My very first memory of Coach Stew comes from when I was a 20-year-old college student on Nov. 24, 2000, driving away from Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh with the heat blasting and the radio turned up over the noise of the fan. The Mountaineers had just lost to Pitt in the Backyard Brawl, the final regular season game for one of my heroes, Don Nehlen, and as much I wanted to turn the radio off and try to forget the loss, I was drawn in by this Stewart character, who was being interviewed from the locker room.
He spoke of his love for Nehlen, who had allowed him the opportunity to coach at the school he loved, and he promised that nobody was going to let the coach go out with what he had just experienced, a loss to the Panthers. He guaranteed a better ending for the future Hall of Fame coach and had me so fired up I was ready to put on the uniform myself.
Two years later, I had the chance to meet Stewart for the first time. I was still a WVU student, and my brother-in-law, a high school football coach, was bringing one of his players, Larry Williams, on a visit to WVU. Knowing how much I loved the school and the football program, my brother-in-law and Williams invited me to go through the visit with them, and I found myself sitting in Stewart's office listening to him sell the state and the school to a young athlete from across the border in Virginia. He didn't speak of championships, new uniforms or the perks of being a football player. Instead, he focused on the family environment, his love for his players and his love for the people of West Virginia. Again, I was ready to put the pads on myself, and apparently Williams was too. He made his verbal commitment shortly after that trip.
But what defined Coach Stewart – in my mind, anyway – was every time I spoke to him after that day. I've heard several people in the last few hours say that once you met Stew, you were a friend forever. I have evidence.
The next time I saw him, it was on the street in Charlotte as the Mountaineers prepared for the Continental Tire Bowl. Stewart saw me there with my family, and he immediately started talking to us about how the Mountaineers wanted to go punch Virginia in the mouth. He invited us to practice, and then went one step further, inviting us to ride the bus over with the team so we didn't have to walk. My dad, who was the one who taught me the ropes of being a Mountaineer fan, had never been so thrilled.
Every time I saw Stewart after that, he made me feel like his best friend. I became a reporter for the Blue & Gold News the next season, and whether on the sidelines at practice or outside the locker room after a game, Stewart always stopped to say hello, ask about my family and give me an encouraging word.
If I needed to talk to him for a story, he always returned my calls. If I wanted to introduce him to a friend, he'd stop and talk and make that person feel like his childhood pal, as well.
I remember how excited I was when Stewart was named the new head coach of the Mountaineers. I was in Arizona with the Blue & Gold News crew, but my travel plans were a little more flexible than the rest of the group. So I stayed behind to cover the press conference announcing his hiring.
I was living in South Carolina by then and hadn't had a chance to talk to Stewart in two years. But in the middle of talking to a large group of reporters after the formal press conference, when Stewart noticed me there, he stopped in the middle of a sentence and asked how I was doing before going on to finish his answer.
I can't even describe how that made me feel. I had been a WVU fan since I was 8 years old, and the head football coach had always been a man I admired. But now, that man was a friend.
One of the last times I saw Stewart was at The Greenbrier Classic in 2010, and the scene was no different. When I approached him to quickly say hello, I expected a quick handshake before moving on to the rest of the golf course. But Stewart wouldn't have it that way. He asked me about my family. He asked me about my job. He told me a couple stories, and he did nothing to make me believe he needed to move on to the next fan or one of the big donors standing over his shoulder. If I wouldn't have walked away on my own, we'd probably still be standing there.
Then there's the final time I saw "good ol' Billy Stewart." It was Dec. 4, 2010, and WVU had just knocked off Rutgers to finish the regular season with a 9-3 record after a four-game winning streak. Stewart was smiling ear-to-ear in the postgame press conference, proudly holding up a shirt that read "Big East Champions."
And for me, that's where the story ends. I'm not going to remember the following weeks when he was told he wouldn't be coming back. I'm going to choose to block out the drama that eventually led to his swift dismissal.
To me, Stewart will always be that guy sitting in his office talking about growing up on the Ohio River. He'll be the big kid being carried off the field in Arizona by his players or the proud coach holding up a shirt that labeled him as a champion.
Because that's who he really was – Cub and Boys Scout's honor.