Ol' country boy Stewart is ready to take over helm
Morgantown, W.Va. -- Pitching on 11 3/4 years' rest, Bill Stewart will be riling up a college football team of his own again tomorrow, gushing his usual enthusiasm, preaching his homegrown homilies. It all seems to fit the new West Virginia head coach like the going-to-church suit he wore this week to his season's inaugural news conference.
It's a date against Villanova, a foe from Division I-AA, where he last worked as a head coach in 1996.
It's a fresh start in Mountaineer Field, about 65 miles from the West Virginia sod from whence he came.
It's a second chance, all this time and toil later.
"I'm very blessed to get this opportunity," Stewart said before his first official game since his Virginia Military Institute lost at the Appalachian State Mountaineers, 26-14, Nov. 23, 1996, in Boone, N.C. "To be a [Division] I-A coach, you've got to have started somewhere else, I believe. And VMI, let me tell you from the heart, it made me a better man and a better coach."
Do-overs don't come often to 56-year-old men with folksy humor and a resume that covers the width of the United States three times. The New Martinsville boy matriculated to West Virginia but finished down U.S. 19 at then-Fairmont State, where his coaching journey took flight.
He went from Fairmont State to Sistersville High School to Salem College to out-of-state college jobs. He went from North Carolina to Marshall (for just one season back home) to William & Mary to Navy to North Carolina again to Arizona State to Air Force to VMI to Montreal and Winnipeg of the Canadian Football League and, finally, in 2000, back to where he started as a freshman 30 years before, West Virginia.
After 14 changes of address, he didn't stop moving at West Virginia, either: from quarterbacks and special-teams coach to associate head coach last fall to interim head coach in December to head coach Jan. 3, formally replacing Rich Rodriguez after that stirring Fiesta Bowl triumph.
"If frequent-flier miles make you a better coach, then Bill's good, because he's been everywhere," said colleague and old friend Danny Smith, the Washington Redskins special teams coach and Central Catholic alum. "But he deserves it. He's worked hard. Bill's just an old country boy, born in West Virginia. There ain't no hidden agenda. He's not in it for the limelight."
"Sometimes, the way it shakes down, the right people are in the right place at the right time," said Avella-raised Gary Tranquill, a longtime coach who employed Stewart at Navy. "He's a Mountaineer at heart."
At VMI, where he gave a first coaching job to current Steelers boss Mike Tomlin, Stewart went 1-10 his inaugural season, then 4-7 and 3-8. His tenure ended after a player, Kelly Cook, said the head coach used a racial epithet while scolding him in practice. Stewart later sued the school, but the case was dismissed because of state-college immunity.
After a whirlwind first eight months, Stewart makes his debut with no signed contract, just one year and six days after Rodriguez signed his last one.
"He is a lot quieter than the last coach," tailback Noel Devine said of Stewart. "That's a positive."
More important to Stewart than scores or victories, he wants to leave an imprint of character on West Virginia:
"For instance: 125 young men, eight days, seven nights in the desert getting ready for the Fiesta Bowl. We had gambling casinos over here, barrooms and glitter over here. And we had one curfew violation. One curfew violation. I'll say that over and over and over. That's the stamp I'm putting on this program.
"And when you come out on the field and you see that flying WV, you'd better be ready to put your mouthpiece in, because you're going to get hit flush right in the jaw. That's what I'd like to have [remembered] about this program."
First Published August 29, 2008 12:00 am