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Heart attack claims former WVU coach Stewart

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.

Stewart had been an assistant coach at West Virginia since 2000, having been hired by Don Nehlen. He was the only Nehlen assistant coach retained by Rodriguez when he became the head coach in 2001.

When Rodriguez abruptly left for Michigan in December of 2007, Stewart was named the interim coach for the Mountaineers' upcoming Fiesta Bowl appearance against Oklahoma. When WVU won that game in a rout, 48-28, he was officially named the head coach in the hours after the game at a hotel in Arizona.

Stewart was not able to keep the momentum going, however. His first team, in 2008, lost two of its first three games, and although it recovered to win eight regular season games and the Meineke Car Care Bowl, it was considered a disappointment after three straight 11-win seasons.

All three of his teams in 2009 through 2011 posted identical 9-4 records, which gave him one of the most successful records by a new coach in school history. But After Rodriguez had coached three straight teams to Top 10 finishes in the national polls, Stewart's only ranked squad at the end of a season was in 2009, when WVU was No. 25 in the Associated Press poll.

All of that divided a fan base that included those who admired the New Martinsville native for his efforts and his loyalty and his devotion to West Virginia and the university, and those who pined for the 11-win seasons and prestigious bowl berths.

Then, when Pastilong retired and Oliver Luck became the school's new athletic director, Luck decided a change was in order. In early November of 2010, shortly after WVU had lost back-to-back games to Syracuse and Connecticut, Luck told Stewart that he was making changes. He told Stewart that at least two of his offensive coaches would not be retained the following season, and that the next season would also be Stewart's last.

A month later, Luck hired Dana Holgorsen as the team's new offensive coordinator and head coach in waiting. Holgorsen was to serve the 2011 season as the offensive coordinator and then take over for Stewart in 2012.

The situation, though, was apparently untenable for Stewart. In May of last year, Luck fired Stewart after discovering that the coach had asked at least one reporter to try to defame Holgorsen. Holgorsen was elevated to the head coaching position in June and Stewart settled for a $1.65 million buyout.

Since then, Stewart had remained largely invisible to the public. He did not grant interviews on the advice of his attorneys, who had agreed to what amounted to a gag order in the settlement, one which prohibited either side from defaming the other. The final payment to Stewart was made this spring.

Stewart never ruled out the possibility that he might coach again, but said for now he wanted to have free time to watch Blaine play high school sports.

Stewart, who attended WVU as a freshman but transferred to and graduated from Fairmont State, seemed destined for a life as a career assistant coach until the events at West Virginia. He was an assistant at Salem College, North Carolina, William & Mary, Navy, Arizona State and Air Force. He also spent three seasons as the head coach at VMI from 1994-96. When he was ousted there he spent the next two seasons in the CFL before returning to West Virginia.


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