Changed Man

In 2006, I met and interviewed a man named Bill Stewart for the first time. On Friday, Stewart lost his job as head football coach at West Virginia. The two men shared a name and a common history, but by the end, not much else, as the trappings and pressure of the job Stewart coveted forever altered his reputation and legacy.

The rumors and revelations of recent weeks -- which Mountaineer athletic director Oliver Luck went out of his way to say on multiple occasions Friday were ultimately not substantiated by WVU -- painted a picture of a conniving, deceitful man who cared about little but himself.

They ran directly counter to the image most had of Stewart: a good and honorable man of old-school principles and values.

That is why the reports were so jarring to so many.

You could almost hear people wondering: could Bill Stewart, he of the folksy, golly-gee personality, actually have told two reporters, including former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Colin Dunlap, he wanted the word "scumbag" printed in newspapers about the man who would succeed him, Dana Holgorsen?

But Dunlap's words on KDKA-FM radio in Pittsburgh were only the latest in a series of events that indicated something about Stewart himself had changed.

To examine those changes, one must start by looking at the Stewart of old.

  • Stewart had reason to be more than happy in August 2006.

    After living the life of so many assistant coaches, filled with frequent cross-country (and, adding a tenure in Canada, out-of-country) moves, he seemed to be settling in just fine in Morgantown.

    The man they call "Stew" was heading into his seventh year on the job -- his sixth under Rich Rodriguez, who made Stewart one of only two staffers retained from the Don Nehlen era.

    If that wasn't enough, Stewart was in the proverbial catbird seat. His responsibility? Coach the quarterbacks, including WVU's burgeoning star sophomore, Pat White, fresh off an 11-1 season which included a staggering upset of a highly-favored Georgia team in the Nokia Sugar Bowl.

    Stewart, to an extent, got to sit back and watch White work his magic.

    Enter me, a nervous 20-year-old kid, mere days into my job as a writer for the WVU student newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum.

    My editor tasked me with writing a feature on the Mountaineer quarterbacks during their preseason practices in August. I requested interviews with those most central to such a story.

    There was White. There was Adam Bednarik, by then White's full-time backup.

    And then there was Stewart.

    He was every good thing anyone ever said about him.

    Funny. Charming. Thoughtful. Respectful. Full of pride in the players he coached and full of enthusiasm for the job he did every day.

    There was not an ounce of artificiality in him.

    I walked away duly impressed. I wrote my story, a forgettable feature which mostly gushed about White's talents in the same way every other media member had in the wake of that Sugar Bowl win.

    I thought that was the end of things. But I'll never forget what happened months later, when I stood on one side of the Milan Puskar Center after completing an interview and saw Stewart out of the corner of my eye, all the way on the opposite end of the building.

    I was surprised when he appeared to stop as he noticed me, stunned when I saw him wave to me as though we knew each other well, and floored when he actually walked out of his way to come shake my hand, say hello and ask how I was doing.

    This was a man I had probably forgotten to even introduce myself to. I had spoken to him for a grand total of six minutes. Again, he was genuine -- he certainly wasn't reaching out to a pup reporter at the student newspaper to generate positive press for himself.

    In the grand scheme of things, such a simple gesture doesn't mean much at all. But it was a small sign of the kind of man Stewart was. Essentially everyone who I talked to in those days shared similar stories.

    Thus, I was not at all surprised to hear tales of Mountaineer players rallying around him in the lead-up to West Virginia's 48-28 shellacking of Oklahoma in the 2008 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, the game that led to Stewart's promotion from interim to full-time coach.

    He seemed to be the kind of guy that would be easy to rally around.

  • It's easy to forget now, but Stewart was a bona fide Mountain State hero for the first eight months of 2008.

    He traveled the state during the summer after that Fiesta Bowl win. People readily celebrated a man who seemed to be the anti-Rodriguez, one who famously promised at his introductory press conference he would step aside if he was not getting the job done. No one would need to tell him so.

    Multiple people closely connected to the program in those days told me then (and again in the years since) that spring practice that year was an exciting time. Stewart was at his best, and his new coaching staff was quickly setting about making things happen.

    There were big plans for an offense which would take advantage of White's unique abilities while adding the one element that seemed to be missing under Rodriguez -- a "vertical" passing game. Enthusiasm was high.

    But Stewart's honeymoon period ended quickly. WVU, ranked No. 8 in the country, lost in embarrassing fashion in his second game as head coach, a 24-3 setback at East Carolina. It fell again the following week at Colorado, 17-14 in overtime.

    Stewart faced tough questions about his new offense. Had he made a mistake in attempting to change a system that had led the Mountaineers to three-straight 11-win seasons?

    The defensive personality Stewart had in recent years seemed to stem from those difficult questions, ones he never quite knew how to answer.

    The more childish of his detractors mocked Stewart for his sideline demeanor, for the most meaningless of things, like the way the coach tended to squint his eyes, often when television cameras were focused squarely on him.

    Unlike many coaches who claim to not read or hear what their detractors say, Stewart knew about all of the negativity. As recently as this spring, he made reference to the squinting jokes, as he asked media members if he could turn around to face away from the sun for an interview session so he would be less apt to do so.

    Those inside the program have said the changes were evident too. Stewart's happy-go-lucky demeanor was gone before that first season was even close to complete. In its place was the personality of a man who was increasingly defensive, spiteful and proud as time wore on.

    And then there is the matter of the way Stewart handled his last weeks in total control of the football program.

    It is common knowledge now that Stewart knew no later than Nov. 17 he would not be WVU's head football coach beyond the 2011 season -- and even that was not guaranteed to him.

    Bizarrely, Stewart spent some of the last weeks of his coaching career acting almost as if he were campaigning for his job. He repeatedly cited statistics about his successes during his three seasons in charge, as though he were a political candidate running for re-election, not a football coach whose fate was sealed.

    And in an out-of-character move, Stewart did not tell his offensive assistant coaches, particularly coordinator Jeff Mullen and line coach Dave Johnson, that they would be without jobs in 2011 until Holgorsen's hire was already public knowledge.

    Reportedly, that cost Johnson a chance to accept a head coaching job at a lower-division school.

    Previously, many WVU fans had opined that Stewart was loyal to Mullen and Johnson to a fault.

    But in failing to inform them of their impending termination, Stewart was no longer loyal to those assistants. He was just at fault.

  • Stewart signed away his future on Nov. 17. Holgorsen was hired to succeed him just weeks later, a fact which became public knowledge before WVU's Champs Sports Bowl loss to North Carolina State.

    Perhaps desperate -- or just showing his new colors -- Stewart allegedly spoke to two reporters and asked them to "dig up dirt" on Holgorsen -- presumably in the hopes of somehow saving his own job.

    He played the role of "good soldier" publicly, expressing confidence that the coach-in-waiting scenario Luck put in place for 2011 would work because, well, he would make it work.

    But privately, he may have continued to work to undermine Holgorsen. Since Luck said Friday the University had not substantiated any claims of wrongdoing against the coach, but strongly implied that it had entered into a confidentiality agreement as well, we may never know with certainty.

  • Predictably, public opinion has shifted almost completely in regards to Stewart.

    Once praised, he is now a pariah.

    Once seen as the anti-Rodriguez, some have compared him to the man who has been Public Enemy No. 1 in West Virginia since leaving Morgantown to take the Michigan coaching job in late 2007.

    The prevailing thought here is the Bill Stewart of years gone by and the Bill Stewart of today are both very much real -- that the now-former Mountaineer coach is truly a good and decent man, but one guilty of owning a thin skin unfitting of the leader of a BCS-level football program.

    Stewart never could completely handle the considerable criticism that came along with his job.

    And when Luck apparently sided with those critics and took Stewart's job away, a defensive man became a desperate one -- one capable of doing things that were out-of-character in the hopes of getting one more shot at redemption on his terms.

    "If you want to kill a lion, you better go through its heart," Stewart famously said at a press conference in November. "They don't have our heart yet. A lot of them want mine, but they haven't got it yet."

    Ultimately, though, the lion fell.

  • BlueGoldNews Top Stories