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Mizzou's Greatest, #12: Steve Stipanovich

By choosing to play for Norm Stewart, Steve Stipanovich helped to save Missouri Basketball. By playing as well as he did, he helped to push the Tigers to a level they had never seen.

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The Savitar

A transformative figure in Mizzou hoops history. Under Norm Stewart’s guidance, John Brown had led a resurgence for Tiger basketball, and Willie Smith had briefly elevated the program to a more national significance. But more than anyone, Steve Stipanovich symbolized the rise of Missouri as a consistent power and a dominant presence in the Big Eight conference.

A preternaturally-skilled 6’11" center from St. Louis, Stipo shared his four seasons at Mizzou with Jon Sundvold, the dead-eye shooter from Kansas City, and collectively, their achievement was stunning. They made Mizzou the only program ever to win four straight Big Eight championships, capturing the crown in each year of their careers. They led the Tigers to 100 victories, the best four-year run in school history. And Missouri achieved its first-ever number one national ranking in their stellar junior season

Individually, Stipanovich was a revolutionary player. A powerful post presence with a shooting touch to twenty feet, Stipo started all 31 games as a freshman, led the team in scoring, and was named Big Eight Newcomer of the Year. The next year, he set a school record for blocked shots. As a junior, he made his first All-Big Eight team. As a senior he made his second, in addition to being named Big Eight Player of the Year, earning various first and second team All-America honors, breaking his own blocked shots record, outplaying national player of the year Ralph Sampson head to head, and averaging 18.4 points and 8.8 rebounds. He also earned a spot on the Academic All-American team.

At the end of his career, Steve Stipanovich owned the Missouri record book, ranking first all-time in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots (he now ranks fourth, third and second, respectively, in those categories). Truly, a Tiger for all time.

He battled with Ralph Sampson and Patrick Ewing, he led Mizzou to four straight conference titles, he was the second pick in the NBA Draft, and he and his partner from Blue Springs led Mizzou into is longest (mostly) sustained period of success under Norm Stewart.

In Mizzou lore, Steve Stipanovich is often just part of one player: Stipoandsundvold. And in NBA lore, he's the guy the Rockets considered drafting instead of Ralph Sampson. His individual legacy perhaps isn't as dominant as it should be, but he was, as Atch mentions above, transformative.

Mizzou was floundering a bit as Norm Stewart's tenure entered its second decade. After going 26-5 and reaching the Elite Eight in 1976, the Tigers went 21-8 in 1976-77, then went just 27-31 (12-16 in conference) in 1977-79. There was still individual talent -- Clay Johnson averaged 18 & 8 in 1977-78, and Larry Drew was one of the league's best point guards -- but the depth and direction weren't there.

Honestly, you could make that the cast of newcomers from 1979-80 -- Stipo, Sundvold, and sophomore Ricky Frazier -- deserves a place of its own in the top 10 of this list. That trio gave Mizzou direction, identity, and a boatload of wins. They crated the reputation that Stewart used in winning quite a few recruiting battles in the 1980s. They made Mizzou a national brand it had not previously been. By choosing to play for Norm Stewart, you could almost say they saved Mizzou basketball. And in their play, they pushed it to a new place.

Instead, though, we'll separate them. Sundvold and Frazier have both held spots on this list already, and Stipo's accomplishments deserve to stand alone for once.

From Michael Atchison's True Sons:

The first call came from St. Louis, the second from Kansas City. By the time Norm Stewart put down the phone, he knew his program was about to take a giant leap forward, but he did his best to contain his joy. "We're very pleased with both Steve and Jon," he said in an act of staggering understatement. He had just received commitments that would change the course of Missouri basketball.

Steve Stipanovich, a six-foot-eleven center from DeSmet High in St. Louis, was among the top recruits in the nation. Jon Sundvold, a sharp-shooting guard from Blue Springs, also was highly prized. A budding friendship helped convince them to pick Mizzou. "[Stipanovich] told me that if I went there, he'd go. And I told him the same thing," said Sundvold. And thus, the finest inside-outside combination in Missouri history was forged.