result of growing up in the Mid-Ohio Valley as part of a close-knit family.
“We were very lucky. We were blessed with loving and caring parents and family that helped mold us as we grew up,” Ted Stewart said. “We had uncles, aunts, and cousins that set good examples for us and made sure we stayed on the right path.”
Coach Stewart was born in Grafton in 1952, but he and his brother grew up in New Martinsville under the watchful eyes of their parents, Blaine and Roberta. The family had strong ties to Pleasants County as his grandparents lived in Bens Run. His birth announcement appeared in the June 26, 1952, edition of the The St. Marys Oracle.
“Bill was a lot like my grandfather (Oliver). They were both just genuinely happy people and they never met a stranger,” Ted Stewart said. While his family made a life in New Martinsville, his uncles lived nearby in Paden City and Sistersville. It was a musical family and Stewart’s father and uncles were good enough to play regularly on Parkersburg radio. His father also appeared on the widely popular Wheeling Jamboree and is a member of the West Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame.
Although he seldom spoke about it, Coach Stewart was an outstanding musician in his own right.
“My brother was the most well-rounded person I knew,” Ted Stewart said. “He was tremendous on the drums and never had one lesson. He could also play the guitar and played in bands. He was a tremendously hard worker and saved up to buy his own drum set.”
But sports were Coach Stewart’s first love. Although not the biggest or most talented athlete, Stewart transformed himself into an outstanding football player. He also had a passion for baseball.
Diana (Stewart) Adkins of St. Marys said that love of sports was evident at a young age. She grew up in Sistersville and was Coach Stewart’s first cousin (their fathers were brothers).
“Billy was in our house as much as we were in his,” Adkins remembers. “He never knew a stranger. He hardly ever slept, but when he did, he talked in his sleep. One time when I was there, he played baseball in his sleep. I thought that was the funniest thing.”
After a successful high school career, Coach Stewart attended West Virginia University for a year and played on the Mountaineers’ freshman football team for legendary coach Bobby Bowden. He later transferred to Fairmont State where he was a three-year letterman and captain of the Falcons’ WVIAC championship team in 1974.
He graduated from Fairmont State with an education degree in 1975. He followed his brother to Fairmont State and the duo played alongside each other on the offensive line. That was the only way it could have been, according to Ted Stewart.
“We played side-by-side on the offensive line. I was the best man at his wedding and he was the best man at my wedding. I named my first child after him. We weren’t only brothers, we were best friends,” he said.
Former St. Marys High School Head Coach Bill Hanlin remembers coaching against the Stewart brothers in college. Hanlin left St. Marys following the 1965 season and was busy building Glenville State College into an NAIA power. The Pioneers had several memorable match ups with Fairmont State.
“He was a pretty good football player in his own right,” Hanlin recalls. “He wasn’t real big, especially for a lineman, but he wasn’t afraid to stick his nose in there and mix it up. He wasn’t afraid to hit you.”
Hanlin only met Coach Stewart briefly as a player. The two later developed a close personal relationship as they frequently crossed paths during their coaching careers.
“I only talked to him a couple times when he was playing, but even then you could tell he was a different breed,” Hanlin said. “He knew he wanted to go somewhere and you could tell he was going to get there.”
Coach Stewart finally “got there” on Jan. 3, 2008, when he guided West Virginia to a stunning 48-28 victory over heavily-favored Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz.
That was a tumultuous time in Morgantown. Coach Stewart had just been named interim head coach after Rich Rodriguez bolted for Michigan at the end of the regular season.
Rodriguez’s departure came on the heels of arguably the most difficult loss in school history. Playing for a chance to compete for the national championship, the Mountaineers suffered a heart-wrenching 13-9 loss to underdog Pittsburgh.
While Rodriguez and much of his coaching staff were hopping the next bus for Ann Arbor, Coach Stewart stayed behind to rally the troops. He was the perfect man for the job. It was perfect timing.
Ted Stewart called the victory over Oklahoma the “crowning achievement” of his brother’s life. He was not surprised by the manner in which Coach Stewart handled himself and the team during that difficult time.
Coach Stewart always kept things in his life in perspective and that is why he successfully got his team prepared to play that game, according to Ted Stewart. He drew on the wisdom he gained while growing up along the Ohio River to keep his team calm and focused.
“He was asked by a reporter if he had ever been in big games,” Ted Stewart said. “My brother told him, “Sure I have. I played at Magnolia High School and we opened the season against the Parkersburg Big Reds.
“That’s the way Bill looked at things. He kept things in perspective and was able to take past experiences and apply them to things in the present.”
Just hours after the Fiesta Bowl victory, Coach Stewart had the “interim” tag removed from his title. He was officially living out his lifelong dream. Adkins said it was never a secret that Coach Stewart wanted to coach at WVU. In fact, she and her husband, Rev. Gene Adkins, were with him at his father’s house in January 2000 when then-WVU coach Don Nehlen called and offered him the job as quarterbacks coach.
“I think he took a salary cut, but he wanted to get back home,” Adkins said.
Coach Stewart remained in that position for seven years and moved to the position of associate head coach in 2007 under Rodriguez.
Jeff Sole, a 2003 graduate of St. Marys High School, was at WVU during the transition from Rodriguez to Coach Stewart. He played football and graduated from Marietta College before moving to Morgantown for post-graduate work and served as a student manager under Rodriguez.
Sole secured a job as a graduate assistant shortly after Coach Stewart was officially hired as head coach. He remembers it being a “crazy” time, but said he always got the sense that Coach Stewart was in control.
“I was there for about two or three months by myself as a graduate assistant with him and that was when he was bringing in coach (Doc) Holliday, coach (Chris) Beatty and coach (Lonnie) Galloway. So I was there before some of the others were even there. That was pretty interesting,” Sole said.
At first, Sole worked with the offense, but once Holliday arrived his role changed.
“Once Doc got there, he kind of took me under his wing and wanted me to work with recruiting, so that’s what I really started doing,” he said. “I worked with him and Coach Stewart quite a bit as far as the recruiting side of it.” Sole said the football program under Coach Stewart’s direction was much different that it was under the Rodriguez regime.
“I remember the first meeting that Coach Stewart held with all the players as far as being head coach. Coach Rod was totally different as a coach,” Sole remembered.
Basically, Coach Stewart told all of his players ‘those days are over. I’m going to care about you and I’m going to treat you as one of my sons.’ he said, ‘I’m going to be hard on you at times and then at other times, I’ll hug you and love on you.’ But he said there are going to be times when it’s going to be tough.”
Sole said the “tough side” of Coach Stewart is something the public seldom saw. “He was hard on them at times. He suspended kids, he kicked them off the team, he took scholarships from certain kids,” Sole said. “You never saw those things in the paper. It didn’t hit the media and it didn’t hit the mainstream because that’s not the way he operated.”
Ted Stewart agreed. “His players knew where they stood with him and what was expected of them,” he said. “He never cussed and he was never a screamer, but he pushed them to their fullest extent. He developed them to be more than they ever thought they could be. He just had that knack for getting the most out of his players.”
But for the most part, Coach Stewart was the “humble and down-to-earth” man that fans came to know and love. “Coach Stewart was a great guy. He was passionate about West Virginia and he was a father figure to all of his players. That’s pretty much how he treated them,” Sole said.
The manner in which Stewart interacted with the team was a stark contrast to the way Rodriguez handled his business. “Coach Rod was a great coach, but it was hard for the players to get to know the coaches and really feel comfortable to come in and talk to them,” Sole said. “That makes it tough because a lot of these players are coming from different states and different homes as far as single moms and single dads and some of them even live with their grandparents.
“With Coach Rod, they never really got to have a relationship with a guy, or a coach, where they could come in and talk to them about anything. And that’s how Coach Stew was. He basically had an open door policy for any player and that’s how he was with the parents as well.”
For Sole, the personal interest Coach Stewart took in his players is why he was such an outstanding recruiter. “The parents loved him and the players loved him. When he came into a home, he kept it real. He didn’t try to change who he was to impress them,” Sole said.
“He pretty much said, ‘I’m a country boy from New Martinsville. I grew up in this state, I love this state and I want your son to come play for us.’ He never lied to them and he never portrayed West Virginia as a place that it wasn’t.”
Sole said he is excited that the Mountaineer program is continuing to ascend to new heights under second-year head coach Dana Holgorsen. He was quick to point out that most of the players making an impact as WVU embarks on its first year in the Big 12 Conference were brought in by Coach Stewart.
“You look at the offensive line and you look at Geno (Smith), Stedman (Bailey), and Tavon (Austin), those were all kids that we recruited within the first two or three years,” Sole said. “I mean I picked half of those kids up at the airport. That was one of the first recruiting classes that was in the Top 20 ever.” Adkins said her cousin always had a knack for finding talent.
“He wanted quality guys, not just good football players,” she said. “And he had a way of knowing which ones were going to be the best. He told me a long time ago that Geno Smith was going to be great. He could see that before he ever played a down at WVU.”
Mike Hanlin, a 1981 graduate of St. Marys High School and a three-sport star for the Blue Devils, worked with Coach Stewart for a short period. Hanlin’s stint as a graduate assistant at the University of North Carolina overlapped Coach Stewart’s stay at the school as a line coach.
“Guys genuinely liked playing for him,” Hanlin said. “He demanded a lot from them, but he always treated them with respect. He would yell and get on them, but he never did so in a way that was degrading or was putting them down.
“That’s why he developed so many relationships that lasted throughout his life. Guys like Harris Burton loved playing for him and kept in touch after football. They loved the man.”
Burton was one of Coach Stewart’s prize pupils at UNC and went on to enjoy a long NFL career with the San Francisco 49ers.
Burton was just one of a countless number of players and coaches that Coach Stewart influenced during his career. When he was the head coach at VMI in the mid-1990s, he gave current Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin his first job as an assistant. And, of course, all Mountaineer fans remember the close relationship between Coach Stewart and players like Pat White, Steve Slaton, Owen Schmitt, and Noel Devine.
Sole said the reason Coach Stewart impacted the lives of so many players and coaches was his ability to separate life from football. “The way Rich Rod was is that you would walk in and the secretaries would literally hold a thumbs up or thumbs down to let you know whether you could talk to him or not,” Sole said. “To me, that’s not the way I would run things. That’s just not my type of style. Coach Stew was the complete opposite.”
“Coach Stewart was the type of guy that if you had a death in the family, or if something was going on, he wanted to know about it. He would say, ‘Hey, go take care of your family or your wife and kids because that’s more important.’ Even though he was the head coach, he still took care of the little things that mattered.”
Bill Hanlin saw an example of that in the spring of 2010 when he traveled to Morgantown to invite Coach Stewart to be the guest speaker at the annual Boys and Girls Club’s Steak Dinner. “He never hesitated. He gave us a list of dates that he would be available and said pick one and I’ll be there,” Hanlin said.
Adkins said Coach Stewart loved to interact with the public in those types of settings. The weekend he spoke at the Boys and Girls Club event, he also made a stop in Sistersville to speak at an alumni function in that community. Ted Stewart said his brother always understood that doing “the little things” were important. He said Coach Stewart was a “self-made coach.”
“My brother understood what it would take for him to be successful and he was willing to do the things that he needed to do to climb up the ladder,” Ted Stewart said. “Coaching staffs change so quickly and he was willing to move around to find the best opportunities for him. He was willing to accept things that might not look good at the time to get closer to his dream.”
Ted Stewart said he always felt his brother was underrated as a teacher of the game, especially when it came to the X’s and O’s. “There was no doubt that Bill understood football and was good at what he did,” he said. “He was a very good offensive coordinator in the Canadian Football League and that was wide open football.”
The secret to that success was Coach Stewart’s ability to adapt. “Bill felt that you don’t have a system and try to fit your players into it. He was of the mindset that you adjust your offense and defense to the talent you have,” he said.
That line of thinking was the main reason why WVU won nine games in all three of Coach Stewart’s seasons as head coach. His 28-12 record and .700 winning percentage ranks fifth all-time at WVU.
“And he did that while losing NFL talent like Pat White, Steve Slaton, Owen Schmitt, and Darius Reynaud along the way,” Ted Stewart said. “He pretty much saved the program from what probably would have been three or four down years.”
Although the affable coach is no longer with us, Coach Stewart’s presence will still be felt on Friday nights this fall. His son Blaine is a talented wide receiver at Morgantown High School. Adkins said his son helped mold Coach Stewart into the man he became.
“He said when he had Blaine it was the first time he thought about how he should really treat his players,” she said. “He always said he tried to treat players the same way he would expect another coach to treat his son.
“Coach Stewart never wavered on the commitment he made to his players. Sole respected the way he handled players who suffered career-ending injuries. “For him, when he was recruiting a kid, it was for all four years,” he said. “So the kids that did get hurt permanently, he let them keep their scholarship until they graduated. To me that meant a lot.”
Sole also picked up some “little tricks” from Coach Stewart that he hopes to use as his professional career progresses. Sole was an assistant at St. Marys in recent seasons, but is not involved with team this year as he is focusing on other areas of his life.
“I always thought it was weird at first, but every person he met for the first time, he would shake their hand and then say their name four or five times within the next two or three sentences because what he was doing was remembering their name by doing that,” he said. “And whether it was one or two years later, he would remember their name just by their face.”
And once Coach Stewart got to know someone, he was their loyal friend for life. “He was the type of guy that when he shook your hand and looked you in the eye, it was better than a signed document,” Sole said.
Coach Stewart kept in touch with Sole even after he left Morgantown. They last talked via text messaging about two months before he passed away. “It was just neat that he kept in touch, even after I had left,” he said. “Once a Mountaineer, always a Mountaineer Coach Stew truly believed that.”
The 2012 football season will still provide its share of excitement just like always. Fans will celebrate the successes of their favorite teams and lament their failures. But football won’t be quite the same without Coach Stewart.
His presence is still felt through the many friends he left behind. His legacy lives on through the many lives he touched from players fighting for jobs in the NFL to the ordinary fans he met along the way.
“Bill was a shining light that had a knack of making everyone around him a better person,” Bill Hanlin said. “He might be gone, but he is one of those people that will never be forgotten.”
For Ted Stewart, he still cherishes every day he got to spend with his brother and best friend. “Bill was just a special man. He was one of a kind,” he said. “I miss him every day. I’ve always said there was only one man better than him and that was our Lord, Jesus Christ.”