Half a century of Stormin’ Norman

Coach made MU basketball pride of the state
Sunday, March 7, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:10 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

He was running out of time, but Norm Stewart had never called a timeout in the final seconds of a game, and he wasn’t about to start.

  It wasn’t his style.

“If we had to call timeout and draw a play, you really had a problem,” he said. “We let our players play, feeling that we had coached them to put them through, and they expected that. Of course, humorously, I’d laugh and say, ‘Hey, guys, it’s just my job. Don’t worry about it; I was looking for one when I got this one.’”

When Stewart sat in his office March 15, 1999, he knew the score: 634 victories, eight conference championships, six conference tournament titles, five NIT berths and 16 NCAA Tournament appearances.

On one side he saw rebuilding, restructuring and six or seven more years. His eyes wandered to the other side: a different mission, fresh challenges.

After 32 years as Missouri’s coach, Stewart wasn’t leaving any 9-to-5 job, but he saw something beyond his legendary career.

“I had just come to a point where I thought it was time,” he said. “The people in the entertainment business will tell you there’s a time to get off the stage. The person that can pick that time will tell you that a little early is better than a little late.”

No, the two points that cut the Tigers short of then-No. 25 New Mexico, 61-59, in the 1999 NCAA Tournament didn’t do it.

The “Sit down, Norm” chants of Kansas fans while he was coaching the Border War finale didn’t push him out the door.

It wasn’t the pressure of speculation and the tension of a young, fresh athletic department ready for new results and new direction, either.

It was simply time.

When the Hearnes Center doors close on Tiger basketball today, there will be no more tip-offs, no more buzzer beaters, no storied beginnings of Missouri basketball fame. Moving on, Stewart said, is all a step in furthering the program’s success.

“Traditions carry things,” he said. “You’ve got to rely on those traditions to build your foundation and to see if you can do everything a little bit better.”

Stewart made the decision to retire with his wife

When Stewart, often called “Missouri’s son,” retired from the college basketball circus April 1, 1999, only his wife, a former Missouri homecoming queen and Kansas City native, could persuade him it was the right time to step off the carousel.

After all, when he met his future wife, Virginia Zimmerly, as a Missouri student, he crooned the song “It’s Up to You,” from the Will Roger’s play “Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like.”

In the end, that serenade could not have been more true.

“All the decisions I made, we made together,” Stewart said. “I’ve always relied on her insight, on her ability to listen. She listens better than I do.”

Then-Gov. Warren Hearnes, a longtime friend of the Stewarts, teased the coach that the wrong Stewart was on the sideline.

“He always told me that he thought that Virginia would be a better head coach than me and I always told him I thought Betty (Hearnes) would be a better governor,” Stewart said.

The same bearish blond with a square-jawed stare who single-handedly silenced entire arenas on the road with a glare and the stomp of his foot for 32 seasons, relied on his family from his first days with the program. The Hearnes Center became the “House that Norm Built” but every Stewart played a significant role.

When Stewart signed on as coach, he and Virginia Stewart worked the 60-mile radius around Columbia, as well as the St. Louis and Kansas City areas, marketing the program and building a grass-roots Tiger fan base. Virginia Stewart developed an idea to broadcast a TV show promoting the team and the university.

“They went out and sold the show, and I mean sold it,” Stewart said. “They had the best six commercial stations in the state airing it to build this fan base.”

The best three fans Stewart said he had at the games were his sons, Jeff and Lindsey, and his daughter, Laura.

“You talk about knowing the buttons to push, they could touch the buttons, and they have great voices,” Stewart said. “All three of them have great voices. They could be heard by officials, by fans, by other players. It was the funniest thing for me in the later years of coaching to have all three children there at the game.”

One family friend told the story that he sat a game at Hearnes with Virginia Stewart on one side of him, getting ready to start the game. Then Stewart’s daughter-in-law went out to sing the national anthem. Meanwhile, Stewart’s children were busily helping around the arena.

“Lindsey was doing something and Jeffery was doing something. Laura was doing something, too,” Stewart said. “He said, ‘I thought pretty soon they were going to hand me the hot dogs to go sell,’ and it was a family deal. Virginia helped create that and the children were great.”

This family man was the same ornery coach whose gruff interview style convinced countless Missouri journalism students to switch majors. A referee’s split-second decision singed his brain, but he would spend hours before a big game visiting sick friends at the hospital.

The desire to win relentlessly drove him, but he left it all to watch his grandchildren’s basketball games.

Stewart’s life isn’t a contradiction. It’s complex and compelling.

The irony is, his family, friends and former players will say his defining tick is uncompromising straight-forwardness.

“There was no smoke and mirrors with Coach Stewart,” former Tiger Gary Link said. “He was just a real, genuine, Missouri type of guy. That was the real reason most players came here and played so hard for him.”

Stewart spent four decades and more than a thousand games at MU

He was multifaceted and dynamic, but there wasn’t an incongruous line in Stewart’s life. His track record at Missouri paints the perfect picture of consistency. He compiled a 634-333 record, and participated in 1,127 of 2,306 Missouri games as a player, assistant or head coach.

When the fashionable way for college coaches to travel a career became touring like rock stars from one school to the next, Stewart completed his journey of more than four decades where he started as a player in 1954.

“This was the only place he wanted to coach,” Link said. “We knew that he was going to be in our corner and he wasn’t going anywhere.”

He always had a spot in his heart for the small-town Missouri kid who was tough and had a taste for the meat-and-potatoes of the game, even if he lacked the athleticism of an out-of-state star.

From John Brown, a Dixon native and Stewart’s first All-American in 1972 and 1973, to his last Missouri recruit out of St. Louis in 1998, Brian Grawer, Stewart tied a Missouri thread tight in Tiger tradition.

Tiger All-Americans Steve Stipanovich, Jon Sundvold and Anthony Peeler and other Missouri greats such as Kim Anderson, who also coached under Stewart, Jim Kennedy and Greg Church had their home state to bind them together.

“I think those were the kids that he loved,” Anderson said. “Not to take anything away from some of the other guys, but I think those were the guys he probably saw himself in.

“They’d run through the brick wall for him or do whatever he asked them to do. When the day was done, they’d come back the next day for more.”

Born and raised in Shelbyville, a town of about 600, Stewart graduated with a class of 16. At Missouri, his athleticism distinguished him in baseball and basketball.

Although his coaching always overshadowed his play, Stewart, a pitcher for the Tigers’ 1954 national championship baseball team, earned All-American honors during his senior season in 1956.

After serving his former basketball coach, Wilbur Stalcup, as an assistant from 1957-61 at MU, he was offered the head coaching spot by both Northern Iowa and State College of Iowa. He picked Northern Iowa. He was 26.

“When you’re 26, and you’ve got a head coaching job, really a good coaching job, you’re just trying to stay alive,” Stewart said. “I had a slogan. Every morning the slogan on my notes page was, ‘Hire a teenager. Get somebody that knows everything.’

“When you’re in those formative years, that’s what you do. I know I didn’t know everything, but you’ve got all this stuff that you want to try and things that you want to do.”

With Virginia Stewart by his side, Stewart formulated a plan right away. That plan earned him six winning seasons and a 97-42 record.

The 1965-67 seasons proved costly for Missouri, for coach Bob Vanatta could not garner more than six wins, and Athletic Director Dan Devine offered Stewart the head coaching job.

It was time for a new plan, and all Stewart had to do was look in the state around him and watch valuable, Division I-worthy talent sign with other schools.

“I always said to a player and his parents if they lived in Missouri and made their livelihood here, ‘The wrinkle in your neck, in your competitive neck, will come up just a little sooner for your home state than it will until you’ve established yourself someplace else,’” Stewart said. “There’s always a state pride.”

Securing a players’ home-state passion wasn’t the only critical consequence of in-state recruiting. To get the out-of-state stars, Stewart and his staff knew the program had to appeal to Missouri athletes first.

“Why would a player outside the state come if a player inside the state wouldn’t come?” he said.

Stewart lobbied for new basketball center

After he based the Tigers’ upswing on solid fundamentals and X’s and O’s, Stewart reinforced Missouri’s staying power from its foundation, literally.

Stewart campaigned for a new arena to replace Brewer Fieldhouse, a better arena to entice recruits than the pigeon and rat-infested barn his team played in then.

His players started begging for it, too.

In 1972, starting guard Greg Flaker, now a cardiologist at University Hospital, approached the coach about the coming construction, then only a promise.

“He came in and said, ‘Coach, when you recruited me, you said I’d get to play in the Hearnes building,’” Stewart said. “I stopped him right there and I said, ‘Greg, if it will make you feel any better, Coach Stalcup recruited me to play in a new building, also. And that was 20 years ago, so don’t be disgruntled.’”

What he got in Hearnes Center in August 1972, Stewart said, was a shot in the arm for recruiting.

Stewart’s teams won 20 or more games 17 times including a school-record 29 wins during the 1988-89 season. Those teams produced 28 All-Conference players, eight All-Americans and 29 NBA draft selections.

He won more games in 32 seasons, 634, than all of the coaches had won before him combined (630) since 1907.

Stewart’s equally witty and fierce personality was as well known around the conference and the country by fans and opponents as his teams were for stingy defense and on-target free-throw shooting.

“He did an unbelievably terrific job of when you played teams on the road, taking fans out of the game,” Link said. “He would make sure that fans were booing at him or getting after him. Everywhere we went people would yell, ‘Sit down, Norm.’ It was just him getting the fans to direct their jeering, their booing, their anger at him and let the team play the basketball game.”

Every stunt was a direct plan on Stewart’s staff’s part to help his team win, psychology of the game, he said. The entertainment factor was only an added benefit.

When the Tigers traveled to Nebraska after football coach Tom Osborne led the Cornhuskers to a national title, Stewart and his squad wore red T-shirts over their jerseys that said “Congratulations Tom Osborne and Nebraska Cornhuskers: No. 1.”

“Well, what are they going to do? When they saw that, they cheered,” Stewart said. “Now we appealed to their better half, their better sense.”

Despite the heated rivalry between Missouri and Kansas, former Jayhawk coach Roy Williams said his respect and admiration for Stewart stemmed from his time as an assistant coach at North Carolina. The Tarheels faced the Tigers four times before Williams left for Kansas, and he was the assistant responsible for scouting opponents.

“His teams were always extremely difficult to play against. That’s the highest compliment you can give another coach,” Williams said. “His teams never beat themselves, they always did it where the other team had to make plays, had to beat them. I don’t think any different era of basketball that you can pick out that that’s any different. Regardless of what was going on, his teams were not going to beat themselves.”

After Williams’ Jayhawks dropped their first four Border War games to Stewart’s Tigers, he claimed the next six. Williams said every win against Stewart was like a coaching rite of passage for him.

“Every time we got a win over him, it was a big-time deal for me,” Williams said. “It was a thrill for me every time we went back to Missouri after he left to see him at the game because I do have such a great deal of respect for him. What he did at Missouri was not very easy to do.”

During his second year at Kansas, Williams tried to better Stewart’s pranks with a jesting move of his own.

On Stewart’s 55th birthday, the Jayhawks traveled to Columbia with a No. 1 ranking and 19-0 record.

Before the game, Williams took Stewart a birthday present.

“I said, ‘I just wish I was there when you use this,’” Williams said.

Later, Stewart found an exploding golf ball waiting for him.

Stewart claimed the last laugh, though, for his then-fourth-ranked Tigers upset the Jayhawks’ perfect season 94-87 and went on to win the 1990 Big Eight Conference championship.

“There’s no question that when we were competing we probably got on each other’s nerves,” Williams said. “I’m relatively sure that I got on his, and I know that he got on mine. He was old school, and anything that he could do within the rules of the game, to stop you from concentrating on the game was OK. It was a little bit of gamesmanship, but it never got past that.”

Stewart helped create "Coaches vs. Cancer"

Some of Stewart’s most notable comebacks and defensive stands didn’t happen on the court.

On Feb. 9, 1989, the Tigers made an emergency landing in Oklahoma State while traveling to Norman, Okla., to face the Sooners. Stewart had blacked out on the plane, and doctors later discovered he had colon cancer.

He missed the rest of the season, 14 games, to recover. Meanwhile, interim coach Rich Daly led the Tigers to a 29-8 record, MU’s most wins, and a Sweet Sixteen finish in the NCAA Tournament.

“I knew that he would attack that the way that he attacked life,” Link said. “I knew he would do everything in his power because he’s a fighter. We’re all very thankful for that.”

In the wake of tragedy, Stewart was instrumental in launching “Coaches vs. Cancer,” a national fund-raising campaign in 1993. The next year, President Bill Clinton awarded Stewart with the American Cancer Society’s “Courage Award.”

In 1990, the NCAA launched a 21-month investigation of MU recruiting practices. The scrutiny ended with the program being placed on two years’ probation for rules violation and a one-year postseason ban. It also cost the university more than the $400,000.

Stewart’s reputation among the media was a reported fine line to walk, but Stewart said he was misunderstood. He never disliked the media as much as he tried to guard his players’ reputations and feelings. He wanted everyone in his program to be treated properly and given their fair credit.

“I was never a media darling to say the least,” Stewart said. “You have a leading scorer, but you have a leading rebounder, a leading assist man, a leading defensive player. You’re trying to mesh all those things and give everybody credit, which they all deserve. There’s a guarding of all that.

“I think it worried me about answering all the questions. Some of them I felt that I had to really guard to give the right answer. That relationship with the media, I could have done better, but it wasn’t my priority. My priority was my obligation to my team.”

To the people who knew him best, the misunderstanding was the one setting where most people saw the coach. The basketball court was Stewart’s nitty-gritty area.

“I used to marvel at him in game situations because he anticipated what was going to happen,” Anderson said. “You know those puzzles that have 1,000 pieces? I’ve often thought he could put that puzzle together quicker than anyone else. I really think he got better as he got older.”

Norm Stewart’s grand finale on the court couldn’t feature two better teams or a tougher rivalry.

He took a mid-Western barn-bound team, albeit one he called talented and working without the right resources, and turned the Tigers’ program into a source of state pride. The Tigers have Stewart to thank for unearthing their spot on the college basketball map, once creviced between farmland and back woods.

Stewart stepped down as the NCAA’s seventh-winningest coach, with a 731-375 record, in 37 seasons. He earned “Coach of the Year” distinctions seven times in his district and five times in the Big Eight. In 1982 and 1994, the national media landscape voted him “Coach of the Year.”

After controlling the conference, ruling the region, stifling the sickness of cancer and surviving NCAA sanctions, there was one height he had not reached. When Stewart retired in 1999, only the nation’s highest platform, an NCAA Final Four, could escape his dominance.

He was probably the best college basketball coach to never reach that stage, but it pales in comparison to Stewart’s indelible mark in Missouri history.

“You always want more as a coach,” Williams said. “I’ve been to four Final Fours, and yet people say about me, ‘Well, he’s never won a national championship,’ but that doesn’t mean you didn’t really enjoy the time that you did have. You still have great feelings about all the things that you accomplished on the way, the relationships that you build with the players.”

Williams said the what-if feelings will never haunt Stewart’s thoughts because he knows the ever-prepared Stewart would not have left the game without a solid game plan, especially one that included a tee time.

“I was pleased for him because I knew he was going to do it on his own terms, when he wants to do it,” Williams said. “The Big 12 lost a great deal when Norm Stewart walked away.”

“I don’t think when Norm’s out in Palm Springs on the 18th green, trying to make this 8-foot par putt, he’s worried about it, thinking, ‘Gosh, I never made the Final Four.’ I don’t think that will ever happen.”

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