Bill Stewart's evening walk off the playing surface took a little bit longer than usual on Friday evening. No, the head coach wasn't shaking hands with boosters or answering questions from a visiting coaching staff. He wasn't exceptionally tired, at least not more so than he usually is after West Virginia's daily workout.
The slow pace of this walk was by design. For Stewart, it was a moment to take in his surroundings.
To one side were Jake Figner and Mike Dent, a pair of senior offensive linemen who have given their all to the Mountaineer program for the better part of five years, sacrificing personal glory for the betterment of the team and never once offering an excuse or lodging a complaint regarding their role on the team.
To the other side was linebacker Mortty Ivy, who came to WVU as a former high school quarterback without a set position at the collegiate level. After suffering a devastating knee injury during the spring of 2006, Ivy worked his way back from scratch. He now anchors one of the nation's most talented linebacking corps, with an opportunity to earn a professional paycheck awaiting him at some point in the next several months.
And elsewhere in the group, there was Patrick White. WVU fans have watched White's growth before their very eyes as the quiet quarterback from Daphne, Ala. has grown into the most dangerous player in college football. While White's growth has come before sold out stadiums and nationwide television audiences, nobody has had a better seat for his development than Stewart, who served as White's position coach from 2004-06, and will walk side by side with No. 5 as the head coach for his senior season.
For much of the past two weeks, these players have blended in with roughly 100 others dressed in blue and gold as the Mountaineers have gone through their annual preseason camp in Morgantown. Admittedly, Stewart has been more worried about X's and O's and getting his team ready to play over those two weeks than reflecting on how far each of the 20 seniors have come in their careers.
A couple of days ago, however, Stewart's teenage son, Blaine, brought it to his attention that those same 20 careers are now entering their final weeks and months. And after hearing those words from his son, the feeling began to sink in for Stewart. Thus, today's longer-than-normal walk off the practice field.
"I hadn't thought of it. I'd been too busy, just too busy," Stewart said, shaking his head. "Today, I stood back and watched them and reflected on it, and walked off the field with them. That was a tough walk."
With that in mind, Stewart has a message for the 60,000 fans who will jam into Milan Puskar Stadium for each of the 2008 season's seven home games, as well as the millions of Mountaineers watching around the country: stop and smell the roses.
"We better enjoy these lads while they're here," he said. "What you're seeing has been a real joy to coach.
"They've been great young men in our classroom," he continued. "They've been great young men in our community, and they're all talented, special young men of faith. They're good people."
Perhaps those reasons, more than anything, is why Stewart regularly speaks of how lucky he feels to hold the position which was given to him in the early morning hours of January 3 in a Scottsdale, Ariz. hotel suite following West Virginia's Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma. And these are the same reasons why, roughly two weeks from kickoff against Villanova, Stewart has so much anticipation for his first season as the head Mountaineer.
"I cannot wait until August 30 and every other weekend that we have a game," he said. "If the good lord's willing and we keep them healthy, this is going to be a fun year. I don't know what we'll do, but I do know this: we'll give it everything we've got. We won't leave any bullets in the holster, and we'll make it fun.
"These guys have won a lot of football games," he said of his seniors. "But more importantly, they've won a lot of hearts."
Most notably, that of their head coach.