Monday, April 12, 2010
West Virginia Mine Tragedy Hits Home for Stewart, Huggins
When 25 miners were killed Monday in the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., the tragedy brought back memories from West Virginia football coach Bill Stewart's childhood.
Stewart's uncle, Millard "Buss" Williams, died in a mining accident in April 1961. The summer before Williams' death, Stewart remembers as an 8-year old sitting down at the dinner table. He immediately noticed Williams' hands.
"I told him 'Uncle Buss, you didn't wash your hands very well,' " Stewart told FanHouse Thursday. "He said, 'What's on your hands is dirty dirt. You can wash that off. What's on my hands is 'coal dirt.' This is 'clean' dirt – I earned this dirt today.' I'll never forget that.
"Every time there's a mining accident, I think of my Uncle Buss. This is a tragic loss for our community"
The Upper Big Branch tragedy was the worst mining accident in West Virginia since 1984. On Wednesday, West Virginia basketball coach Bob Huggins took a helicopter to Montcoal and visited with the victims' families and brought food and other items. Stewart is in the midst of spring football practice with the Mountaineers and remained in Morgantown.
"I was so proud of Bobby, I wish I wasn't in practice so I could join him," Stewart said. "If you cut him, I'll bleed. That's how close we are. That did not surprise me that he did that. I'm so proud. That's who Bobby is."
During West Virginia's run to its first Final Four since 1959, Huggins talked about how Gov. Joe Manchin told him the Mountaineers' games were piped into "all the factories and all the mines because otherwise guys were trying to get off their shift because they wanted to watch the game."
"It's piped in everywhere in the state of West Virginia," Huggins said on March 25 after beating Washington in the Sweet 16. "Everybody in West Virginia [was] listening to the game or watching the game. That's how much it means to our state.
"And for me, having played there and [being] born there. My mom and dad are both from Morgantown. My dad grew up in Dug Hill. My mom grew up on Eighth Street. So I understand how much it means. And I think the great thing is these guys understand how much it means to the people."
Stewart said his Uncle Buss and Aunt Thelma had a coal vein on the family farm and discovered it "almost like Jed Clampett on Beverly Hillbillies."
"They took a pick and a shovel and opened this coal mine up, Uncle Buss and his bride," Stewart said.
The operation eventually grew to a 40-man operation. Stewart, 57, remembers as a young boy, cleaning and wiping down the ponies that went down in the mines.
"This is our heritage up here," Stewart said. "When I see a miner, I know his family and my family's cousins worked in the mines. I know how proud I am of them."
Huggins, who was born in Morgantown, and Stewart, born in New Martinsville, both said unless you're from the state, you can't realize the bond between the university and the state. The coach visited the families of victims Wednesday, bringing pasta and Mountaineers t-shirts.
"Athletics are everything in our state," Huggins said last week at the Final Four. "We don't have professional franchises. There's really no one else to root for. I think it's inherent. I think there's such a strong bond between the university and the people of West Virginia and it goes back generations. I can remember sitting on my grandfather's lap listening to West Virginia football and basketball games. I think a large part, if not all of the state of West Virginia, grew up like that.
"It's unlike any place that I've ever been. I think that once you go to school there, and once you become a part of it, you start to understand. The passion that the people of West Virginia have for Mountaineer athletics is unparalleled."
When West Virginia returned to Morgantown after winning the Big East tournament at 2:45 in the morning, they were greeted by a couple thousand fans at the airport and a couple thousand more fans at WVU Coliseum, Huggins said.
West Virginia senior forward Wellington Smith said the support the team receives is amazing.
"We have like 12,000 people come out just to see us leave to go on a bus," Smith said. "It just feels amazing knowing we're the focal point of West Virginia. And West Virginia basketball and football is the only thing that people really live for and thrive for. We just feel honored that we get the opportunity to make 'em feel good."
The people came to these hills for a better life. We are one big clan in this state ... everyone cares about everyone..
Bill Stewart, West Virginia Footabll CoachStewart said it stems from their pride in each other.
"To be part of this is something no one can know about unless you live and experience it, it's who we are, it's what we are," Stewart said. "These people came to these hills for a better life. We are one big clan in this state, whether you're a miner, a construction worker, a banker -- everyone cares about everyone.
"We don't have a pro team. We tell all our players -- don't you ever forget the pride of playing before the hardest working, God fearing, most wonderful people you'll ever meet in your life. That's what we are, that's who we are."
That pride overflowed for Stewart a couple weeks ago. Stewart and his family were in Myrtle Beach, S.C. for his son's spring break. They watched West Virginia's victory against Kentucky at Broadway Louie's, a sports bar. The win sent West Virginia to the Final Four.
After West Virginia's victory, Stewart, at the urging of his son Blaine, went up on the stage and led the crowd in a rousing rendition of "Take Me Home, Country Roads." More than 25,000 people have watched Stewart's singing talents on YouTube.
"I didn't sing it very good, but I sang it from my heart," Stewart said. "Ain't no one that could sing it like me. I sang it as loud as I could. I sang that for the people of West Virginia."
And since Monday, Stewart, like all West Virginians, has had a heavy heart with the tragedy that occurred in Montcoal.
"It hits home when something like this happens," Stewart said. "It hits you. It hits you right in the heart."
Contact FanHouse senior writer Brett McMurphy at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BrettmcmurphY.