Last spring, I sat in Bill Stewart's office in the West Virginia football complex for a long chat, as I had the previous two Aprils. Of course, this visit carried a distinctly different vibe, as Stewart was preparing to coach what he thought would be his final season as Mountaineers coach before handing the reins over to Dana Holgorsen.
Stewart never really wanted to participate in the peaceful transition of power, which became even more obvious just a few weeks later. Outwardly, though, he maintained his ever-rosy persona when I asked him what he planned to do with his life after football.
"I'm only going to be 59 this year," he told me. "I was born to coach. I was born to lead."
Sadly, and incredibly, Stewart didn't have much time to write a new chapter in his life, dying of a heart attack Monday just a couple of weeks shy of his 60th birthday.
His three-year run as West Virginia's head coach coincided with my three years covering the Big East for ESPN.com. I would always tell people who asked about the league one thing: There's not another football coach like Bill Stewart.
Nobody loved West Virginia more than the New Martinsville native who spoke reverentially about "the old Gold and Blue" every chance he got. You could have never pictured Stewart leaving the Mountaineers for a supposedly bigger job the way Rich Rodriguez did before the 2008 Fiesta Bowl. Which is why, in the hours after Stewart led the the team to an upset of Oklahoma in that game as interim coach, West Virginia leaders got swept up in the euphoria and emotion and named him permanent head coach.
It was a hasty decision that in retrospect was probably the wrong call. Stewart hadn't even been a coordinator during his career as an assistant in Morgantown, and his one stint as a head coach, at VMI, was a failure. He could deliver a rousing speech, he could connect on a personal level with his players and -- despite the perception caused by his "aw shucks" manners -- he knew football.
But Stewart lacked an obsessive focus on details that mark most successful coaches at powerhouse schools, and his teams often reflected that. The Mountaineers in the Stewart era lost games to less talented teams because of untimely mistakes, turnovers and penalties. Fans believed his teams underachieved, and their case was only strengthened when Holgorsen won the Orange Bowl with Stewart's players last season.
But if the worst thing you could say about Bill Stewart was that he didn't spend every waking minute breaking down film or yelling at his assistants, so be it. He was a people person, through and through. On one of my first spring visits, we sat in his office talking for more than 90 minutes even though he had to attend a high school coaches' clinic that was underway. He asked me more questions than the other way around. On another visit, I was scheduled to drive back to Pittsburgh at the end of the day. Stewart worried that I would be driving into storms and kept checking the weather reports throughout the day. He asked me to let him know that I got back safely that night. How many BCS conference coaches would do that?
But that's how Stewart was, a genuinely nice and thoughtful person. His players -- some of whom, like Noel Devine, had wildly different backgrounds -- clearly loved him as a father figure. Players, media members and others who knew him got used to receiving daily inspirational text messages from Stewart while he was coaching.
And if Stewart was not the right guy to follow Rodriguez, then whose fault was that? If someone handed you your ultimate dream job, would you say no? Rodriguez's departure created an ugly rift, and Stewart helped unite the West Virginia family once again. His tenure was hardly a disaster, as the Mountaineers won nine games in each of his three seasons, including a share of the 2010 Big East title. The program recruited well on his watch, and he's responsible for bringing stars like Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Bruce Irvin to campus. Things could have gone a whole lot worse after Rodriguez left, but Stewart maintained the strength of the program and made it possible for Holgorsen to excel immediately. He was a nice guy who didn't finish anywhere near last.
Stewart was an American history buff who was convinced that his legacy would look better down the road. He might have been right about that, though the controversial end to the relationship between him and Holgorsen did him no favors. What I'll choose to remember about Stewart was his overwhelmingly decent, fundamentally caring personality. There was no head coach like Bill Stewart, and there weren't many people quite like him, either.