Norm Stewart picked a special tie for Friday, when Missouri unveiled a statue honoring the man who served as the Tigers’ men’s basketball coach for 32 seasons. It was black, with elaborate gold lines running throughout.
As Stewart finished his news conference inside Mizzou Arena following his statue ceremony, he said his wife, Virginia, bought the tie for him in 1982, when she joined him on a preseason trip to Italy with a Mizzou team that would eventually win a Big Eight title. Stewart flipped the tie over to show it was Gianni Versace, a luxury designer. He had not worn it in four years, he said, and then, in his blunt and self-deprecating way, he added that he “still can’t afford it.”
It was another chance for Stewart, who became Missouri’s coach 50 years ago, to joke while reliving the memories a statue and ceremony in his honor brought back. Less than seven hours before the Mizzou men’s basketball team’s season opener against Iowa State, approximately 400 people stood outside the arena to see the statue and hear Stewart speak.
“He taught us things fathers do,” Doug Smith, a former All-American at Missouri, said. “… I owe him everything today.”
When Stewart stood next to the statue, he asked former players and student assistants to file behind him. He told fans he wanted them to walk by the larger-than-life statue and think that they helped put it there. He wanted them to only view him as a representative for everyone who has been involved with the program.
“I know I speak for Tigers everywhere,” athletic director Jim Sterk said. “Thank you, Coach.”
The sculptor, Harry Weber, has also made statues of Frank White, Ozzie Smith, Stan Musial and Don Faurot, the last of which stands outside Memorial Stadium. Weber said he used 45 pictures of Stewart for reference, and he decided to make Stewart in the coach’s signature pose, standing with a finger pointed.
Stewart’s wife consulted Weber on the project and suggested changes. The coach only had one request: He wanted his statue to have hair.
“I was proud of my hair,” the 82-year-old said. “I miss my hair, particularly today when I wore a hat. In regard to the statue, Harry Weber has established himself as one of the fine sculptures in the country. I told him, I said you know, you did all the other guys … Those were easy. He had a lot of talent to work with. Now he’s really got to go to work.”
Asked who he likes to think he’s pointing at, Stewart first thought of referees.
“Everything reminds you of a story,” he said. “… Let’s see. I always liked to have a guy I could point to, you know, and he didn’t mind. You could tell him that he’s doing OK, or you could tell him, ‘You’re not doing OK.’”
Stewart said he still is a coach, just with a different mission. He said he had not yet thought about how it would feel to go to Missouri basketball games and pass his own statue, and then he began talking about his family. He said this summer, his two grandsons stayed with him while waiting to join the Navy.
“We had some wonderful meetings,” said Stewart, who won 634 games as Missouri’s coach. “Some of them really pleasant, others — really educational.”
This was how the afternoon went for the old man from Shelbyville. He gave minutes long answers to every question, often talking his way into tangents from different decades. He said he learned from former Mizzou athletic director and football coach Dan Devine to stall reporters, because the second and third questions are tougher than the firsts.
“I talked so long, I forgot what the question is,” he said at one point, inside a room not far away from a basketball court that also bears his name. “What was the question? Oh wait, that brings me to something else.”
Stewart didn’t say if he had imparted that lesson on Missouri’s current coach, Cuonzo Martin, but the man whose career Martin might strive to emulate at Missouri believes the new guy has “passed a lot of tests already.”
“I told Cuonzo, you know what, I’ve had a lot of people, Missouri people, say they’ve spent some time talking to him, and their impression was extremely good,” Stewart said. “But I said, ‘I’m going to tell you something. You’ve passed a bigger test than that…”
That bigger test was meeting Stewart’s wife and daughter, and Stewart said “after all these years,” he trusts their opinion of a coach. A version of the coach they know best now stands outside Mizzou Arena.