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Mizzou memories: Tigers open Norm Stewart era by thumping Arkansas and holding on at Kansas

Mizzou stinks at basketball right now. One day, the Tigers will be good again. In the meantime, we’ll reminisce.

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The Savitar

I guess this one doesn’t really qualify as “reminiscing,” since it happened when I was minus-11 years old.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark., Dec. 2 (UPI)--Missouri, behind the combination of Eugene Jones and Tom Johnson, powered its way to an easy season-opening 74-58 basketball victory over Arkansas today.

The victory marked a successful debut for new Tiger coach Norm Stewart.

Jones, a 6-for-6 senior from Brockport, Ill., poured in 12 points in the first half and finished with a total of 19 points. [...]

The second half was all Missouri as the 6-4 Johnson took over the boards and connected for 13 of his 17 points. Arkansas went 11 minutes without a field goal in the last half.

Missouri is attempting to regain basketball prestige after two poor seasons. The Tigers won only three of 25 games last season and notched but three triumphs in the 1965-66 campaign. Stewart earned All-America cage recognition at guard in his senior year at Missouri.

Believe it or not, Mizzou fans, it’s been worse before. For most of the late-1950s and early- to mid-1960s, the Tiger basketball team was beyond an afterthought. As Dan Devine’s Mizzou football team began to dominate — the gridiron Tigers finished 11th or better in the AP poll five times in the 1960s — the basketball team barely existed.

Using College Basketball Reference’s SRS ratings as a guide, we see that eight of Mizzou’s 11 worst basketball teams of the last seven decades took the court between 1957-58 and 1967-68.

Missouri’s worst basketball teams (per College Basketball Reference)

Rk Season Conf W L W-L% SRS_ Coach(es)
Rk Season Conf W L W-L% SRS_ Coach(es)
1 1965-66 Big 8 3 21 0.125 -10.38 Bob Vanatta (3-21)
2 1966-67 Big 8 3 22 0.12 -7.33 Bob Vanatta (3-22)
3 1958-59 Big 8 6 19 0.24 -2.4 Sparky Stalcup (6-19)
4 1962-63 Big 8 10 15 0.4 0.61 Bob Vanatta (10-15)
5 2014-15 SEC 9 23 0.281 1.13 Kim Anderson (9-23)
6 1967-68 Big 8 10 16 0.385 1.19 Norm Stewart (10-16)
7 1957-58 Big 8 9 13 0.409 1.95 Sparky Stalcup (9-13)
8 2005-06 Big 12 12 16 0.429 1.99 Quin Snyder (10-11) Melvin Watkins (2-5)
9 1960-61 Big 8 11 13 0.458 2.1 Sparky Stalcup (11-13)
10 2016-17 SEC 5 8 0.385 2.19 Kim Anderson (5-8)
11 1963-64 Big 8 13 11 0.542 2.44 Bob Vanatta (13-11)
12 2015-16 SEC 10 21 0.323 2.5 Kim Anderson (10-21)
13 1978-79 Big 8 13 15 0.464 2.61 Norm Stewart (13-15)
14 1970-71 Big 8 17 9 0.654 2.72 Norm Stewart (17-9)
15 1973-74 Big 8 12 14 0.462 3.06 Norm Stewart (12-14)
16 1959-60 Big 8 12 13 0.48 3.18 Sparky Stalcup (12-13)
17 1977-78 Big 8 14 16 0.467 3.51 Norm Stewart (14-16)
18 1964-65 Big 8 13 11 0.542 3.68 Bob Vanatta (13-11)
19 1961-62 Big 8 9 16 0.36 3.69 Sparky Stalcup (9-16)
20 1951-52 Big 7 14 10 0.583 4.21 Sparky Stalcup (14-10)

You’ll probably also notice that each of Kim Anderson’s three teams show up in the bottom 12. I figure that makes it worthwhile to look at the first time Mizzou emerged from an enormous pit of despair.

Norm Stewart's first season in charge was as fitful and sporadic as you would expect. He inherited a team that had lost 44 of its last 50 games; Bob Vanatta, who won two NAIA titles at Missouri State, then oversaw 109 wins in six seasons at Memphis, finished with a winning record in both 1964 and 1965, but the bottom fell out quickly and forcefully.

From Michael Atchison's irreplaceable True Sons: A Century of Missouri Tigers Basketball:

Abysmal. Dreadful. Excruciating. Pick an adjective. Pick two. Pick however many necessary to convey the abject misery of the Missouri Tigers' 1965-66 season, a year of cataclysmic and historic futility.

Mizzou went 3-21 on the year—and it could have been worse. The Tigers' second win of the season was a two-point overtime victory against Oklahoma State in the holiday tournament. Their third, and last, came two months later when Ron Coleman hit a twenty-footer in the final three seconds to give Mizzou a 64-63 win over Colorado in Boulder. In between, the Tigers lost twelve straight by an average of twenty points per game, including a forty-four-point drubbing at Kansas. [...]

Vanatta's Tigers had strung together the two worst seasons in school history, a reality hard to fathom, especially given that the coach had been among the nation's most successful less than a decade earlier. But fortunately for Tiger fans, help was on the way.

Vanatta’s freshman team in 1966 (here’s your reminder that freshmen weren’t allowed to play varsity until the 1970s) looked fantastic, though, and he left a decent amount of untapped talent for Stewart. Again from Atch:

The irony of Bob Vanatta's last season in Columbia had been evident in practice every day. While the varsity floundered, a rambunctious bunch of freshmen flourished. Kansas freshman coach Bob Mulcahy called the Baby Bengals the Big Eight's best freshman team in years. Under the tutelage of former Mizzou star Bob Price, the frosh won six of eight games. When players like Don Tomlinson, Pete Helmbock, and Theo Franks graduated to the varsity, they gave Norm Stewart a critical mass of talent with which to begin rebuilding.

Still, there was no way to make too much of Stewart’s first season. The depths to which the program had fallen were too deep. The season opening win over Arkansas in Barnhill Arena was a nice statement of intent, but Mizzou would lose nine of its next 23 games. And after a three-game winning streak, the Tigers proceeded to lose eight in a row.

Still, Mizzou finished a respectable 10-16, finishing the season with a road win over Oklahoma State and a 91-70 pummeling of Nebraska. And during that three-game January win streak came another statement.

Mizzou's last two trips to Allen Field House in Lawrence had resulted in humiliating losses: 98-54 in 1966 and 90-55 in 1967. But on January 15, 1968, Stewart's first trip to Lawrence as Missouri's head coach produced a far different result.

"You expect me to explain that one?" asked Coach Norm Stewart with a grin after his rebuilt Missouri team played like tigers and dealt Kansas an astonishing 67-66 home court upset Monday night. [...]

Missouri was 10 points behind with 3:15 left, 64-54, but stole the ball and chopped away with deadly free throwing. Rodger Bohnenstiehl gave Kansas a 66-65 edgeon a free throw with two seconds left.

But Tom Johnson of Missouri was fouled at the buzzer and calmly hit both free throws on a one-and-one as the crowd of 11,000 yelled.

"These are great men, folks," Stewart said. "It's been the same all year. Just a little more poise, execution, hanging tough, and knocking in those free throws and these men can win. Give up? Man, you don't put the bats away until the game is over."

(Stewart was old and folksy even at age 32.)

Stewart's Tigers improved in almost linear fashion in the coming years, improving to 14-11 in 1969, then 15-11 in 1970, then 17-9 in 1971. In 1972 and 1973, the Tigers ripped off back-to-back 21-6 seasons, kept out of the NCAA Tournament only by the "conference champions only" rule. (They were second to Kansas State in both years.)

There were some glitches throughout Stewart's tenure -- 12-14 in 1974, 27-31 (with a surprising conference tournament title) from 1977-79, 55-42 from 1983-86, and 51-47 from 1995-98 -- but Norm was able to establish a level of consistent success that seemed unheard of when he first strolled back into Brewer Field House in 1966. Per SRS, he was responsible for eight of Missouri's 11 best teams and 17 of its top 28. There’s always a snake-bitten twinge to Stewart’s résumé because of the lack of extreme NCAA Tourney success, but Mizzou became a proud program with actual expectations. Neither of those things were true in the days before he arrived.

In time, Mizzou indeed learned how to put forward a little more poise, execution, and hanging tough.