Bill Stewart led the 2007-08 West Virginia football team to one of the biggest victories in program history at the Fiesta Bowl — and it took more than a locker room speech to do it.
The Mountaineers were coming off one of the most disappointing losses after falling to Pitt at home in the regular season finale, crushing any hopes at a National Championship after a memorable year. Then Coach Rich Rodriguez headed to Michigan, a year after speculation that he would be leaving the team for West Virginia.
Suddenly, what was at first an historic run at a national title turned into a wild time in Mountaineer history, and Stewart was left to navigate the ship as the team’s interim head coach in preparation for the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma a month after the painful loss.
“That was just like, probably the craziest time in maybe college football history to be honest with you,” said former WVU kicker Pat McAfee, “and I’m not 100 percent sure that anybody other than Bill Stewart would have been able to rally the troops.”
Although his resignation did not officially go into effect until January 3 — one day after the Fiesta Bowl — he was not to coach the Mountaineers in the lead-up to the bowl game. Linebacker Reed Williams recalls feeling surprised at the reaction from his team when they officially heard that announcement before practice.
“There were some initial emotional reactions like we all have, but we went out and had a good two hours of work in bowl season, which is hard to fathom thinking back on it today,” he said. “But again, it was this internal focus that we knew we had to do something — we had a season ahead of us, we thought we were national champions, so we couldn’t let that Pitt game define our season.”
Although Stewart was named the team’s interim head coach soon after Rodriguez’s de facto departure, there were still plenty of unknowns surrounding the team for the subsequent weeks. Unknowns can become distractions, and especially after the biggest loss for the program in decades, the goal for Stewart and his staff was to maintain focus on the game at hand and to keep the team together.
Although the Mountaineers were out of title contention, they were still the flagship team for the University and the state, as well as one of the top football teams in the country. To reinforce these notions, Stewart enlisted the help of former coach Don Nehlen and then-Governor Joe Manchin (himself a WVU football alumnus) to come in to speak to the team.
“I think Senator Manchin at the time would have suited up if he could have,” Williams said. “He was fired up.”
On top of that, keeping the team as cohesive as possible was a necessity. McAfee remembers that squad as being driven by their togetherness, even if it was against their former coach Rodriguez and his attitude — a contrast from the philosophy of Stewart.
“Our team was driven by being together, like it was against Rich Rod sometimes because of how mean he was,” McAfee recalls. “Like we’re all in this thing together, it was us versus the world.”
Stewart made an effort to connect with his players on a personal level as well. The Pitt loss was especially difficult for McAfee, who missed two field goals in the 13-9 loss. He still thinks about that game to this day, he says, and he still has nightmares about it.
As Stewart was West Virginia’s special teams coordinator during McAfee’s tenure, the two formed a bond that helped him through the difficulties.
“Coach Stew becoming the head coach…he was my guy,” he said. “…whenever you would go to a barbecue or a cookout at a coach’s house at the end of training camp, I was always at Bill Stewart’s house with his beautiful family. So when he became interim head coach I think he knew I was in a bad spot and how I felt, especially with the worst performance I’d ever had as a Mountaineer.”
The environment Stewart fostered with his staff was a big help to McAfee, who used team activities as an escape from the outside world.
“We all had so much respect for him, and I think it got to the point where for me practice and workouts and stuff like that was my sanctuary,” McAfee said. “Like, meetings were a sanctuary for me to get away from everything else, and I remember going into the game — I felt really good about where our team was.”
A month after the Backyard Brawl, the Mountaineers were in Arizona for the Fiesta Bowl. Before the team had even played a single game under Stewart, his team — especially McAfee — were singing praises about their interim coach, as shown by an unearthed clip from the Fiesta Bowl’s media day.
“We don’t think there’s a better man for the job….[I mean,] the job in the game,” McAfee said to Stewart, who made it clear he wanted to change topics in front of reporters. “Next year though, too.”
Soon after that, it became clear that Stewart and his staff had righted the ship. The interim coach gave a rousing pregame speech in the locker room that still lives on before every Mountaineer home game, and not long after, he would become the program’s 32nd head coach.
Stewart fostered an environment that helped keep the team together. In just weeks, West Virginia football went from a coach-less team surrounded by question marks to one of the proven best teams in the nation under their new coach.
“I think from the outside looking in, it looked likely like a world of chaos. But I think the reason we were able to have the success we had is that everybody in-house — we didn’t see outside of those walls,” Williams said. “The guys that stayed behind — the coaching staff, the faculty, everybody in that house did a great job of keeping our minds focused on that prize and that Fiesta Bowl, but more so than anything of supporting and taking care of one another.”