Stewart embodied meaning of Mountaineer Pride
Published: Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, May 22, 2012 23:05
It’s hard for outsiders to understand.
For the 1.8 million residents of the state of West Virginia, it comes naturally. It’s as sure of a thing as death and taxes. Anyone born here or who lives here understands that West Virginia is a unique place.
So what exactly is Mountaineer Pride?
Though definitions vary from person to person, all can agree that it is an innate sense of belonging and ownership in the shared interests, failures and successes of the state and its people.
The pride and sense of unity amongst natives of the Mountain State is never extinguished in its entirety. It may wane over time, but in times of triumph or tragedy, it jolts back to the forefront stronger than ever.
Monday, when news broke of the passing of former West Virginia head coach Bill Stewart, that pride swelled and was as strong and as moving as it has ever been.
On January 2, 2006, 12 miners tragically passed in the deadliest West Virginia coal mining disaster in nearly 40 years. The nation watched as the people of West Virginia mourned the loss of 12 of its own.
It was a low point for the state that seemed like it would never end.
Exactly two years later to the date, West Virginia upset Oklahoma 48-28 to capture the 2008 Fiesta Bowl.
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a game that meant more to West Virginia than that one.
It was right after 13-9, right after bitter rival Pittsburgh ended the Mountaineers’ bid for a national championship. It was on the coattails of Rich Rodriguez bolting Morgantown on a plane to head for a "more prestigious" job in Ann Arbor.
To Bill Stewart, there was no job more prestigious than the one he was about to occupy.
In the midst of a serious transition right before a BCS bowl game, West Virginia was hurt, wounded, stunned and seriously in shock. West Virginia needed a win.
West Virginia needed Bill Stewart.
Following the news of his passing on Monday, many people took to the web to revisit Stewart’s famous "Leave No Doubt" speech from that night.
"We’ve got a great opportunity," he told his team. "We’ve got a dandy out there waiting on us."
"Don’t leave your wingman. Don’t ever, ever, ever bail out on your brother. You help, you strain and you just fight."
That’s the Mountaineer way; the Bill Stewart way. That is Mountaineer Pride.
In a moment when morale across the state was bruised and defeat seemed imminent, Stewart rallied his boys and achieved one of the finest moments in program history.
That improbable January night in Glendale, Az., will live on forever in Mountaineer lore.
The blue-collar values that embody this state were instilled in Stewart from an early age. Despite rising to a handsomely paid, highly publicized position, Stewart never changed his ways.
He was a permanent fixture in the community and state. He remembered reporters and fans by first names. He could recall details about small towns from across West Virginia with impeccable accuracy. He posed for pictures with anyone who would ask for them. He always smiled.
Stewart saw the writing on the wall when a succession plan was drawn following his final season as head coach.
It was a difficult time for the New Martinsville, W.Va., native. He felt unwanted. A new regime was in place with a different vision, set on taking the program in a different direction.
Stewart was hurt and did something I’m sure he regretted until his final day. Backed into a corner, he allegedly solicited a pair of reporters to "dig up dirt" on his successor, current head coach Dana Holgorsen.
That mistake became a tough one for Stewart as that uncharacteristic transgression attracted nationwide attention and portrayed the University in a negative light.
This past January, Stewart watched in the background, far away from the spotlight as West Virginia piled up a bowl-record 70 points in its Orange Bowl victory over Clemson.
As tough as it was watching the players he recruited succeed without being there to lead them, watching the team he loved so much excel, you can bet that he was swollen Mountaineer Pride that night.
The biggest question in the wake of his passing is this: How will Bill Stewart be remembered?
Stewart will not be best remembered for his exploits on the football field. Every Saturday for three seasons, Stewart roamed the sidelines wearing his trademark sweater vest embroidered with the "Flying WV" logo.
He did a pretty darn good job at it, too.
Among coaches with a minimum of two seasons as head coach, Stewart obtained the second-highest winning percentage (.700) in program history, better than both Rodriguez (seven seasons, .698) and Don Nehlen (21 seasons, .614).
However, Stewart’s Mountaineer teams were defined as underachieving. A trio of nine-win seasons was no longer enough to satisfy the insatiable hunger of a West Virginia fan base who became accustomed to annual Big East championships and BCS bowl berths.
Regardless of how you remember Stewart as a football coach, one thing doesn’t change – how you remember him as a man.
There was no greater ambassador for the University and the state than Stewart. Every chance he got, he promoted the Mountain State and all of the beauty of the people that lived there.
As a person, Stewart oftentimes drew comparisons to the late Penn State head coach Joe Paterno, who was celebrated for his ability to turn young men into adults during their four years in school.
Stewart will be remembered for being the man who helped outsiders understand how important the University and its football team is to the state of West Virginia.
He was constantly spreading Mountaineer Pride, and being the one man who could help outsiders understand just how special it means to be a Mountaineer.
The great American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "It is not the length of life, but the depth."
At the age of 59, Stewart’s untimely trip on those "Country Roads" from "Almost Heaven, West Virginia," to heaven came much to soon. He may have physically left this Earth, but his spirit still remains.
Stewart’s legacy as a champion of this state, its people and its way of life will last long after he is gone; Stewart’s legacy will live on through the pride of the people of West Virginia.