Every Mountaineer fan knows Coach Bill Stewart’s speech before the 2008 Fiesta Bowl. It gets played during crunch time in Milan Puskar Stadium, it’s plastered all over social media, and it even may sneak its way on to a television broadcast here and there.
That is regarded as arguably the best speech by a coach in West Virginia football history, and one of the best in the sport of college football — but was that the one that kicked off the historic win in Phoenix?
“The pregame speech the night before in the hotel by Owen Schmitt — players only — is the pregame speech that I remember the most,” recalled Reed Williams, a linebacker on that squad and the bowl’s eventual Defensive Player of the Game.
For better or worse, Schmitt’s soliloquy on Jan. 1, 2008 was not recorded. Pat McAfee, the team’s punter, recounts his memory of the speech.
“Everybody saw his speech after [the Fiesta Bowl] where it was like, what, 96 percent or 86 percent or whatever it was…and he talked about the state of West Virginia or whatever, and Owen did that the night before to us at the [hotel],” McAfee said. “And he pointed at the trophy and he said to us, ‘I’m not leaving here without that thing,’ or something like that.”
McAfee remembers that seeing Schmitt — “the most alpha dude we’ve ever seen” — give such a rousing speech left a big impression on him.
There were a lot of factors that led to some pent-up frustration for those Mountaineers. For one, their coach had just left for, as McAfee eloquently put it that week, “a school that rhymes with ‘Smichigan.'” On top of that, they had narrowly missed out at an opportunity for a national championship after a loss to Pitt.
Plus personally for the Runaway Beer Truck, the Fiesta Bowl would be the final chapter in his Mountaineer career. Schmitt says he had plenty of material to work from, so there wasn’t much of a need to prepare.
“I’m kind of a ‘fly by the seat of my pants’ guy when it comes to speeches,” Schmitt said. “I like the rawness of emotion and I like the cluster of just random ideas that come floating in your head when you’re trying to give a passionate speech.”
Adding to the fire, Schmitt remembers, was a constant feeling that his team was getting sold short.
“It always seemed like no matter how well we did, we were always sort of the underdog,” he said. “So the speech was just about, listen man, I’m not leaving without that $1.3 million trophy, and we’re not gonna embarrass ourselves. We’re about to take it to these boys, they don’t know who we are, and we’re gonna go out there and represent and play ball. For me, it’s my last game ever playing in a West Virginia uniform. I hoped everybody felt like that.”
Not only was it the end of his career, but he also notes that it was the end of an era. Rich Rodriguez was gone, and much of what made that team great — including Schmitt and Slaton — would depart the program as well for the NFL. Getting the victory was a great way to end his career, and they had fun doing it.
Of course, with the beauty of the internet, Mountaineer fans can enjoy Coach Stewart’s speech whenever they want, as well as the excitement of that year’s Fiesta Bowl — but the impact of Schmitt’s words on the eve of the win has stayed with his teammates more than a decade later.
“He was just this backbone on our team that didn’t get talked about because Pat [White] and Steve [Slaton] and Noel [Devine] and this incredible squad that we had,” McAfee added. “But Owen, whenever he gave that speech, and then you compound that with what Bill Stewart did, it almost felt like it was destiny for us to get out there and get a big win, and anybody that was in those rooms would tell you, it was a special, special time to be a part of a team that a lot of people counted out almost.”