Goodbye, Bill Stewart
[Note- Segments of this post appeared in the 2011 post entitled "The Bill Stewart Era- 2008-2011". I've updated it for obvious reasons.]
On Monday afternoon, just about every Mountaineer fan around the nation either sent or received a text message conveying a message that seemed hard to believe- Former WVU Head Coach Bill Stewart passed away after collapsing suddenly while golfing at Stonewall Jackson Resort.
In this era of instant communication and social media, reactions came pouring out from seemingly every corner of the country, from former players to fellow coaches to journalists to United States Senators. Most sentiments were eerily similar. "Really, really nice guy. Molded men. Thoughts and prayers to his wife and son."
Mountaineer fans flocked to message boards like the one on this site to express their own sentiments and remembrances, and Stewart's legendary "Leave No Doubt" speech before WVU's 2007-2008 Fiesta Bowl win over #3 Oklahoma was posted and reposted again by folks who simply couldn't believe that the guy who represented the State of West Virginia like no other university coach ever before was gone so suddenly.
Bill Stewart's finest moment as WVU Head Coach made its rounds following the stunning announcement that he was gone.
And as is only human, many writers, bloggers, and message board posters wanted to find a way to put into context what Bill Stewart's legacy would be now that his own time on Earth had been cut entirely too short.
Adding to the difficulty of summarizing his time at West Virginia was the circumstances that led to his departure from the program, which, truth be told, feels like it happened a lot longer ago than it did. It feels unseemly to analyze wins and losses by a football team playing a game, or to talk the events that led to his dismissal. A man has died, and it's only human nature to want to focus on all the positive aspects of his time with us rather than dwelling on the unpleasant times.
In recent days I've read just about every piece that's come out trying to capture the essence of both Bill Stewart as a man and Bill Stewart as a football coach at West Virginia University. From articles like this one from wvillustrated.com warmly remembering time spent with Coach Stewart to this one at scout.com referring the Bill Stewart era as the bridge to the Big 12, to this one from wvmetronews.com arguing that Stew deserved better than he got from WVU when it was over, to this bizarre article from msnsportsnet.com comparing Stewart to Harry Truman.
I think it's possible to acknowledge that Bill Stewart was a really nice guy and a really good representative of both the State of West Virginia and West Virginia University without the need to lionize his time as WVU head coach and the successes and failures both on and off the field.
He wasn't perfect (and wouldn't claim to be) and wasn't the modern incarnation of Bear Bryant. He was a uniquely cheerful and kind-hearted coach in an era that seems to produce neither. He obviously had a tremendous impact on hundreds if not thousands of young men who he molded to be better citizens, scholars, husbands, fathers, friends, Christians, and Americans. His success in that regard can be found in the warm remembrances and well-wishes of his players following the news of his passing.
Stewart will be remembered more for his role in shaping lives than in molding wins and losses.
As far as on-the-field accomplishments, the Bill Stewart Era will be remembered as a period of transition for the West Virginia Mountaineer football program. Stewart possessed none of the dynamism of either his predecessor or his successor, and largely stewarded the program in an adequate, if not always satisfactory manner for WVU fans who'd grown accustomed to BCS Bowl trips during the Rich Rodriguez era. But one thing was certain- Stewart sure did love West Virginia University, the Mountaineers, and the State of West Virginia.
At the time Stewart was hired, even though everyone involved understood that he wasn't necessarily going to revolutionize any aspect of Mountaineer football, a steady hand on the tiller seemed like the right direction for the program. Some complained at the time of the hiring and even more complained after seasons that seemed lackluster compared to other recent successes. Ultimately, Stewart's 28-12 career mark included a .700 winning percentage that ranks fifth among all WVU head coaches. The desire for more success than that seemed vindicated this past January when Stewart's replacement, Dana Holgorsen, guided Stewart's players to a Big East Championship and BCS Bowl win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl. (Stewart hadn't won a bowl since the 2008-2009 season.)
Off the field, Stewart graduated his players at a rate of 90%, which is exceptional in modern major college football, and was a major step up from where Rich Rodriguez left the program. Stewart understood that his "lads" were in Morgantown for more than just football, and prepared a great number of them for the life they would ultimately lead after they wore their Mountaineer jerseys for the last time.
In his 3 years as Head Coach, Stewart was a fine representative of the State of West Virginia, even while sometimes going on rants in press conferences that no one really understood. Stewart understood the importance of the program to the state in general, and also understood the pride that West Virginians have in their One True Team.
Say what you will about how he went out (we'll get to that in a bit), but we knew that being Head Coach of the West Virginia Mountaineers was just about as good of a gig as 'Ol Billy Stew could possibly imagine. WVU fans don't know yet if Dana Holgorsen has the same love of Old Gold 'N Blue deep in his heart or if his eyes start to wander at the first coaching vacancy at a Name School, but we knew with certainty where Bill Stewart's heart would always remain. When he said in his initial press conference that being Head Coach of WVU was his last job, we believed him.
Being the Head Coach of West Virginia University was Bill Stewart's dream job, and it seemed like he appreciated that fact every second of his time there.
Ultimately it was this passion for his job that led to his resignation a year before originally anticipated. While Dana Holgorsen was brought in to steer the Mountaineers in a different direction on the field after a third disappointing season, the Coach-In-Waiting succession plan was expected to work expressly BECAUSE Bill Stewart had a reputation as a high-character individual that would never put his own interests before the interests of the University.
The particulars of the events leading to Bill Stewart's eventual resignation can be found in this article from last year, but suffice it to say that in his own misguided way, it's very possible that Stewart believed he was acting in the best interest of his team, University, and state by providing information to the press that would prevent Dana Holgorsen from embarrassing the program after he eventually took over as head coach.
Maybe Stewart thought it was worth it even if he had to fall on the sword.
After news broke of his involvement in leaking damaging information about his successor to the press (and the subsequent public reaction clamoring for his head), Stewart agreed to a sizable buyout that ended his tenure as Mountaineer Head Coach. He did so in a respectable manner befitting a man who took so much pride in being a Mountaineer. While a press conference was held to anoint his successor, Stewart spoke only through a statement provided to the WVU Athletic Department:
"As I said on the day I was appointed head coach, what is best for WVU is my first priority. Today, I am doing what I believe to be in the best interest of the Mountaineer Nation."
Ultimately, Bill Stewart himself knew that his time at WVU was going to be analyzed mostly for what happened between the lines, but he judged his value by a far higher standard. As this quote from his obituary notes:
“I’m going to be judged on the wins. I know that. However, what I do with these young men’s lives, I’m being judged by the MASTER COACH. And that’s why I lay down every night and sleep very well.”
So it's possible to remember a man fondly without reconstructing history. Sure, many of us wanted more wins from our head football coach, but we also know that we can't forget that Bill Stewart set the standard for how damn proud the Head Coach of the West Virginia Mountaineers should be to hold that position.
He will be remembered for changing the lives of countless young men who, to a man, say that he made them better people.
He will be remembered as being as fine an ambassador for the State of West Virginia and West Virginia University as we will ever see.
He will be remembered for being a genuinely nice, caring, thoughtful, and gracious person and a devoted father, husband, and Christian.
And if you can say all those things about me when I shuffle off this mortal plane, I'll consider my life a success.
God bless Bill Stewart and his family. A grateful Mountaineer nation sends out its thoughts and prayers to you all.
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