MORGANTOWN - Billy Stewart was unlike anyone I ever met. If you knew him - and you probably did, if only from afar - he was probably like no one you ever met, either.Sure, that sounds like something you say about a guy who just died, which Stewart did Monday afternoon while playing golf.But in this case it's undeniable. There was no one quite like Bill Stewart.That he died from a massive heart attack is incredibly ironic, given that he had perhaps the biggest heart ever."I am honored to have had him as a friend and coach,'' former West Virginia running back Steve Slaton said. "I know every player that has had an opportunity to be around him would say the same.''As would everyone. As do I.Did Stewart have his faults? Sure. Chief among them was probably loyalty. It's why he didn't succeed to the level he, and others, would have hoped during his three seasons as West Virginia's head coach.
Think about it. Stewart hired a pretty good coaching staff when he was named Rich Rodriguez's successor after that stirring win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl at the end of the 2007 season. At least it was a staff good enough to recruit the likes of Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Bruce Irvin. Say what you will about the offensive genius of Dana Holgorsen, but so far he's working his magic with players who came on board in part because of Stewart.He made a critical error, though, in charting the direction of his offense. When it became apparent that the system he and Jeff Mullen had devised was not working at all, he stayed loyal to Mullen. That, as much as anything, forced Oliver Luck's hand. Luck saw the offense floundering and the fans jumping ship and decided to make a change.What happened afterward with the inability to coexist with Holgorsen and Stewart's eventual firing is really nothing more than a footnote. Remember, he was headed out anyway. And it was because of loyalty.OK, there was some stubbornness mixed in there, too, but it's still hard to fault a guy for being blindly loyal. It might not be a terrific trait to have in a football coach who needs to adapt, but in a man? Give me that every time.
Stewart also tended to rub some the wrong way because of his folksiness and his devotion to West Virginia. It came off as either an act or as just plain hokey. It probably was the latter. It was never, ever the former. Every mention of the Old Gold and Blue or his lads or his family - be it his football family or Karen and Blaine at home - was sincere.It's just the way Billy was, which is why he was one of a kind.No, he didn't always talk that way. Get on his bad side and Stewart could be brutal, but always in private. Cross him or question him for something that he felt strongly about and he would spend an eternity proving you wrong.I still remember the criticism he took for his clock management at the end of an overtime loss at Colorado during his first season. He was roundly panned for allowing the clock to run down and wasting an opportunity to drive for a winning field goal in regulation. I was one of the few in the media who agreed with his strategy. Had he quickened the pace he risked the chance of failing and having to give the ball back to the Buffaloes and present them with a chance to win.
A few weeks later, West Virginia played Connecticut in Hartford and won big, the team's fifth straight since that loss at Colorado. That evening I was still in Hartford writing. Stewart was already home on his back porch with a cold one, watching a team on TV try exactly what he was criticized for not doing at Colorado. The team ran out of downs, had a punt blocked and lost in regulation.My phone rang."Gee, maybe that's what I should have done,'' Stewart said sarcastically on the other end. "What do you think they'd have said then?''Those times were rare, though. Mostly, Bill Stewart was about being positive and upbeat and loyal. He probably was a bit too much of all of those for a head coach, who needs to tilt more toward realism and practicality and possess a cutthroat mindset.The bottom line is that all of that folksiness and the positive vibe were real, the way his tenure ended notwithstanding. No one cared more for the school at which he coached or the state in which he lived, period. It's not even arguable. Even Bob Huggins, whose passion for West Virginia knows no bounds, will admit that he paled in comparison to Stewart.And there will never be another quite like him.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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