John Woolard is a veteran journalist and sports radio talk show host based in Los Angeles. He spent much of his childhood in West Virginia and is a contributor to West Virginia Illustrated. He wrote this column on the late Bill Stewart.
They say Bill Stewart died of a heart attack on Monday, but I find that hard to believe.
From my observation, Bill Stewart had one of the biggest and strongest hearts around. It's hard to imagine it failing.
Bill Stewart put his heart into all he did — in his personal life and professionally as a football coach — which is why the Mountaineer Nation is in mourning.
On a personal level he was by all accounts I have heard a soft-hearted, genuinely good man who showed kindness and care without motive, one who would be among the first to offer support or solace.
On a professional level he had the heart of a fighter, a tough man whose players knew he didn't ask them for more of a commitment than he was willing to give, but also one who stood by them after a tough loss or a costly on-field mistake.
Players calling a coach a father figure has become almost cliché commentary, a platitude that often seems thrown out for the sake of a sound bite.
However, when Stewart's players called him a surrogate dad (and are calling him that now upon his death), there was and is a detectable truthfulness — like you know it's coming from their own hearts.
Now that we as a whole are given the regrettable task of recounting Bill Stewart's legacy, we above all else must contemplate Stewart's laudable personal qualities, if for no other reason than so many high-level and successful sports coaches seem to be relatively devoid of them.
All one needs to do for evidence is view popular WVU sports-related Internet sites or read commentary in major print publications in recent days to see a litany of positive depictions from people about encounters they had with Stewart.
The testimony comes from uncommon ranges of society, but there is a common theme: He treated people with appreciable respect — governors, TV talking heads, players, fans he met in airport terminals.
I have not met a person who knew Bill Stewart or came into contact with him who would say he wasn't a complete gentleman and I don't think I will find one. I doubt the FBI could find one.
As a coach, it's fair to say Stewart had some detractors.
His three consecutive 9-4 seasons at WVU were not considered good enough by a number of fans who believed talented Mountaineer teams underachieved in a diluted Big East Conference, closely missing BCS bowls with crucial unexpected conference losses in 2008 through 2010.
It also is fair to say that Stewart was saddled with high expectations. His first year at the Mountaineer football helm followed a combined 33-5 WVU record the three previous seasons.
It was the most successful run in program history, one in which the 2007 team came excruciatingly close to a national championship game appearance.
Stewart helped add to the high expectations that season.
The 33rd win in the above-mentioned success streak belongs to Stewart, who as interim head coach rallied and led a WVU team shaken by a loss to Pitt that cost it a title game shot and the contentious exit of coach Rich Rodriguez for Michigan to a 48-28 thumping of Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl.
That win over the heavily favored Sooners and Stewart's dynamic pre-game "Leave No Doubt" pep talk are safely locked in WVU's pantheon of legendary occurrences.
As payment, Stewart was given a battlefield promotion to head coach during the euphoric hours after the game.
It was a dream job for Stewart, a New Martinsville native proud of his state heritage, a man who considered West Virginia a step beyond "Almost Heaven."
As far as he was concerned, you could drop the "almost" from the description.
So when three years later a messy and awkward public drama rife with more than its share of "he said, she said" resulted in Stewart's departure, it didn't take Stephen Hawking to compute that along with a substantial financial settlement for him and his family there likely came a significant cache of sorrow.
Lamentations, though, are not the purpose here. Long-term, my bet is any controversies that surrounded Bill Stewart will fade deep into the background and the goodwill he accumulated will prevail.
If we're talking history, the reality is that Stewart's 28-12 career record is the best percentage-wise (.700) of any WVU football coach since Clarence Spears left Morgantown in 1924 with an .808 win percentage (30-6).
While that may be comparing apples with oranges in regard to successful longer-term coaches such as Don Nehlen (.614), Rodriguez (.698) and Bobby Bowden (.618), the point is that Stewart's record was not that of a chump.
Stewart held the fort during his time at WVU, keeping the Mountaineers in the national conversation.
WVU fans have to ask what would have happened if the wheels of the WVU football program had come off after Rodriguez unceremoniously bailed to walk the minefields of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
What if WVU had gone to the Fiesta Bowl in the throes of depression and got blown out by Oklahoma as was expected?
What if Stewart had gone 22-18 instead of 28-12? What if he and his staff had not left new Mountaineer coach Dana Holgorsen enough talent (Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Bruce Irvin, to name a few) to cobble together an Orange Bowl-winning team and allow Holgorsen and his staff to hit the ground running?
For my money, while there were some disappointments, Bill Stewart played more than a small part in getting WVU invited to the Big 12.
It's not as if success is something that WVU ever has been guaranteed.
The Stewart era didn't have to go well, but it went well enough.
For that, we owe him a debt of gratitude.
In Bill Stewart's case, the gratitude extends beyond the field of play.
He was one of us, a heartfelt member of our extended family who left too early.
Like all of us eventually, he now belongs to history and to those who tell and interpret it.
We rest assured that history will be kind to him.
Bill Stewart photo is courtesy of Image of Sport.