MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Condolences streamed in from as far as Texas and Massachusetts as fans and friends gathered Thursday in Morgantown to pay tribute to former West Virginia University football coach Bill Stewart.
Stewart died Monday of an apparent heart attack at age 59 while on a golf outing with former athletic director Ed Pastilong.
Mourners attended a seven-hour public viewing at the Morgantown Event Center as police and hotel security tried to keep journalists outside.
Inside a cavernous ballroom, hundreds of chairs were set up so family, friends and fans could view photos projected on two screens. Framed and mounted photo collages were tucked into a long, curving row of flower arrangements.
Among those saying goodbye was Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
“He practiced what he preached, living every day, every minute, in a way that could leave no doubt about the kind of man he was,” Tomblin said in a statement issued the night before. “A gentleman of uncommon decency and honor and warmth, a passionate coach, a throwback to a simpler, purer era in sports.”
Blake Tasker, 33, a former graduate assistant who worked under Stewart during the 2010 season, called him “genuine” and the kind of man every father hopes his daughter will date and marry. Stewart was dedicated to his wife, Karen, and their only child, Blaine, and never missed one of his son’s football games.
“Even in the middle of seasons, he would go and watch Blaine play. He would take time and get out of the office to go see his son,” said Tasker, adding his former boss set an example for his players in life.
“It was about teaching them how to be good members of society, teaching them how to be young men ... instead of just athletes,” Tasker said. “That is a legacy that he did want to leave.”
Ileana Ilee and Emily Stiles, 17-year-old classmates of Blaine Stewart, were among the first of what they said would be many Morgantown High School students showing support for their friend.
“I can’t imagine losing somebody like that,” Ilee said.
Stiles has known Blaine for several years but only met his father a few times.
“Even though I didn’t really didn’t know him, I would see him downtown or whatever and he would always say ‘hi,’” she said. “He was just such a nice guy. He meets you once, he knows you.”
A private funeral Mass for family, close friends, coaches and former players will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church.
The funeral procession will leave at 2 p.m. for Stewart’s hometown of New Martinsville, where the Magnolia High School football field will host an honorary salute before burial at the North View Cemetery.
Tributes on the McCulla Funeral Home website focused less on Stewart’s record (28-12 in three seasons) and more on his warm personality. Game officials, former players, ex-State Police escorts and countless fans shared stories about their interactions with a man they say always made time for others, even strangers in a grocery store.
Stewart took over as head coach when Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan at the end of the 2007 regular season.
Mountaineer fans unleashed fury on Rodriguez for breaking his contract early and leaving shortly after a painful loss to rival Pittsburgh that cost the Mountaineers a shot at the national championship.
He also left two weeks before the Fiesta Bowl game against Oklahoma, taking recruits and assistants with him.
It was Stewart who stepped in and guided the team to a surprising 48-28 victory over the Sooners. In a rousing pre-game speech, he urged his players to outrun and out-hit the other team — but to do it fairly.
“You stay within the legal limits of the game. It’s Mountaineer pride. Nothing cheap!” he shouted.
“Leave no doubt,” he said. “Leave no doubt tonight ... they shouldn’t have played the old gold and blue. Not this night.”
But he ended with a smile, urging his team to have fun: “It’s a game, lads.”
In the euphoric aftermath of the victory, Stewart landed the job full-time. But the Mountaineers didn’t go to another BCS bowl under his leadership and Stewart couldn’t match the production of Rodriguez.
Stewart resigned last summer and was replaced by Dana Holgorsen the same night.