Tragic end to beautiful friendship
It was a moment in time no one should ever have to endure.
Unfortunately, life is filled with cruel twists of fate. Moundsville’s Ed Pastilong recently experienced the ultimate.
That it came during a carefree golf outing with long-time friend and co-worker Bill Stewart would test Pastilong’s faith and resolve to the fullest extent.
A quarterback at West Virginia University between 1963-65. Pastilong began a coaching career at Scott High (W. Va.) School before eventually crossing paths with Stewart in the 1970s when Pastilong, then head coach at West Virginia Conference member school Salem College, was recruiting Stewart’s brother, Teddy.
“Bill was the type of individual you took an immediate liking to,” recalled Pastilong during a recent interview in the aftermath of Stewart’s sudden death at a central West Virginia golf resort.
“Billy was known for his outgoing personality and always, that big, friendly smile.” The fact both were ‘valley’ boys made their relationship that much more endearing.
“I took an interest following Bill’s (coaching) career and was so excited when (then-WVU head coach) Don Nehlen brought Billy onboard to the Mountaineers’ staff in January of 2000,” Pastilong pointed out.
Though Stewart often came across as an easy-going, sometimes laid back good ol’ boy, he was highly respected among his peers and recognized an adept teacher players easily related to.
“I’d categorize Billy as a pretty regular, down-to-earth, humble guy,” Pastilong advised. “At the same time, you were impressed by his knowledge of the game and unique ability to communicate with his players.”
With Pastilong now serving as WVU’s full-time director of athletics, Nehlen retired following the 2000 season.
Meanwhile, former Salem Head Coach and West Virginia native Rich Rodriguez was hired to lead the Gold & Blue.
Stewart remained an integral member of Rodriguez’ staff as the program was on the verge of enjoying unprecedented national success.
“I was thrilled for Billy,” Pastilong disclosed. “He definitely was where he wanted to be and part of an exciting time for Mountaineer football.”
Regarded among the college game’s rising young coaching stars, Rodriguez guided the 2007 Mountaineers within an eyelash of a BCS title game appearance only to endure a shattering 13-9 home field loss to bitter rival Pitt in the regular season finale.
The ensuing weeks were filled with turmoil as rumors circulated Rodriguez was considering a bolt to Michigan for the Wolverines’ prestigious head post.
As those rumors soon became reality, WVU’s grid program was suddenly in limbo despite an upcoming Fiesta Bowl date with Oklahoma at Tempe, Az.
“The more I was around Billy, the more I was convinced he was the man to assume (an interim) role after Rich’s departure,” Pastilong described. “We all remember what followed (a 48-28 WVU rout of the Sooners).”
Instead of conducting what many perceived would be a national search to replace Rodriguez, Pastilong, instead, boldly named Stewart the school’s 32nd head football coach.
“It was clear to me Billy was prepared to take that next step and lead our football program,” Pastilong assured. “There was no second-guessing on my part at all. Perhaps there was (in other parts of the state) but I had full confidence in Bill Stewart.”
Stewart’s three seasons running the program resulted in a relatively successful 28-12 record. Under Stewart, the Mountaineers posted a 1-2 ledger in postseason bowl outings.
Stewart’s tenure in Morgantown, though, was to take an adverse turn when new athletic director Oliver Luck announced the arrival of Oklahoma State assistant Dana Holgorsen, tabbed to succeed Stewart following the 2011 campaign.
Stewart, however, following alleged allegations of improper conduct, abruptly resigned almost a year ago on June 10.
The scenario was obviously unsettling for a now-retired Pastilong who preferred to not go public regarding the fallout.
“From conversations I had with Bill, I understood his desire to (remain out of coaching) and closely monitor the progress of son, Blaine Stewart, a current quarterback at Morgantown High,” Pastilong reported.
“However, I would not have been surprised had Billy made an attempt to return to coaching (in some capacity) following his son’s high school graduation.”
Thus, Pastilong was pleased to reunite with Stewart for May 21’s golf outing at the Stonewall Resort, located in Roanoke, W. Va.
“Bill drove down separately and we met the night before at a function in conjunction with the outing,” Pastilong explained.
“He came across as the same old Billy. He went out of his way to pose for pictures and meet the public which he always enjoyed doing. We had dinner. He was in excellent spirits.”
The next morning, Pastilong and Stewart’s group gathered for coffee before heading out on the course.
“There was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. Billy seemed perfectly healthy. As usual, we were enjoying each other’s company,” Pastilong revealed.
The group had started on the sixth hole of a scramble event and had reached the 17th fairway.
“Bill was telling us a recruiting story recalling his days at the Air Force Academy,” Pastilong related. “In the next instant, he fell backwards to the ground. We immediately recognized (the situation’s severity). A team member began CPR after dialing 9-1-1 and the facility’s golf pro who raced to our location.”
Stewart failed to respond to frenetic revival attempts before eventually being rushed to a nearby medical facility at Weston.
Pastilong, meanwhile, grimly phoned Stewart’s wife, Karen, advising her of a serious medical incident involving her husband.
Hospital officials were unsuccessful in attempts to save Stewart’s life. He was pronounced dead later that afternoon.
“You think of Billy and you think of a man who was full of life,” Pastilong offered. “You certainly don’t think of having to bury one of your closest friends at age 59.”
Pastilong was deeply touched by a statewide show of respect for Stewart during a public viewing at Morgantown’s Waterfront Convention Center.
“It was a seven-hour showing. The line was never-ending around the entire building. A tremendous tribute to a true Mountaineer,” Pastilong stressed.
The following day, Stewart’s procession departed for his native New Martinsville. “We were just a few miles out of Morgantown and passed by the Mason-Dixon Elementary School,” Pastilong noted.
“Approximately 100 kids and their teachers were lined up – hands held over their hearts. What a scene. It brought tears to your eyes.”
During a final goodbye at the Magnolia High football facility, hundreds attended emotional services before Stewart was transported to a nearby cemetery and laid to rest.
“Most of all, Billy loved his family. He also loved coaching and teaching football and he achieved what I’m sure was his dream job – coaching the Mountaineers,” Pastilong observed.
Gibson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org