I like coaches, always have and always will.
Bob Anderson, Dave Hammack, Jim Rhodes, Conard Waybright, Jack Cottrill, Claude Ball, Jada Parsons, John Easter, Hoy Casto, Sterling Ocheltree, Kenny Swisher, Kevin Casto, Howard Ramsey, Bill Casto, O. G. Britton, Ted Lee, Pete Jordan, Rick Wolfe and Charlie Cottrill coached me in one sport or the other while playing in the local Ripley leagues.
At the junior high and high school levels I had Dallas Wallen, Craig Harmon, Ray Swisher, Roger Hart, Mike Deem, Steve Stoffel, Jim Frashier, Frank Marino, John Gattuso and Bill Parsons.
They all left a lasting impression in some way.
I had excellent coaches while playing college football.
It’s interesting to note that one guy I became extremely close to is a man who actually never coached me. That man was none other than the late Bill Stewart.
My senior year (1978-79) at Ripley High School was special. Bill Stewart played a part in that special year by helping map out my future. Stewart lured me to Salem College to play football for the Tigers. At the time, he was a young 25-year-old assistant making his way up the coaching ladder.
It was a ladder that would ultimately have him garnering the ultimate of coaching positions by guiding the WVU Mountaineer football program.
The Mountain State has been in mourning since his passing last Monday of a massive heart attack while playing golf at Stonewall Resort.
Before heading off to Salem, Stew got a coaching break to become a graduate assistant at the University of North Carolina. Thus, he was gone before I actually made my way to SC (and with Stew gone I eventually transferred to Marietta College and enjoyed my final three years of college in the beautiful Ohio town).
I still have the two-page letter Coach Stewart wrote me throughout that recruiting process my senior year. I certainly wasn’t a five-star recruit, but Stew treated me like one. I went up there on three different occasions to talk with him and the rest of the coaching staff. But a special bond had been formed with Coach Stew. He lifted my confidence as an athlete and more importantly as a future college student to a whole new level.
I was bummed when word came that he wouldn’t be coaching at Salem. At the same time, I was happy for his promotion.
A year later in the spring of 1980, we had the chance to visit for a few minutes in Fairmont, where Stew had once starred as offensive lineman for the Fairmont State College Falcons. His GA position at UNC had landed him a full-time position at Marshall under Sonny Randle. It would be the last time I saw him for a period of 14 years.
Page 2 of 3 - From Marshall, Stew went on to coach at William & Mary, Navy, North Carolina (as a full-time assistant), Arizona State and Air Force. Finally, in 1994 he landed his first head coaching position at VMI.
While working at WOAY-TV in Oak Hill, I decided to travel to Lexington, Virginia and do a story on Stew prior to VMI’s game with Marshall. I told VMI’s Sports Information Director about our past. I also asked for him not to tell Stew my name. I wanted to see if he remembered me…sure enough, he did. That was Bill Stewart. The man never forgot anyone, even a scrawny wide receiver from Ripley, West Virginia.
Producing that story reunited our friendship. Just like at Salem, Stew took me to lunch in the VMI cafeteria. I joined his wife and newborn son (and only child), Blaine, who is now a senior-to-be at Morgantown High.
A year later, I was working as a sideline reporter in a regional television game for FOX Sports. The contest pitted Stewart’s Keydets against Liberty University, who were guided by former Cleveland Browns head coach Sam Rutigliano.
During my quick halftime interview with Stew, he said, “This is just like our old Salem College days isn’t it Mark Martin.” It was kind of funny considering we actually were never together in a game at Salem. It was a scorcher of a day. I interviewed Rev. Jerry Falwell at halftime and thought he was going to wilt. Rutigliano was a class act. In the second half, Stew’s Keydets manhandled the Flames.
Once Stewart made his way back to West Virginia in 2000, first as an assistant for Don Nehlen and then Rich Rodriguez before becoming the head coach, I interviewed him on several occasions. Doing the 2008 Friends of Coal Bowl for the Big East Network gave me the chance to interview Stew both at halftime and after the game as part of the FOC Bowl’s TV coverage.
It was kind of a cool thing to be interviewing a man who had convinced me to not only play college football, but to pursue my dream of becoming a sportscaster. Fate would have it that from those meals as a recruit in the Salem College cafeteria to the regional college football stage years later that I would, in fact, be interviewing Bill Stewart.
We had a great relationship. His passing last Monday of a massive heart attack at the young age of 59 left me stunned and saddened. It’s one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to report.
Despite how it all ended at WVU, Stew was a success. He impacted a lot of lives of both young men and women during his coaching days.
He once wrote me a letter while at WVU ending with this line, “You will always be one of my boys.”
Page 3 of 3 - Being one of Bill Stewart’s “boys” is something I will always cherish.
Rest in peace, Coach.