A native of New Martinsville, W.Va., Stewart oozes enthusiasm for his job and an enduring love and passion for all things West Virginia. This is all he ever wanted: to be Mountaineers coach.
When Rich Rodriguez announced he was leaving to become coach at Michigan at the end of the 2007 season, Stewart was named interim coach of the Mountaineers. He proceeded to lead West Virginia to an impressive 48-28 victory over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl that helped him earn the full-time job.
Stewart, 57, followed that debut with a 9-4 mark in 2008 and a 9-3 record this season. His Mountaineers are readying to play Florida State in the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl in what will be Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden's final game.
Stewart visited with Rivals.com to reflect on his brief career in his dream job as well as his emotions in facing Bowden.
What is the biggest thing you have learned since taking over the program?
The biggest thing for me is the notoriety or celebrity of this job. My name on my birth certificate says William Lee Stewart. My friends call me 'Billy' my whole life. Or 'Stew.' That's what my mama called me. My name isn't 'coach.' I'm not some big icon guy that people should revere. That's the biggest part I've had to deal with. I try to be a good man in my daily walk, I try to be a great husband to my bride and I try to be a great dad to my son. Then I try to be as good a human being as I can in today's society with my fellow man. I try to treat everybody the way I would want to be treated. But the celebrity status has been the toughest thing I have had to deal with.
I'm a West Virginian, and I didn't know the notoriety or acclaim or celebrity status that would come with this job. That caught me off-guard.
A 17-14 overtime loss at Colorado in 2008 dropped West Virginia to 1-2. Many felt you weren't up to the job. At that time, was any doubt creeping into your mind?
No. But what was creeping in my mind was that these guys had played so hard in that tough environment out in Boulder and we were supposed to be the eighth-rated team in the country and we were without Steve Slaton, Darius Reynaud and Owen Schmitt. Over 60 percent of our offense went to the NFL. And eight starters on defense were gone, too.
We got whacked the week before by a really good team at East Carolina [24-3]. I said, 'Oh, boy.' That's the night we came together on the '08 team. … Did I have doubt? No. But I had worries, yes.
Do you have any advice for Cincinnati's Jeff Quinn, who, like you did, will be an interim coach in a BCS bowl?
Not that he needs my advice. Here is what I told another coach who was in a similar situation. I said, 'In my opinion, you have to be you, first and foremost.' When I went to the Fiesta Bowl, I wasn't going to be something I wasn't. I had to be me. And you have to make sure the young men know that there is a plan, that we will stick to the plan, we will be successful because of the plan and we will continue on with it.
My second night out at the Fiesta Bowl, I had 125 guys who didn't know who was going to be coaching them. The first guy who broke curfew, I sent him home the next day. He no longer is with the team. They figured out really quick who was in charge.
The equation is simple: Be who you are, get your staff on the same sheet of music and have the resiliency and resolve to complete the plan. If you do that, those kids will be just fine.
What will you miss most about losing assistant coach Doc Holliday, who took the Marshall coaching job?
I will miss the camaraderie we had. Doc has good people-person skills and a sharp mind, and he has a good heartbeat. Doc Holliday, Steve Dunlap, Bill Kirelawich, then we have the young guys. Those older guys, those graybeards I call them, I lean on those graybeards a lot. I don't talk to my staff, I talk with them. I will miss that maturity that he helped me bring to the program.
Do you think West Virginia fans finally are over Rich Rodriguez?
I don't know. I never have really thought of that. If they aren't, they need to be. The guy changed jobs, it's over. … Remember that seven of my buddies went up there that I was with for seven years and a bunch of my GAs [graduate assistants]. All I ever have done toward that Michigan staff is wish them the best. And … that is the sincere truth.
Is there a part of your team that's underrated?
The chemistry and leadership. If we win this game, these seniors will be 41-11. The class before them was 42-10 with Pat White. And if we win, it will be four straight bowl wins. They counted us out after [losing 30-19 at] South Florida [on Oct. 30]. We were awful in quarters two, three and four. And South Florida had a lot to do with that. They matched up with us. They beat us. And everyone counted us out. Well, buddy, since that time, we have played pretty good. We lost by three on the road to Cincinnati [24-21]. Then we beat a pretty fine Pitt team [19-16] and a pretty fine Rutgers team [24-21].
The 23 seniors, 17 of them graduated in December. These guys rallied the team after the South Florida loss. I had everybody grab hands and had them take an oath. I told them a little bit about life: 'They remember November.' That's all I kept saying.
Noel Devine will be even more explosive next year. He may have a 2,000-yard season because we will be a better program and will be able to spread the wealth even more and get him even more into space.
He is like Stevie Slaton - he is here and then he is gone in a blink. Bang, bang. I couldn't catch him on a motorcycle.
We will try to get him from getting too hyped up [in the Gator Bowl] because he wants to do so well in the state of Florida [his home state]. These guys get out of their mind-set sometimes when they go home to Florida to play. I have to do a good job of not letting him get over-hyped. I want to make sure he doesn't lose his mind, so to speak.
What will it mean to you to coach against Bobby Bowden in his final game?
It is going to be an honor. It is an honor and a privilege. My first year in college, 1970, I was a skinny little 177-pound linebacker out of New Martinsville, W.Va. You know who the head coach was at West Virginia in his first season? Bobby Bowden. So there is a lot of nostalgia there and a lot of wonderful memories. His son, Steve, was a teammate. This isn't just a game [for me]. It is so much more.