Former West Virginia football coach Bill Stewart, who was hailed as Rich Rodriguez’s successor but wound up leaving the school in a messy split, died Monday of what athletic department officials said was an apparent heart attack. He was 59.
Stewart’s family notified the university and said Stewart had been out golfing with the longtime friend who hired him as head coach, former athletic director Ed Pastilong. West Virginia spokesman Michael Fragale said he had no further details, and Pastilong couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
”Coach Stewart was a rock-solid West Virginian and a true Mountaineer,” athletic director Oliver Luck said in a statement released by the university. ”His enthusiasm and passion for his state’s flagship university was infectious. We join all Mountaineers in mourning his passing.”
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, who was governor at the time Stewart became head coach, said Stewart was a longtime friend who ”leaves behind a lifetime of memories and love for our state.”
”Bill was a proud West Virginian in every sense of the word,” Manchin said, ”and he was the best cheerleader this state ever had.”
The West Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association held its annual golf tournament Monday at Stonewall Jackson Resort in Roanoke.
Ryan Crook of Beckley said he was playing in the tournament behind a group that included Stewart and Pastilong. Crook said he saw Stewart collapse on the 16th hole. Members of Crook’s group drove their carts to Stewart’s side, and ambulances were called, Crook said.
Calls to the resort and to tournament organizers weren’t immediately returned.
Stewart went 28-12 in three seasons after taking over when Rodriguez left for Michigan after the 2007 regular season, but resigned last summer and was replaced by Dana Holgorsen the same night.
In December 2007, Mountaineer fans unleashed their fury on Rodriguez for breaking his contract early and taking the Michigan job. He left the Mountaineers not long after a painful loss to rival Pittsburgh cost them a shot at the national championship and two weeks before the Fiesta Bowl game against Oklahoma, taking recruits and assistants with him.
It was Stewart, a deeply religious family man, who stepped in and guided the team to a surprising 48-28 victory over the Sooners.
In the euphoric aftermath, he was given the job full-time – to the surprise of many – but the Mountaineers didn’t go to another BCS bowl under his leadership and Stewart couldn’t match the production of Rodriguez. In Stewart’s three seasons, West Virginia averaged at least 79 fewer yards per game than the 2007 team.
In December 2010, Luck – then just months into his tenure – decided to hire Holgorsen as offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting for the 2011 season. Holgorsen would run West Virginia’s offense while Stewart would coach the team one final season before moving into an administrative job.
Wins and losses weren’t the only issue for the coaching change. Luck said season-ticket sales had declined in the year after Stewart became head coach.
Luck said he’d modeled the transition after those done when Bret Bielema took over at Wisconsin and Chip Kelly assumed control at Oregon. Luck said he had no doubt it would be handled professionally, noting both coaches said they supported the idea.
And Stewart was diplomatic about the hire, saying the team would let Holgorsen ”implement ideas and schemes in preparation of getting the finest offensive staff we can compile.”
Six months later, the arrangement had fallen apart, and Stewart’s departure became difficult. Both he and Holgorsen made unwanted headlines in the weeks leading up to the shake-up.
An intoxicated Holgorsen was escorted out of a casino, then a former newspaper reporter said that Stewart had approached him shortly after Holgorsen’s hiring to ”dig up dirt” on his eventual successor.
”At the time I thought it made a lot of sense, I thought it was good management practice,” Luck said last June. ”With hindsight, folks could certainly disagree.”
In Holgorsen’s first season, the Mountaineers went 10-3, were Big East co-champions and beat Clemson 70-33 in the Orange Bowl.
”The State of West Virginia, our University and our football program has lost a true Mountaineer who gave his native state university a decade of coaching service and a lifetime of guidance and inspiration to thousands of young men over a 33-year career,” Holgorsen said Monday. ”Though Coach Stewart achieved many great milestones on the field, we will most remember his kindness and compassion.”
Former West Virginia running back Steve Slaton, who entered the NFL draft after his junior season in 2007, said he was at a loss for words. ”I am honored to have had him as a friend and coach,” Slaton said. ”I know every player that has had the opportunity to be around him would say the same.”
Stewart, a native of New Martinsville, attended Fairmont State and earned a master’s degree in health and physical education from WVU in 1977.
He had assistant coaching stints at seven colleges before becoming head coach at VMI in 1994, going 8-25 in three seasons. After a two-year stint in the Canadian Football League, Stewart was hired by Don Nehlen as an assistant at West Virginia.
"Bill was such a great Mountaineer and a great addition to our staff,” Nehlen said. ”It was a terrific hire – he did a great job not only for me, but for Rich and as a head coach. Bill was such a great husband and a great father. Bill Stewart was a great Mountaineer.”
Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin got his first coaching job when Stewart hired him as an assistant at VMI, and Tomlin was elated when Stewart got the West Virginia job.
”We are saddened by the passing of Coach Stew,” Tomlin said in a statement released by the Steelers. ”He was a great coach and a tremendous person. We not only lost a good football person, we lost an even better family man.”
Stewart and his wife, Karen, have one son, Blaine.