Stewart died suddenly Monday after an apparent heart attack. He was just a few days shy of his 60th birthday, and staggeringly enough, a few days beyond that would have marked the one-year anniversary of the abrupt end of his tenure as West Virginia’s head football coach.
Has it really not even been a year? A lot has happened in the time since June 10, 2011, on the field and away from it. Stewart, in some ways, would hardly recognize the program he left behind.
This wasn’t supposed to be the way it ended.
Yes, the final days of Stewart’s tenure were ugly and filled with nasty rumors and reports that didn’t seem to make sense about a man of his character. He “resigned” (in name only) in disgrace.
The fact that moment was essentially the final public chapter of Bill Stewart’s life is a cruel fate, indeed. Even the man Stewart replaced as head coach, Rich Rodriguez, has had the chance to slowly work to mend fences. That, unfortunately, is an opportunity Stewart never got.
The awkward end to his time as a football coach is certainly a part of his legacy. But it’s not the whole story. Not by a long shot.
At his core, Stewart was a leader of men. If there is any doubt about that, it ends with what will ultimately be the defining moment of his time as a football coach: West Virginia 48, Oklahoma 28 in the 2008 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
Yes, Stewart was celebrated that night in the Arizona desert and crowned head coach before the sun rose the next morning. But what happened long before kickoff was the most impressive part of all.
When Rodriguez left Morgantown weeks before, by all accounts, there was utter chaos initially. Players were justifiably angry. Some left a scheduled practice. No one really knew who was in charge.
Stewart stepped in at a time the program needed him most and did all he knew how to do: he went to work. He pieced back together a fractured family and galvanized what was already one of the nation’s best football teams into an unstoppable force.
It's cliché, but it's true: his players would have run through a wall for him that night.
Leave no doubt? No problem. Those Mountaineers waxed an OU team many thought was the nation’s best at the time.
That’s what West Virginia fans will remember most of Stew -- him being carried on the shoulders of his players as the clock expired, picking up the trophy and pointing to all the players, as if to say, “This is yours. You earned this.”
What the players and others connected to the program will remember is something far more important than a final score could ever be.
“Coach Stew was a man that took me in when I was a freshman,” former Mountaineer player and current Colts punter Pat McAfee said on Twitter after the news broke. “He treated me like I was a son. He always had my back, even when it wasn’t the popular thing to do. 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,” McAfee continued, “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. 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.”
That spirit will live on in the countless people Bill Stewart’s life touched, and it will be the legacy he leaves behind in a place we call “Almost Heaven.”