WVU debut brings memories between former coach, Steelers boss
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — This is a long and winding tale, one that began in obscurity and stretched into the brightest lights the sports world has to offer, the Super Bowl.
In a way, it has nothing to do with the football game at Milan Puskar Stadium on Saturday at noon, when William & Mary visits West Virginia in the season opener.
Then again, it has everything to do with it.
Where do we begin, in New Martinsville, W.Va., or Newport News, Va.?
They are the hometowns of two football coaches who are intertwined in their careers and intertwined in the two schools playing in this game.
They are former WVU coach, the late Bill Stewart, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
Stewart had a vagabond career, until finally saving the West Virginia program by upsetting Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl after Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan following the devastating loss to Pitt.
Among his stops, from 1981-83, was at William & Mary, coached by Jimmye Laycock, who brings his 34th Tribe team to Morgantown this year.
A decade and a year after leaving William & Mary, Stewart found himself trying to build a staff at VMI. He was drawn to a young wide receiver who had just graduated from William & Mary, where he still owns several receiving records.
That would be Tomlin, and it was Stewart who gave him his first coaching job.
When the Steelers hired Tomlin, Stewart, then an assistant at WVU, thought back on the man he had hired.
“He could have been a great receiver in the NFL if he'd had more speed,” Stewart said at the time. “Mike was a great receiver in college. He came over to coach our receivers and he did a tremendous job.”
The two had remained friends — close friends, really — through the years.
In fact, when word reached Tomlin, who was at practice, that Stewart had been named to replace Rodriguez, he reacted with glee.
“Bill Stewart! That's the best news of the day!” he said.
The relationship didn't end with Stewart's untimely death from a heart attack while playing golf with former WVU athletic director Ed Pastilong in May 2012.
Indeed, that fall, when Stewart's son, Blaine, played his first football game of the year at Morgantown High, there were a couple of special guests in the stands — Tomlin and Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' general manager.
This is what Blaine Stewart tweeted that night:
“Special shoutout to Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert (Steelers GM), and my cousin Corey from NC for coming to my game tonight. Meant a lot to me!”
Not a bad substitute dad for the evening.
Make no mistake, if Stewart were still coaching WVU, Tomlin would have been emotionally torn where to place his loyalties with William & Mary in town. He returned to his alma mater to give the 2008 commencement address.
“This place, although small, it prepares you to deal,” Tomlin said. “I'm extremely comfortable with what it is I have to do for a living. ... And the reason that I'm comfortable is because of the experience I gained here as an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old. That's what makes this place special.”
Note: West Virginia ranked 23th on Forbes magazine's annual study of the most expensive college football game tickets in the nation, averaging $116.
Bob Hertzel is a freelance writer.