Stew’s Legacy Lives On Through His Players

MORGANTOWN – Bill Stewart’s legacy as West Virginia’s head football coach is one that will forever be debated.

He won a lot of games – but not enough. His speeches were so motivational, he could talk a cat off a fish truck. But the play calls he put his stamp on, some felt, kinda smelled like one. He was a great ambassador for West Virginia University and the state itself. But he was not the right man to run its football team, others said.

Those debates, of course, have slowed since Stewart’s untimely passing on May 21, but what has not is the players he recruited to play for him.

If it’s not what you take, but what you leave behind, ”Stew’s” legacy grows weekly in Morgantown as someone who brought as much football talent to Morgantown as anyone.

During signing days, he’d often defend his classes, saying just that, even as the folks who graded them – whoever they are – disagreed.

But you have to think, seeing some of Stew’s guys playing on Saturdays, he was spot on in recruiting. There’s Heisman Trophy candidates – three in the same class – and a list of other Watch List guys on an offense that really can’t be stopped these days.

Of course, Dana Holgorsen and his staff deserve credit for getting more out of these players than nearly any other coaching staff in America is getting from its players, but it’s a lot easier to spend an inheritance than to leave one.

”I think about him all the time,” defensive back Darwin Cook said of Stewart. ”He came to my high school and said the class of ’09, this class – me, Geno (Smith), Tavon (Austin), Stedman (Bailey), Pat Eger, Terence Garvin, Pat Miller, Brodrick Jenkins, mostly everybody around here – and said ‘this is going to be the team.’ ”

Those guys, now either seniors or redshirt juniors, are the headliners of the No. 5 team in the nation.

Cook wasn’t the only one Stewart whispered that to.

”It’s something I do know he predetermined a long time ago,” linebacker Josh Francis said. ”Maybe that’s being brought forth out of all of us.

”He recruited guys like Bruce (Irvin) and Geno and all of those guys. If you really think about that, that’s one star-filled team. You don’t really get that many big-time time players on one team at the same time.”

Those guys, minus Irvin, were all a part of Stewart’s first official recruiting class, though he did hit it big the season before keeping some of the commits from the (last) class Rich Rodriguez was putting together, including offensive linemen Josh Jenkins and Joe Madsen, kicker Tyler Bitancurt, receiver J.D. Woods, and fullback Ryan Clarke.

”We always talk about the old times with Stew,” Madsen said. ”He was a great coach, great guy. The difference between him and Coach Holgorsen was a lot, but we love both guys.

”His legacy here has been tremendous. Definitely when we’re playing, I always think of him and I throw up a prayer for him all the time.”

Stedman Bailey, who surely has blossomed into the receiver Stewart dreamed he’d be, still remembers the home visits.

”I’m quite sure he’s very proud,” Bailey said. ”It was a sad day when we got the news that he passed away. Coach Stew was a great guy. He did a great job of coming down to South Florida into my home and just talk to me and Geno and everybody else he recruited to let them know he was a very genuine person and that he loved everything about West Virginia.”

Smith, the early season favorite for the Heisman, is happy to be able to hopefully help finish what Stewart started.

”I know he’s watching us in a better place, but we obviously would like to have him here watching us because he’s a part of us and what we have here is a part of what he built,” Smith said. ”He kinda laid the foundation out for us. It’s not one of those things that we talk about, but he is there in the back of our minds and we all do remember him.”

Austin, the nation’s second-leading receiver who was plucked out of Maryland while playing running back, still thinks he owes Stewart and his staff a debt of gratitude.

”We probably think about Coach Stew here and there and we’re sorry for the loss of him,” Austin said. ”I was one of his players he brought in here, and I thank him for that. Some of the speeches he had telling us about sticking with it, we’re definitely owning up to.

”He’s definitely with me. I’m blessed that he gave me the opportunity to come here. He’s definitely in my heart.”

Cook wasn’t always known as the guy who knocked over an Orange named Obie.

When he arrived in Morgantown, he had different ideas about how things were to be done.

Then he got to know Stewart.

”When I came in, I was kind of a hot head, running around. He set me straight, an old ball coach you know. Now I just miss him.”

Cook recalled the night of the program’s most recent bowl game, just who did what and how they got there.

”Last year, we made a splash in the Orange Bowl,” Cook said. ”Mainly all of those guys played. This year, we have a chance. I just feel like this is part of his team, too. I’m pretty sure everybody’s thought about it. We haven’t thought about it as a collective group. But I know I think about it at night time. He was our coach that brought us in. I know he’s looking down on us. If he were here, he’d be happy for us. I feel like we’re doing it for him.”

Some may always remember Stewart as the coach who lost to Syracuse and Connecticut. Others may remember him as a man who never forgot a name or saw a hand he wouldn’t shake. Others still may remember him as the guy who recruited the type of players to win national championships and Heisman Trophies at West Virginia University.

Jim Elliott can be reached via e-mail at: