When the news story popped up on the computer screen a few weeks ago, it didn't seem real.
"Former West Virginia coach Bill Stewart died Monday at the age of 59 after suffering an apparent heart attack."
Stewart was known to most of the college football world as the former assistant who stepped in to take over West Virginia's program as interim head coach after Rich Rodriguez bolted for Michigan in late 2007. In his first game overseeing the Mountaineers, they hammered Oklahoma 48-28 in the Fiesta Bowl, and Stewart wasn't "interim" anymore. He went 28-12 over three seasons, before his tenure ended in an unhappy way. Dana Holgorsen was hired as coach-in-waiting, Stewart said some things he shouldn't have, and he was pushed into retirement.
But it's obvious from the endless tributes, by players and fellow coaches, that Stewart, a West Virginia native, remained special to everyone who knew him.
The same goes here.
Stewart spent four years of his coaching journey at Air Force, from 1990 through 1993, in charge of the AFA defensive line. He was always smiling and upbeat, excitedly greeting his players as they left the field after a good series, or exhorting them to bounce back when times were tough.
His optimism was infectious, and the Air Force players loved him. Likewise, Stewart was a magnet for the media, never failing to provide great quotes.
My favorite Stewart memories go back to his first year at the AFA. That 1990 team didn't have a runner who totaled 600 yards, and the top two quarterbacks, Rob Perez and Jarvis Baker, passed for 99 and 144 yards, respectively — for the entire season. The defense was led by defensive back Carlton McDonald and linebackers Brian Hill and J.T. Tokish (now an orthopedic surgeon at the AFA hospital), but the unit as a whole took its lumps during the season, giving up 54 points against Brigham Young and 57 at Notre Dame.
Stewart inherited a defensive line that averaged only about 230 pounds a man, regularly giving up 40 to 60 pounds to opposing blockers. Given that, and the need to develop depth, Stewart spent the season playing his second unit about a third of the time. That kept everyone fresh, and by the end of the year, the Falcons turned a 4-5 record into 6-5 with a 15-3 win at Army followed by a 14-13 victory at Texas-El Paso to earn a berth in the Liberty Bowl — against mighty Ohio State.
No big deal. Air Force's defensive coaches put together a game plan that stymied the Buckeyes, with those down linemen playing a key role. After the Falcons' 23-11 upset victory, Stewart spent a long time giving hugs to everyone in sight, then summed up the night perfectly by saying, "There's some football for the Big Ten, buddy."
A year later, Air Force went 10-3 and wrapped it up with another Liberty Bowl stunner, routing Mississippi State, 38-15, again with the unsung AFA defensive line playing a vital role.
Stewart left the Falcons in 1994 to become head coach at Virginia Military Institute, but not even his positive attitude could change that program's losing ways. But by 2000 he was at West Virginia, where he endeared himself until his big chance came.
His finest moment had to be that Fiesta Bowl, after a rousing, nationally televised pregame pep talk when he told his team, "Leave no doubt tonight."
But a lot of Air Force people remember Bill Stewart for another unforgettable night: Dec. 27, 1990. I had it on my list to call him up sometime, and let him relive that.
Sadly, now it's too late. But at least we can savor it this way.
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