MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Much of WVU’s 2008 Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma has been romanticized over the years — a team facing so much adversity after heartbreak rallying around an interim coach to throttle a team widely considered a heavy favorite.
Coach Bill Stewart’s pregame speech went viral, while fullback Owen Schmitt’s postgame version did the exact same. Wide receiver Tito Gonzales, previously told he would never make it at WVU, cried after hauling in a long touchdown on a national stage.
Another is Stewart raising the golden football from the Fiesta Bowl’s $1.3 million trophy above his head, with a clapping, smiling and wide-eyed 13-year-old standing right by his side.
Stewart’s son, Blaine, captured the hearts of WVU fans that night. Even though he paved his path as an all-state football player at Morgantown High a few years later before going on to play college football and now working in the professional ranks, that night is one of the most special of Blaine’s life.
Most Mountaineers fans know how the 2007 football season ended, but from the eyes of the younger Stewart, there was a lot on the line many may not have thought of.
One game is all that stood between West Virginia and a trip to New Orleans for the national championship game — a home affair with 4-7 Pitt.
Sparing the details, there were 60,100 fans at Milan Puskar Stadium left speechless, including Stewart, who was sitting in his typical bleacher near the southwest tunnel, along with the other coaches’ families.
“I just remember being in pure shock,” he said, as Bill was the special teams and associate head coach at the time. “I just remember sitting there crying honestly. I used to get pretty emotional after every WVU loss back then, but this one hurt a little more with everything riding on the game.”
A devastating 13-9 loss dashed WVU’s chances of reaching the national title game for the first time since 1988, and to add insult to injury two weeks later, head coach Rich Rodriguez bolted for Michigan, leaving the team to grovel toward the Fiesta Bowl.
Despite the Pitt loss, the Mountaineers still won the Big East and earned an automatic bid to a BCS Bowl. However, it was a bitter disappointment for what could have been.
Blaine doesn’t recall much about what his dad had to say about the Pitt game because he “was really good about separating work life from home life,” but Rodriguez leaving added uncertainty to all of his assistants, including Bill Stewart.
The year prior, in 2006, rumors circulated Rodriguez was leaving West Virginia for Alabama before ultimately deciding to stay with the Mountaineers. During the time before the final decision was a stressful time for Blaine.
A year later, though, Rodriguez leaving became a reality.
“I remember when I thought I was moving to Alabama, except this time, it would be to Ann Arbor, Michigan,” Blaine said. “I was young but I knew how the business worked. Nine times out of 10, when the head man leaves, the assistants either left with him or went elsewhere. Very rarely are you retained by the new head coach.”
When Rodriguez was officially gone, then-WVU athletic director, Ed Pastilong named Bill the interim coach for the next 2 1/2 weeks leading toward a take with Oklahoma in Glendale, Ariz. As a New Martinsville native, it was a dream come true for Bill to be named the head coach, even in an interim status, of his home-state university.
Though Bill was hired to be a calming influence in a program thrown into chaos in December 2007, he had a chance to prove himself in the field — something other candidates the school interviewed did not have. It did put Bill’s future in jeopardy, though, since it was unknown if Rodriguez would offer him a chance to join him at Michigan after the Fiesta Bowl.
“I was super excited he got the opportunity, but looking back, I think it was stressful for my parents,” Blaine said. “There was so much uncertainty. I was just enjoying the whole experience but in the back of our minds, we had no idea what was going to happen following the game.
“It was amazing seeing him get the opportunity to lead we loved so much. He was a West Virginia guy through and through, from a West Virginia family who married a West Virginia girl (Karen). I think the interim opportunity was a culmination of a lot of hard work, a lot of ups and downs and this was his shot.”
Trip to the desert
Bill Stewart had been coaching football since the late 1970s, and his only other stint as a head coach was in the mid-1990s at Virginia Military Institute when Blaine was just a baby.
During the trip to Arizona and while riding around the city during bowl week, there was one thing specifically that has stuck with Blaine.
“The No. 1 thing I remember about the travel was being the ‘head coach family,’ I guess I would call it,” he said. “My mom and dad were the first seats on Bus 1 and on the plane, which was weird at first. It was pretty cool to see just from my perspective. I just spent the actual trip like every other bowl trip, hanging out with my best friend Jake Casteel on the bus and plane. Some of our best memories were all the great bowl trips we went on together.”
Casteel’s father, Jeff, was WVU’s defensive coordinator at the time, but many thought Jeff was headed to Michigan to join Rodriguez after the game.
“Jake and I viewed the Fiesta Bowl week as our last hurrah together,” Blaine said.
Like always, Bill allowed Blaine to pick out his bowl gift — that Fiesta Bowl allowed players and coaches to pick a pair of Oakley sunglasses. Blaine also got to spend time in the players’ lounge at University of Phoenix Stadium (now State Farm Stadium), which was filled with Xboxes, ping pong tables and pool tables.
“Coaches’ kids spent a lot of time with the players in there,” Blaine said.
A representative with the Fiesta Bowl shared a similar mindset to what most of the country was thinking leading into the game against the Sooners.
“The funniest thing I remember was before the game, a Fiesta Bowl person told my mom and the other wives something along the lines of, ‘Now, if somehow you guys actually win this game, someone will be here at the beginning of the fourth (quarter) to take the families down to the field,’ ” Blaine said.
“They didn’t think we had a prayer.”
Oklahoma was considered one of the best teams in the country after throttling Missouri, which was No. 1 in the country at the time, in the Big 12 title game a month earlier. On the other hand, the Mountaineers were trying to pick up the pieces after losing to Pitt and their head coach.
Meanwhile, in the visitor’s locker room, Bill Stewart was giving a speech that is now immortalized with WVU football.
“It’s real simple: You out block ’em. You out tackle ’em. You out hit ’em. You out hustle ‘em.”
“It’s Mountaineer Pride!”
Following the game, Bill’s “Leave No Doubt” speech spread like wildfire on social media, but Blaine recalls his dad wasn’t as thrilled as everyone else that it became as popular as it did.
“I believe I saw it on YouTube first,” Blaine said. “My dad was pretty shocked when he saw it the first time. Truth be told, he wasn’t exactly pleased it was public. He viewed it as an intimate moment for the team. I sure am glad they captured and released it though.”
As the game progressed, it became clearer and clearer the WVU coaches’ families would be allowed on the field. Not only did WVU win, it dominated the Sooners for start to finish in a 48-28 win. Quarterback Pat White was named the Offensive MVP after throwing for 176 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for another 150 yards. Linebacker Reed Williams was Defensive MVP with nine tackles, a sack and forced fumble.
With a sea of players in front of the podium chanting “Stew!” Blaine remembers exactly what that felt like.
“It was such a cool moment to be up there with my heroes like Pat White and Reed Williams,” he said. “Truly surreal is the only way to describe it.”
Immediately after the game, WVU ended its search for a new head coach, removing the interim tag and placing a permanent one in front of Bill’s name.
“It was incredible,” Blaine said. “We were back at the team hotel because we didn’t fly out until the next day. It was just such a great moment for my parents and me. We knew things were about to change forever and were so thankful for the opportunity.”
Bill coached the Mountaineers for the next three seasons, combining for a 27-12 record, including a bowl win against North Carolina in 2008. A controversial decision was made in 2011, as Stewart resigned his post in favor of Dana Holgorsen after a failed “head coach-in-waiting” situation.
The following year, in May 2012, Bill passed away of a heart attack at age 59.
Blaine, who was in high school, continued to grow as a player, especially at wide receiver. As a senior at MHS in 2012, he caught 41 catches for 615 yards and six touchdowns, and eventually signed with James Madison, where he spent three seasons.
As a grad transfer, Blaine moved onto the University of Charleston, where he spent two seasons an graduated in December 2017.
In 2018, he was hired by the Pittsburgh Steelers as a coaching assistant. While Bill was at VMI, he gave Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin his first coaching opportunity. Now, it’s come full circle.
As far as the WVU football program goes, Blaine was at the first spring practice of the year in March. He finally feels back at home.
“Coach [Neal] Brown has been very open about my mom and I being 100% welcomed around the program,” he said. “I’m thankful for him and his staff. It’s nice to feel welcomed again after a long time away.”
**THIS IS THE SIXTH in a series of 10 local sports stories The Dominion Post believes would make a good sports documentary. They will run every Sunday and Thursday through July 2.**