News of the passing of Bill Stewart, the former West Virginia University football coach and New Martinsville native, hit hard statewide Monday. From newscasts and talk shows to social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, residents of the Mountain State wore their hearts on their sleeves as they recalled the kindness of the man known to most as “Coach Stew.”
Certainly, Bridgeport was not the exception to the rule. Monday evening, several in the community were still feeling the sting of the loss; some more so than others due to close relationships developed with Stewart through associations with the University. Two of those individuals – former WVU long snapper Tim Lindsey and current MetroNews employee and WVU football public address announcer Travis Jones – recalled the impact Stewart made on their lives. More importantly, they recalled the substance of the man.
“He was definitely my mentor and a father figure for me in Morgantown,” said Lindsey of the 59-year-old Stewart. “We had a strong faith that we both shared and we did multiple church and charity events together, and that even happened after I left WVU’s football program.
“Coach always stayed in touch with me just to remind me to keep my head on right and to live life the right way,” Lindsey continued. “That’s the way he talked to the media and the cameras, but that’s the way he was away from the field. He cared about people and it was 100 percent him. That was who he was and I will always respect him for that. He was that rare person that was tried and true.”
Lindsey, a Bridgeport High School graduate, grew so close to his position coach that he asked Stewart, who was an assistant coach at the time Lindsey was at WVU, to be a reader at his wedding. Stewart, he said, readily agreed. Between the time he asked his one-time position coach, Stewart became the head coach following his brief interim status that included the program- and state-healing win against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
“I told Coach that I certainly understood that he had new responsibilities and if he couldn’t make it that it was not a problem,” Lindsey said. “He would have none of it. He assured me he would be there.”
And he was. On June 7, 2008, with a boatload of coaching priorities to handle, Bill Stewart showed up for Tim Lindsey’s wedding as a spectator and participant.
“I needed someone to read and I couldn’t think of anyone better because he knew me and represented everything I wanted to portray. Having him there that day was special and my wife, to this day, talks about what a great guy he was,” Lindsey said. “He had just been named head coach and when I suggested that he may want to pass he shrugged it off … He left halfway through the reception, but he was there from 9 a.m. to about 7 p.m. To live up to his commitment, again, just reaffirmed what I already knew.”
That, of course, made Lindsey’s Monday afternoon as difficult a day as he’s had in a long time. He said his phone started ringing off the hook with the initial news in the afternoon.
“I was just floored when I heard he had a heart attack and my immediate reaction is that I’ve got to make plans to go see him. Then you start hearing stuff that he had passed away on Facebook and other places, but you can’t always trust that,” Lindsey, who owns Certified Fitness Trainers in Morgantown, said. “Finally, my friend Travis McClintock called and told me and I knew it was true. I had to put a brave face on the rest of the day. That proved to be very difficult.”
Jones, of course, had a built-in connection with Stewart through his media dealings. He also had a much closer one, as well, through
his uncle Zach Jones, a donor and booster to the WVU football program.
“He was so close to my uncle after they got to know each other. They really hit it off and became golfing and hunting buddies,” Jones, who has handled BHS football radio play-by-play duties for 19 years, said. “Their time together goes back to the Rich Rodriguez days and they were close ever since.”
Like most coaches, Stewart at times grew frustrated with members of the media. Unlike most coaches, Jones said the coach made it a point to get to know those who regularly covered the Mountaineers.
“That was a really endearing thing about him. Some coaches look at the media, particularly at that level, as the enemy. He knew everyone’s first name and about their family,” said Jones. “I can tell you from experience that doesn’t happen very often in this business.”
The business that Stewart was in was cutthroat. And the business that Lindsey wanted to get into following his collegiate days, were even worse. Yet, when Lindsey’s long-snapping abilities proved to be on par with those already in the National Football League, it was Stewart who did everything possible to open the door to the next level.
“He was one of the reasons I ended with a scholarship from WVU and the main reason I got a chance to actually play in the NFL,” said Lindsey, who played preseason football for the Seahawks before being released just before the season started. “He got the word out about me to everyone he knew in the league and he helped me get an agent. He did that because he had faith in me. I owe my football career to him and the fact that I have no regrets on how far it went I owe to him.”
Jones, like Lindsey, was stunned to hear the news. Being in the media industry, he was exposed to the situation almost in real time. Of course, it didn’t take the edge off of what seemed like a surreal situation.
“I never knew of any major health problems because he worked out, was in good shape and was into being healthy,” Jones said. “Even up to the moment he collapsed, he didn’t feel ill or complain.”
Jones said it wasn’t part of Stewart’s nature to complain. He said he believed Stewart felt too blessed to complain about being part of the Mountaineer program and a Mountaineer in general.
“From a personal standpoint, I’ll remember more than anything is just the way he was and how genuine he was. He was the real deal. He was the same way on and off the field and he had a real love for the state of West Virginia and football,” Jones said. “No one could promote the state like he could.
“Looking back, it was an amazing rise from the Fiesta Bowl win to coaching for three years,” Jones continued. “I just realized it’s not even been a calendar year since he left the program. I hope people will remember that his love for the program was genuine and that will be a big part of his legacy.”
Lindsey echoed those comments.
“It’s been good to see on all of the social media outlets and message boards the tributes to Coach Stewart. As I was reading a lot of them, I couldn’t help but think back to a comment he used that, I think, was from the movie The Sandlot,” Lindsey said. “He used it pre-game at WVU and when we did talks together, particularly with kids, to get everyone all riled up. He’d say ‘Hey boys, heroes get remembered and legends never die.’ He’d just scream that and then he’d say ‘Go out and be a legend today.’
“To me, he was a hero and a legend,” Lindsey continued. “When you think about it, he’s always going to be a legend and that means, at least to me, he will never die.”
Editor's Note: Cover photo of Tim Lindsey during his playing days with WVU. Inside photo of Travis Jones doing his PA work at Mountaineer Field.