MORGANTOWN -- Bill Stewart, whose improbable rise to the top of the college football coaching ranks was equaled only by his inglorious fall, died Monday of an apparent heart attack while playing golf.
Stewart, 59, was taken by ambulance to Stonewall Jackson Memorial Hospital in Weston after collapsing during a round at Stonewall Jackson Resort. He reportedly died en route.
He was playing in an outing sponsored by the West Virginia Hospitality and Tourism Association with former WVU athletic director Ed Pastilong.
Stewart would have turned 60 in just over two weeks. He leaves behind his wife, Karen, and son Blaine, who is completing his junior year at Morgantown High School.
Shortly after his death, several former players posted messages on Twitter. Among the most heartfelt tributes was from Pat McAfee, now a punter for the Indianapolis Colts.
"Coach Stew was a man that took me in as a freshman. He treated me like I was a son. He always had my back, even when it wasn't the popular thing to do,'' McAfee said. "He taught me so many things about life and being a man that I could never pay him back for.
"When he became the head coach we chatted for an hour in his office. I kept telling him how happy I was for him and how amazing this was for him. And he told me, 'Patrick, no matter what you're doing with your life, never forget to stop and smell the flowers. It doesn't matter what you're doing or what your title is, if you stop smelling the flowers you miss out on life. That's why I'll never change.'
"I'll never change or miss out on life because that quote puts everything in perspective. And it was told to me by a man that I can honestly say I loved. My heart is broken and I don't know when these tears will stop, but I'm gonna miss that man.''
Within hours, countless public figures were weighing in on Stewart's passing. One was Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) who was the state's governor when Stewart was coaching and had known him for years.
"West Virginia truly lost one of its best citizens today, but my friend Bill Stewart leaves behind a lifetime of memories and love for our state," Manchin said in a statement. "It has been my privilege to be able to call Bill my friend ever since his days playing ball at Fairmont State. From the moment I met him, I knew that you never had to worry about Bill's enthusiasm; he had enough for all of us.
"Bill was a proud West Virginian in every sense of the word, and he was the best cheerleader this state ever had. For me and [wife] Gayle, our hearts go out to Bill's wife, Karen, and his son, Blaine. I hope that they know just how much Bill meant to the people of this state and how much we all will miss him."
Stewart became a lightning rod for both praise and criticism during his final years as a coach. A lifelong assistant who worked at nine colleges and for two Canadian Football League franchises, he suddenly found himself the head coach at a major NCAA Division I football program in 2008 when he was named to succeed Rich Rodriguez at WVU.