clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Mizzou's Greatest, #2: Coach Norm Stewart

New, 30 comments

We're finally in a place where we can finish the Greatest countdown. But first, as a lead-in, let's #evergreen the top 10 again. Next up: the man.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

The Savitar

If you're directly or indirectly responsible for 20 -- TWENTY -- items on the Greatest list, you're probably going to rank pretty high.

Columbia was football crazy in the 1960s, so much so that basketball was an afterthought on campus. In his first nine years at Missouri, coach Dan Devine had presided over nine winning seasons and had taken the Tigers to three New Year's Day bowl games. As such, mediocrity by the hoops squad might have been tolerated. Humiliation, however, was something different. And so it came as no surprise when a pair of football legends accepted Bob Vanatta's resignation. That was the easy part for Don Faurot and Devine, who was set to succeed the retiring Faurot as athletic director. The hard part was to find the right man to revive the program. They made their choice just four days after the end of the 1966-67 season. Missouri would wait thirty-two years to hire another men's basketball coach.

Norm Stewart, one of the best and most competitive athletes in Mizzou's history, was just thirty-two years old when he signed on to resurrect the moribund basketball program, but he possessed a wealth of competitive experience. After his playing career at Missouri, Stewart enjoyed a brief stop in the NBA as a member of the St. Louis Hawks, and he spent a season as a minor league pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles' organization. He then returned to Columbia to pursue a master's degree, and to serve as an assistant coach for Mizzou's basketball and baseball teams. After a four-year apprenticeship with Sparky Stalcup, Stewart was named head basketball coach at the State College of Iowa in Cedar Falls at the tender age of twenty-six. Six years later, after posting a record of 97-42 and winning two league titles, he moved back to Columbia with his wife, Virginia, and their three children to take on the challenge of a lifetime. [...]

In the autumn after the Summer of Love, the decidedly nonpsychedelic Norm Stewart coached his first game at his alma mater.

-- Michael Atchison's True Sons

Missouri had a basketball history before Norm Stewart began stomping the sidelines. We've talked a lot about the awesome teams of the early-1920s, of course. Plus, the Tigers reached the NCAA Tournament in 1944 and spent good portions of the 1950, 1951, and 1955 seasons ranked. (They got as high as sixth in 1955.) While football ruled in Columbia, basketball certainly had its moments.

But Norm still made Missouri Basketball, Missouri Basketball. Stewart created an identity and a legacy that still linger today, 15 years after his retirement. He won 634 games as Missouri's head coach, more than the Tigers had won in the previous 60 years. He spent portions of two seasons ranked No. 1 in the country. His team finished ranked 11 times, and his teams spent at least part of the season in the top 10 11 times. He coached Missouri to the NCAA Tournament 15 times and would have done so more if the tournament had been open to conference non-champions in his first few years. He won eight Big 8 titles and six Big 8 Tournament titles. He was national coach of the year twice.

Let's put this another way: after the addition of items from the 2013-14 academic year, The Greatest is now a list of 107 people, moments, games, seasons, etc. Norm Stewart was either directly or indirectly responsible for 20 of them, 21 including the 1954 baseball team on which he pitched. A few more happened on Norm Stewart Court following his retirement. And if Kim Anderson engineers a few in the coming years, Norm's fingerprints will be all over those, too.

Basically one of every five Greatest things in Missouri's history, for all sports, involved Norm Stewart. That's an impossible legacy, one that has served as a shadow for all who followed.

The growth was immediate and organic. Stewart inherited from Bob Vanatta both a lineup that had gone 6-43 in the previous two seasons and a sophomore class that was ready to shine. He went 10-16 in his first year in charge, then 14-11, then 15-11, then 17-9, then 21-6 twice. After five years, Norm's Tigers were among the three best programs in the Big 8, but they were never the best, and they missed out on the NCAA Tourney because of it. In Year 9, they finally broke through, going 26-5 and not only reaching the NCAAs, but advancing to the Elite 8. They eked past Washington, thumped Texas Tech, and almost Willie Smith'd their way past Michigan.

From that point forward, success was cyclical. Mizzou fell to 21 wins, then 14 (with a surprising conference tournament win), then 13. Then they went 100-28, won four conference titles, and twice reached the Sweet 16 with Stipo, Sundvold, and company. Then they went 34-28 and went to two NITs. Then they unleashed their greatest sustained success: nine NCAA tournaments (it would have been 10 if not for a brief NCAA probation), three conference titles, and four conference tournament titles in 10 years and 12 straight seasons of 18+ wins.

When the glorious senior class of 1993-94 left following Norm's second Elite Eight, things got difficult -- the 1994-95 team reached 11th in the country but faded late in the season, drew an 8-seed in the NCAAs, and got Tyus Edney'd in the second round. The next three teams went 51-47. And in 1999, after dragging a young, thin, exciting team back to the NCAAs, Stewart retired.

Norm's successes are well-documented, as are his failures -- he never could reach a Final Four, his Tigers were upset a few times in the NCAAs, etc. And the probation was certainly a stain on the record, even if it mostly washed out after a while. But there's a part of Norm's record that doesn't involve a record at all. He barked at officials. He barked at Billy Tubbs and Johnny Orr and Danny Nee. He burned bridges, then built them back with wit and some wins. He conquered cancer, then established one hell of a fundraising mechanism for fighting cancer.

For nearly 50 years, he either played or coached for Missouri. And even when he left, he didn't really leave. His relationship with the athletic department has had its ups and downs, and he certainly wasn't a big proponent of the move to the SEC. But he's still Norm, he still charms your socks off when given the opportunity, and he still provides perfect representation of his state and university when asked.

We all have a Norm story. Here's mine:

In 1993, my parents and I went to Ireland for a family vacation. As we were getting ready to board our flight back to the States, I realized I recognized one of the men near the gate. He was tall and slender and ... he was Norm Stewart. He boarded our flight, and after a few hours of deliberation, I approached him (and his intimidatingly pretty wife) at his seat (he sat in Coach, of course) and asked him to sign the only relevant thing I had with me: the basketball page of my eighth-grade Weatherford Middle School yearbook.

He looked for me in the team picture, pointed out that we lost pretty badly to Clinton -- I then noted that we won the rematch by 31 points -- chatted me up, charmed me, and, when the flight attendant needed me to sit down, said goodbye as I twittered back to my seat.

Five years later, I was working as a volunteer for the March of Dimes Man of the Year award dinner (he was the recipient, of course) at Mizzou's Alumni Center. After the ceremony, I approached him and said, "Do you remember a kid coming up to you on a plane back from Ireland a few years ago?" "I'll be a son of a gun! That was you!"

You are, and will always be, a son of a gun, Norm.