Big crowds pay respects to former WVU Coach Bill Stewart
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Condolences streamed in from as far as Texas and Massachusetts as fans and mourners gathered Thursday in Morgantown to pay tribute to former West Virginia University football coach Bill Stewart.
Stewart died Monday of an apparent heart attack at age 59 while on a golf outing with former athletic director Ed Pastilong.
A seven-hour public viewing was scheduled for the Morgantown Event Center, with plans for a private funeral Mass on Friday for family, close friends, coaches and former players.
Tributes on the McCulla Funeral Home website focused less on Stewart's record (28-12 in three seasons) and more on his warm personality, his passion for putting family first and his photographic memory for names and faces.
Game officials, former players, ex-State Police escorts and countless fans shared stories about their interactions with a man they say always made time for others, even strangers in a grocery store.
Stewart took over as head coach when Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan at the end of the 2007 regular season.
Mountaineer fans unleashed fury on Rodriguez for breaking his contract early and leaving shortly after a painful loss to rival Pittsburgh that cost the Mountaineers a shot at the national championship.
He also left 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 a rousing pre-game speech, he urged his players to outrun and out-hit the other team - but to do it fairly.
"You stay within the legal limits of the game. It's Mountaineer pride. Nothing cheap!" he shouted.
"Leave no doubt," he said repeatedly. "Leave no doubt tonight ... they shouldn't have played the old gold and blue. Not this night."
But he ended with a smile.
"It's a game, lads," he said. "Let's go have fun and get us a big victory."
On Facebook, a group calling for a bronze "Leave No Doubt" plaque at Mountaineer Field had more than 900 followers by Thursday morning.
Fan Melissa Adkins told the Beckley Register-Herald the words should continue to inspire future generations of players.
"He wouldn't want anything to detract from the attention the team gets," she said, "but we thought those words were just so important. We'd like to see those words live on."
In the euphoric aftermath of the Fiesta Bowl victory, Stewart landed the job full-time. But the Mountaineers didn't go to another BCS bowl under his leadership and Stewart couldn't match the production of Rodriguez.
Stewart resigned last summer and was replaced by Dana Holgorsen the same night.