Like the rest of you, I was stunned- I mean, absolutely stunned- to hear the news of former West Virginia coach Bill Stewart’s passing yesterday afternoon. It was the kind of information you see come across the wire, look at, process, look at again and then double-check to see if somehow you’ve misread something.
Bill Stewart? The football coach? Is dead? No, it can’t be true.
Only it is, with the timing and circumstances the most shocking part of all. The guy was seemingly healthy (he was playing golf at the time of his heart attack), relatively young (at just 59) and was a part of our everyday lives as college football fans as recently as a year ago. He wasn’t some coaching legend dropping dead after years of retirement obscurity. This news didn’t come after a long battle with an incurable illness. This was Bill Stewart- the guy who drove us nuts as college football fans every Saturday as recently as two years ago- being taken from us far too soon. The news is as sad, as sad gets.
With the information now a few hours old, and folks starting to share their stories, most every Bill Stewart obituary starts off by talking about Bill Stewart the person, not the football coach. Ask anyone who knew Stewart, and they’ll tell you he was a good guy, no, a great guy, in a profession that’s filled with barely any of them. In an off-season where Bobby Petrino got fired for literally riding into the sunset with a woman who wasn’t his wife, the “worst” things Stewart was known for (mainly, boneheaded decisions on Saturdays) really seem kind of trivial, don’t they?
The stories of Stewart’s generosity were legendary, and my favorites usually came from the TV crews who covered West Virginia games. In a profession where everyone is supposed to be even-keeled and objective, every TV crew treated Stewart the way a teacher treats the student who sits in the front row and puts an apple on their desk every morning. They wanted to be critical of Bill Stewart, they wanted to be tough on him, they wanted to call him out for some things… but how could they? The man was just so darn nice! After a while, all West Virginia broadcasts began to sound the same, usually going a little something like… “Wow, curious decision by Bill Stewart to go for it on fourth down right there… by the way, did we mention Stewart’s wife gave us homemade cookies before our production meeting on Friday morning? Man were those delicious!”
And really, that was Stewart in a nutshell right there. He was more Mr. Rogers than Mr. Saban (who ironically, is also a West Virginia native), more like the uncle who pulls quarters out of your ears than head football coach at a major university.
Aside from being a “nice guy,” Stewart’s career at West Virginia was basically defined by two things, one really good, and one, really, really bad. First, the good, which was the shocking, stunning win he got as an interim coach in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, a game that landed him the head coaching job, and in the end, ended up being the signature win of his time in Morgantown. If there’s one way to best describe “Bill Stewart the coach” that might be it right there: His biggest win was his first on the job. From a football standpoint, it was all downhill from there.
The second signature moment of his time in Morgantown was the equally shocking and stunning way with which he left the university. You all know the stories by now, so there’s no need to get too deep into them here, but they essentially boil down to Dana Holgorsen, a couple late nights in West Virginia casinos and allegations that Stewart tried to smear Holgorsen’s name in an ill-fated attempt to keep his job. How much of it is true, few (if anyone) other than Stewart knew at the time. None will know going forward.
Regardless, if you’re trying to pigeonhole Stewart’s career based on two, big-picture bullet point issues, don’t do it. You’re wrong. Instead, dig deeper. As the old saying goes, “the devil is in the details,” and in the case of Stewart’s coaching career, the “details” come in everything that happened between that epic night in Tempe, and his embarrassing resignation from the school. Some of it was good. A lot was bad. But most was more complicated than most understand.
Strictly from a coaching perspective, I think the best (and fairest) way to describe Stewart’s three years at the helm in Morgantown would be to say he “wasn’t good enough.” After all, it’s hard to call a guy who averaged nine wins per year “bad,” but calling him “elite” or even “good” (especially relative to what he inherited) wouldn’t be fair either. In essence, Stewart was given the keys to a Maserati, and while he didn’t crash it, he ran over enough potholes, curbs and errant squirrels to greatly diminish its value.
Looking at his coaching epitaph (an ironic term to use today), the 28 wins he got in three plus years at the school seem good, especially knowing there were two bowl game victories mixed in too. Then again, the sub context here is that those bowl games were second-tier, after disappointing regular seasons in which Stewart’s teams never seemed to fully reach their potential. Whether we want to admit it or not, outside of that Fiesta Bowl, Stewart’s losses stick out much more than the wins, with poor preparation, poor execution and poor decision-making overriding the fact that in any given year he was on the job, Stewart had the best team in his conference. Reflecting back, the idea that Stewart was never able to win a Big East title with the talent that he had (and that Rich Rodriguez left him) is simply mind-boggling, further muddied by the fact that those conference titles were there for the taking (as someone who watched every game of UConn’s 2010 Big East “championship” season, just trust me on that one).
It probably didn’t help Stewart’s legacy that his predecessor, Rodriguez, won the Big East right before skipping town, and that Holgorsen grabbed another right after Stewart was forced out. Simply put, there are some guys who are meant to be head coaches, and others who aren’t. Stewart was much more the latter than the former.
Then again, there is one part of Stewart’s legacy that no one is talking about, and that’s that from day one, hour one, minute one, he had a burden on his shoulders unlike anyone in college football. Bill Stewart didn’t just have to carry a football program, on his back, and it went beyond West Virginia University, and the state West Virginia itself. He was a man who had an entire conference’s livelihood resting on his frail shoulders too. That’s something Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Chip Kelly have never had to say.
Look, I’m a Big East guy, and lived, game-by-game, play-by-play, through the Rich Rodriguez and Bill Stewart eras at West Virginia. And even I, as a writer, cannot fully explain exactly how important West Virginia’s program was to the sake of the entire conference. For West Virginia (and in turn Bill Stewart), it wasn’t “only” about being the flagship school in a state where the football stadium holds more people than any individual town does. This was about being the flagship football program in a conference without an identity.
And it’s that fact alone which made Stewart’s time in Morgantown so complex.
Yes, West Virginia fans expected him to win, but Syracuse, UConn and South Florida fans needed him to win too. At the end of the day, West Virginia was the only thing separating the Big East from the “big boy” table and total college football obscurity. Granted, Cincinnati did carry the conference for a few years under Brian Kelly, but at the same time everyone knew that- with all due respect to the Bearcats- it wasn’t going to last forever. Eventually, Kelly was going to move on, and Cincinnati simply didn’t have the resources to stay in the Top 10 nationally forever.
But West Virginia? Well, crap, that was a totally different ballgame. The Mountaineers were a football-first school, in a football-crazed state, where the state university was the biggest game in town. West Virginia? Those guys could compete nationally long-term, those guys could stay in the Top 10, those guys could play with anyone, if only they could get some good coaching on Saturday’s. Again, Syracuse, UConn and Rutgers were allowed to just be ok in any given year. For the sake of everyone, in the conference though, West Virginia had to be great. It was that nearly impossible burden that Stewart carried with him every day on the job.
And it’s because of that, that Stewart’s coaching career is tougher to quantify than it appears on paper. Yes, he was never able to take his team and program to the levels we all thought they should be at, but he was also given a job that he probably under qualified for, under expectations that were nearly impossible to appease. At about 100 of the other 120 schools in Division I college football, what Stewart did between the white lines would’ve been good enough. West Virginia just didn’t happen to be one of those schools.
Then again, let’s look at this big picture. Bill Stewart is no longer with us, and if the worst thing we can say about him in death is “he didn’t win enough football games” then what are we really talking about here?
As I said at the beginning, Bill Stewart was defined by a lot of things, yet incredibly, being a “football coach” wasn’t necessarily at the top of the list. Stewart was a family man before a football man, a friend before coach and a good guy before a good tactician. Sure it sucked for a lot of people in real-time, but in the big picture it really is a heck of a way to be remembered. The memories of wins and losses have already begun to fade. But the memory of how Bill Stewart treated people is only beginning.
RIP Coach Stewart.
You’re already missed.
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Good points here Aaron. I like that you brought in a larger conference perspective and the totality of pressure on Stew. It was enormous. I think it was Brian Bennett at ESPN who made the point that Stew lacked the obsessive attention to detail that characterizes great coaches. This is also known as "being an a-hole." Stew unfortunately came along a a time when expectations for WVU fans were at an all-time high and possibly unreasonable. I like to think he steered the ship and kept it off the rocks for three years; and that's just from a football perspective. Off the field he had the opportunity to touch thousands of lives of players & fans - an opportunity he would have never gotten without a head coaching gig. They say the Lord works in mysterious ways. If triple 9 win seasons was "the price to pay" for Stew to get the chance to spread his bright light on the world, I think we came out OK here. The world is better having seen Bill Stewart as a head coach. This is a fact. Thanks Stew.
I'm so glad you were able to weigh in with insight here. Like you, I saw that Bennett quote, and I had the exact same reaction: Sure, he didn't win 11 football games a year, but what's the cost of doing that? Being a jerk? Having no interpersonal relationships? Not fully living life? And he was hardly terrible either; 28 wins is nothing to scoff at.
More importantly, as the news has come out, more and more people have shared insight like yours. That Stewart was a great man, a good friend and someone who truly made the university and the state proud.
At the end of the day, there are a lot of people who win a lot of football games. Not many are revered like that though.
Thanks again, my man.Aaron
I can't believe you brought up that "Maserti" stupidity. Rodriguez left a half-stripped sports car at best. Consider that RR's teams were only "good" for most of his tenure. They didn't take the next step until events forced him to use White and Slaton in the Louisville game, a move that finally put the four necessary parts together: White, Slaton, Reynaud, and Schmitt. From that point on, the team scored an average of about 10 point more per game and started winning bowl games. However, Pitt and USF had already started showing how to beat RR's "one-read" offense, so the writing was on the wall.
For Stewart's first year, he lost Schmitt, Reynaud, and Slaton. While Devine replaced Slaton, there was no one ready to step up in the other spots. The loss of Schmitt alone was the difference between one or two additional wins that year. Meanwhile, White was having to learn a multiple-read offense for the first time and had receivers more trained in blocking than route running. Add to that the fact that Stewart had to move several players from offense to defense (including Tandy and Hogan) in order to cover gaps there created by inconsistent recruiting under RR. Most of the players moved had been recruited as QB prospects, creating an experience gap at that position.
Look at the bowl game that year to see what happened when the offense finally had things in place. It was beautiful.
Having reached that point, graduation figures in again. Pat White and 4 of 5 starting linemen were gone. Jarrett Brown had some experience and great athletic ability, but he never adjusted to multiple reads, especially after a couple of nasty hits early in the season. Meanwhile, there was no one with any experience to put in there since it had been absolutely necessary to move 3 QB prospects to defense.
And we know the story of that O-line. They lacked experience and were still primarily guys recruited for the RR offense, which was strictly zone blocking. Also, Stewart and his coaches had a very short recruiting season that first year, so the class was small. Unlike the pro game, you can't just toss out a bunch of money to bring in experienced free agents to fill gaps. It has to be done within strict limits, and that took time because there were holes to fill everywhere.
Receivers were a continuing problem as well. First, the ones from RR knew blocking and bubblescreens, little more. Those brought in were talented but inexperienced. This time, they needed work on both routes and blocking. As with most spread systems, on a quick pass to the flat, one good block means 5 yards, two means 10 or more. Still learning the system, the receivers were often a step slow to their block, and that step meant a big gain became little or a loss.
But Stewart and Mullen did something a lot of coaches won't. They learned and adapted. They simplified the system, shifted to doing whatever each player did best while they weren't yet ready to make the whole system work. And when necessary, they went to straight power football. They got results. By the 2010 season, the parts were in place, and the only thing missing was experience at a few key points and maybe one more good lineman. Even before that season, Stewart said that 2011 would be a better chance at a national title. He understood the game and was honest.
Now, look back. In the CO game, Stewart played for a last field goal. People criticized his clock management, but it went almost exactly as needed. Things weren't perfect, but they were in range for a field goal with one of the best kickers in school history. He missed. Move to the Cincy game when the defense makes a magnificent goal line stand, and the replay officials overturn a call on no evidence and give Cincy a touchdown and the game. Every season there are several cases where things went wrong that had nothing to do with coaching.
Anyone who follows sports knows that the difference between a great season and something less is a bounce of the ball here and there. Sometimes you get streaks where the bounces go against you no matter how well you prepare. Real fans know it's the game, while others want someone to blame.
Set aside assumptions, and take a close, honest look at the picture from RR onward. Stewart took over a program that had been built for a short, flashy burst with little regard for the long term. Even that success was due in significant part to a player no one recruited. RR didn't go after Schmitt, Schmitt happened. Take away that bounce of the ball, and you probably take away one, even two wins in RR's only big years. Yeah, the Maserati worked because it had a beer truck clearing the way.
Forrest D. Poston
Thanks for the insight, and clearly you would know this program better than I. But, are you really going to give Schmitt credit for everything that happened in the Rich Rod era? I mean, if I'm not mistaken there was some guy named Adam Bednarik who played quarterback before Pat White in his freshman season. I don't know how much Schmitt helped him, right?
Point being, whether it was built for the short-term or long-term, there were pieces in place that Bill Stewart inherited, and I don't think he got optimal use out of them. Schmitt, Reynaud, Slaton and others played a huge role, but to go from averaging 39 points per game in 2007 to 24 points per game the following year, that had NOTHING to do with a change in coaching scheme and philosophy?
Regardless, the point here isn't to pick and choose arguments, to honor a good man who was taken from us too soon. It's like I said in the article, eventually the wins and losses will fade, and the true character of a man is what will come to light.
We are learning that unequivocally with Bill Stewart right now.Thanks again for reading the article.
@Aaron Torres I never said that Schmitt was the entire difference. In fact, I specifically indicated that it was the full combination of Schmitt, White, Slaton, and Reynaud that made the difference. Injuries and fumbles forced RR to put White and Slaton in during the Louisville game, and it was from that point on that these four regular played together.
Throw out RR's first season when he did badly, and add up scores from the beginning of the second season until that Louisville game, and then add up the scores from that game through the end of RR's tenure. I believe you'll find that the average score went up by 10 points from that point onward. It's a fairly clear line.
And the thing with fancy sports cars is that they only run well when everything is tuned just right. Jerk out three pistons, and you have problems even if you're able to replace one of the three.
Forrest D. Poston
Wow, Forrest! We bumped into a real West Virginia fan! Enjoyed your insight. Aaron, this was the first I had heard of Stewarts' passing. You are right. For all that you could say about him, college football lost a good man. Enough said.