Bill Stewart secured his place in West Virginia University lore on January 2, 2008.
In the moments before the underdog Mountaineers, champions of the Big East, took on the Big 12 champion Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, Stewart addressed his team. Now, that is not an uncommon situation.Every college football coach will say something to their team prior to a game and will have something special prepared for a big game. This was not the usual BCS game.
There was something different about this game.
West Virginia entered the game having nearly lost everything. It lost a December 1 game against arch rival Pittsburgh in a game which had the Mountaineers won they would have earned a spot in the BCS National Championship game. After the game, then head coach Rich Rodrgiuez announced his departure to Michigan. Stewart, one of the few holdovers from Don Nehlen’s final seasons in Morgantown, was named as the interim head coach and had the difficult assignment of leading a disappointed Mountaineer team into Arizona.
It was with this backdrop that Stewart delivered an inspiring message to his players and to those who follow the Old Gold and Blue (West Virginians, alums, students, etc.). His speech became an instant YouTube classic for West Virginia fans and alums.
Leave no doubt tonight! No doubt … they shouldn’t have played the old gold and blue. Not this night! Not this night!
Those words echo today in the aftermath of Stewart’s passing following a heart attack at a Lewis County, W.Va., golf course. He was 59.
Stewart’s served as the poetic backdrop to what could easily be described as the most important football win in West Virginia history. More important than the 1982 win over Oklahoma. More important than the wins over Penn State, Syracuse and Boston College in 1988. More important, even, than WVU’s recent BCS win over Clemson. The win allowed Mountaineer faithful to celebrate in the midst of a season that had, for a month, focused on the motif of “what if.”
Following the victory, Stewart was rewarded with the title of head coach – a decision that proved to be controversial. He would go on to moderate success with three nine-win seasons and one additional bowl win. His own dismissal from the program was steeped in controversy, as he was involved in reports regarding the behavior of then head coach in waiting Dana Holgorsen.
Stewart may not have been the greatest coach, but he was loyal to his native West Virginia and its flagship football program. That is what he will be remembered for on this night. Not so much the wins and losses, but how he helped to guide a football team – and a state – out of despair and into a time of joyous celebration.
Leave no doubt, Bill Stewart was a great Mountaineer and will be truly missed.