When Norm Stewart took over as the head coach at the University of Missouri before the 1967 season, he developed a whirling, pirouetting, duck-walking and otherwise perpetual motion coaching style with a little help from above.
In the rafters of Brewer Fieldhouse, that is, where Stewart likes to say the pigeons kept him alert and nimble.
No wonder similar images came to mind when he reflected on his career after learning of his alma mater’s plan to build and install a statue of him outside Mizzou Arena.
“The reality of a statue is, there’s going to be birds,” Stewart said with a laugh by telephone on Thursday.
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The self-deprecating comedy is vintage Stewart, who upon being inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007 invoked that with a little sprinkle of his Shelbyville roots:
“What do they say about finding a turtle on a fence post? You assume it didn’t get there by itself.”
So what if no one has ever seen a turtle on a fence post? You get the idea.
One veil behind the sense of humor, though, is this: appreciation and sentimentality that have become increasingly on display since Stewart retired in 1999 with a 634-333 record in 32 seasons at MU.
You’ve known him best for the fire he brought to the job, and for the compassion and dedication with which the cancer survivor always has embraced his role as a driving force with Coaches vs. Cancer.
So what Stewart actually thought about when he learned of the planned but not-yet-funded sculpture wasn’t pigeons or turtles.
First and foremost, it was his wife, Virginia, who he says should be the one thus honored after all she and their three children had to sacrifice and endure for the sake of his career.
And maybe that’s all the more on his mind now as she recovers from shoulder replacement surgery after a recent fall.
Stewart, 82, has always been prone towards stream-of-conscious discourse, and now it seemed his life started flashing before him.
He thought about his parents and growing up in Shelbyville, where they “were poor but rich” and where he learned many things from his high school coach, C.J. Kessler … but perhaps nothing more lasting than simply being told to “straighten up.”
That’s just what he did with a slouching MU program, which had gone 6-43 in the two seasons before he took over 23 years after Mizzou’s lone NCAA Tournament appearance.
No one envisioned any statues then, and it wouldn’t be until Stewart’s ninth season that the Tigers reached the NCAA tourney.
Stewart might have gotten discouraged along the way, but tournament bids were more scarce then and he was buoyed by two 20-plus win seasons and consistently improving recruiting.
“We were still fresh, still young, and going at it like mad dogs,” Stewart said.
Ultimately, he cajoled MU to 16 NCAA Tournaments and eight Big Eight championships.
He laments that he never reached a Final Four, but in a series of recent conversations it also seems he’s reconciled that:
It was simply not to be, but it doesn’t diminish in any way what matters to him most now — hundreds of thriving relationships that he could only have known through coaching.
That’s what he thinks about, too, when he considers the idea of a statue of him.
He pictures the child or grandchild of a former player or secretary or trainer walking by the statue and wondering who that man is, and he envisions them saying, “I helped put him there.”
First things first, of course:
MU had best make good on its tentative announcement to put him there.
“We haven’t gotten final approval, but it’s something we’d like to do,” MU athletic director Jim Sterk told The Star’s Tod Palmer about the project Sterk anticipates costing about $200,000. “Hopefully, we’ll get it done by this fall.”
Or as new MU basketball coach Cuonzo Martin put it: “I feel like that’s the least we could do.”
Assuming that’s only a matter of time, the next question might be in what pose and demeanor Stewart should be immortalized.
Out of an infinite number of choices of faces or gestures or stances, the rendering will stand not just for an icon of the state but also for those who were part of his journey … pigeons and all.