When Mike Anderson was hired to coach the Missouri Tigers, both experts and fans thought he had a terrifically difficult challenge in rebuilding the team.
In the previous three seasons, Missouri hadn’t won more than 16 games, and a once-strong fan base had started to crumble. Partly because Missouri missed the NCAA tournament in those three seasons, combined with a spotty disciplinary record for its players, Anderson was hired to return the Missouri program to respectability, and eventually prosperity.
But that’s nothing compared to what Norm Stewart inherited in 1967.
While Anderson can use the 3-year old Mizzou Arena to recruit players, the Tigers then played at Brewer Field House, a cramped, outdated gymnasium built in 1930. And while Quin Snyder’s final two seasons were mediocre at best, they do not compare to what the Tigers did in 1966 and 1967. In those two seasons, Missouri won a combined six games, never winning two consecutively. The Tigers also hadn’t made the NCAA tournament since 1944, a drought that would last until 1976.
Bob Vanatta, the man who coached Missouri before Stewart, resigned on Feb. 23, 1967, effective at the end of the season. That created a need for a coach with talent. And the 32-year-old Stewart, who was then the head coach at Northern Iowa, was an obvious choice.
“I had a number of followers that were interested in seeing me return to Missouri, if it was possible at some juncture,” Stewart said. “They always kept me apprised as to what was going on.”
What was going on was that a once-proud Big 8 program was losing recruits to in-state rivals such as Saint Louis University and Southwest Missouri State. The team was also being overshadowed by Missouri’s football team, in the midst of probably its greatest 10-season run.
On March 10, 1967, four days after Missouri’s last game, Stewart was hired to coach the basketball team.
“I came in, returned, and then flew back to St. Louis to watch the high school basketball tournament,” Stewart said. “So, from the amount of time, I really couldn’t tell you the number of days, but it wasn’t a lengthy amount of time.”
What Stewart saw was a program in trouble. Despite playing in a gym that held about 6,000 fans, Missouri was unable to attract capacity crowds. He knew that he had taken on a large challenge, one that would define his career and his legacy at Missouri.
Before coming to Missouri, Stewart went 97-42 at Northern Iowa. As a senior guard for the Tigers in 1956, he was named an All-American after averaging 24.1 points per game. When Stewart was playing for Missouri, it was one of the best programs in the Big 7. But, in a decade, the program had decayed.
“I didn’t have to see the challenges. I was told all of them by people who said we didn’t have a facility. We weren’t winning,” Stewart said. “I could talk to the No. 2 or 3 player in Missouri and he would choose another school, maybe in-state, over the university. So, there were a lot of challenges. I remember, at that particular time, I was having trouble with migraine headaches. It seemed like I had about three of those every day for about three years.”
To try to rebuild the program quickly, Stewart said he first tried to build relationships with Missouri high school coaches. He said that one of the ways he was able to turn the program was to keep some of Missouri’s best players at home, to try to rebuild a pipeline in the state.
That wasn’t going to be enough, however. The damage from the previous two seasons was great, and fixing the program would take more than just landing one or two solid recruits. It was going to take patience and ingenuity.
His main objective, Stewart said, “was to work. A lot of times it was down a lot of blind alleys and into brick walls. But I still worked and just kept it up. I had players that bought in and did the same thing.”
In that first season, the Tigers went 10-16. With inherited players such as Eugene Jones, Tom Johnson and Dave Bennett, the Tigers started 8-9 and won at Kansas. They won seven games away from Columbia.
“The idea is that you’ve got to get players, and you try to compete and win as many games as you can,” Stewart said. “And there’s different goals.”
Back in 1967, 24 teams made the NCAA tournament. And that tournament field was made up of only conference champions. And for the Tigers, a team that hadn’t made the tournament since 1944, that would have been an unreasonable goal.
So, in the 1967 season, Stewart said, he had other goals for his team.
“The first thing you do is be competitive,” Stewart said. “And the players I had really set the tone.”
In Stewart’s second season at Missouri, the Tigers went 14-11 and finished at .500 in the Big 8. Soon, Missouri was back competing for conference championships and some of the state’s best recruits. And by 1972, the Tigers were playing at the brand-new Hearnes Center, a building that, at the time, was state-of-the-art.
Still, Stewart said he appreciated what his first group of players accomplished. It wasn’t as much as some of Stewart’s later teams, but they were the first Tiger team to be competitive in three seasons.
“We met, oh, I don’t know how long ago it was after they graduated, and they were probably 40-45 years old,” Stewart said. “Every group I had won a championship in the conference of some type, whether it was the preseason, postseason, or regular season. And you get a watch, or a ring, or something. So I remember giving those kids that were there that never had an opportunity to win a watch, and I told them, ‘due to my inability to coach and maybe a lack of talent on your part,’ whatever it was. But I kept all of mine, so I gave them some of mine and we had a great time.
“I figured that all of them deserved it. They set the base, it was the base for everybody else, and it was a great group of guys.”
Today’s Tigers are in a similar state. Anderson is trying to change how Missouri plays basketball with many players he didn’t recruit. His style is completely different than his predecessors.
Anderson has had made “great progress,” Stewart said.
“He’s done a heck of a job, a terrific job,” Stewart said. “Nobody wants to be critical of the past, you know. Those things happened, and they’re over. But Mike has come in and a lot of the things that needed to be done he’s doing.”
Still, Stewart said, the challenges he and Anderson had to face were completely different.
“We had no facility and not very many players and no support. He has a good facility, some players. I imagine he’d like to have a few more players. I’ve never seen the guy that has too many players, but he’s done a terrific job.
“I think Mike is headed there.”
Hopefully for Missouri fans, “there” is where Stewart eventually took the Tigers.