ESPN, joined by shouting naysayers, is resurrecting the incident that led to his departure from VMI in 1996. In a private conversation with one of his players, Stewart used a racial slur in trying to get a point across -- namely, that the player's actions would lead to that sort of term being applied to him. Stewart, who also told the player that he had spent a long time trying to erase the stereotype of the redneck hillbilly of West Virginia, eventually resigned from VMI rather than expose his assistant coaches to the possible loss of their jobs.
I know all this to be true, because I have heard it firsthand from Bill Stewart himself. About a year after I first met Stewart, the subject came up in a conversation. I don't remember why, or what sparked it, but Stewart described the whole incident to me, and his explanation then was the same as the one he used in response to the ESPN story. Yes, he used the word. No, he did not call the player by that name, but was only telling the player not to give anyone cause to use it to describe him. Was it a poor choice of words or judgment? Probably so. Was it meant as a slur to the player, or used maliciously? Absolutely not.
I've been privileged enough to watch WVU's coaches in action with their players for a number of years. And I can say that Bill Stewart doesn't have a racially charged bone in his body, or the slightest inkling of any such makeup in his character. It was inevitable that this story would come out nationally, given the muckracking nature of the media today, which makes the yellow journalists of the early 20th century look like toddlers by comparison. But in their attempts to make Stewart look bad, they will actually achieve the opposite.
Unlike many coaches of today, Stewart doesn't hide behind "no comment" or relate trite Lion King references over and over again. He answers questions, and even though his answers might wander afield from time to time, he is nothing but sincere and honest. I have never had him duck a question, and he always appears for interviews after tough losses. You can't fake that sort of thing over a long period.
In giving a straightforward account of the incident, Stewart reveals a level of integrity and honesty that is rare among coaches today. In that long-ago conversation with me, Stewart, after relating the entire incident, looked me right in the eye and told me, "That is the God's honest truth, Kevin." And you know what? I believed him, and never gave it another thought, except when someone else brought it up.
I'm sure some of you are thinking I am just writing this to curry favor with Stewart, to try to get some sort of "in" with him in the future. That's your right, and if you want to believe that, there's nothing I can do to convince you otherwise. I'm sure a handful have made the same judgment about Stewart and his situation. But you should also consider the almost unanimous opinion of the current Mountaineer squad concerning Stewart -- that he is the best man for the job. And that includes African-American players, who certainly knew of the story but know that it does not represent who Stewart is and what he is made of -- despite the efforts of some to prove otherwise.
However, I can tell you that, in my opinion, that those trying to use this incident to portray Stewart in a negative light are dead wrong. Stewart fell on his sword at VMI to save the jobs of his staff when he learned the entire group was going to get the ax. He has never offered a lame excuse for the incident. He explained what he meant, admitted that the choice of words was wrong and learned a valuable life lesson, but he has never ducked it. That, to me, paints a picture of Stewart as an honest and forthright teacher that does things the right way. What better man, with better character, could you want running your program?
I don't know if Coach Stewart is going to be successful on the field at West Virginia. The same would be true of any other coach that was hired, including some of the so-called "heavy hitters" that WVU supposedly could have attracted after the Fiesta Bowl win. But I do know that I have absolutely no questions about the man's character -- and neither do the young men that he is coaching.