The death Monday of former West Virginia University Mountaineer football coach and New Martinsville native Bill Stewart at age 59 was a shock.
Stewart apparently died of a heart attack on Monday afternoon while playing golf at Stonewall Jackson Resort with longtime friend and former WVU Athletic Director Ed Pastilong.
The folksy Stewart was beloved in his state only partly because there was no bigger advocate for either West Virginia or WVU. Mostly Stew, as he was known, was admired because he was a genuinely nice man. With him, what you saw was what you got. We have read in the newspaper the stories from local residents meeting him for the first time and coming away impressed and surprised by the kindness he showed them.
This kindness was not something contrived after he became WVU's coach. It is who he was. Ravenswood High School basketball and football coach Mick Price knew Stewart from when both were at Sistersville High School and stayed friends in the decades following.
"Bill could remember every person he ever met," Price told the newspaper. "You'd be with Bill and run into somebody and he would know their name and where they were from."
Stewart was plucked from near-obscurity in 2007 following then-WVU head football coach Rich Rodriguez's sudden and tumultuous departure to Michigan after the last game of the season - a loss to Pitt in a game that could have sent the Mountaineers to the national championship game. Instead WVU landed in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma. Stewart was named interim coach and led WVU to an upset 48-28 win. And in the hours following that amazing win - and before the euphoria had faded - he was given the job on a permanent basis.
Unfortunately for Stewart, a 28-12 record in the following three seasons was not good enough to satisfy WVU fans who had become accustomed to Top-5 finishes under Rodriguez and were hungry for a national championship. Pastilong retiring and Oliver Luck succeeding him in 2010 probably sealed Stewart's fate as coach. Luck's hiring of Dana Holgorsen as both offensive coordinator with complete autonomy and as coach-in-waiting was an impossible situation for both men. The events that happened in the following weeks that led to his departure from WVU were unfortunate and out of character with the Bill Stewart we had come to know.
Whether Stewart was the right hire for WVU can be debated, but his record proved he was not overmatched in Division I football. If he was overmatched at anything it was his honesty, loyalty, faith and his love for West Virginia and WVU made him too much of an anomaly in today's multi-million-dollar world of college athletics.