When 26-year-old Norm Stewart took over the basketball program at Northern Iowa in 1961, he already exuded the persona that would distinguish him over the years.
“He was a craftsman when it came to coaching — plus he had passion, and passion’s in short supply all over the place,” Robert Waller, who played for Stewart there and later wrote the best-seller, “The Bridges of Madison County,” told me in a 1990 interview.
But after about five years at Northern Iowa, with three children, Stewart wondered how much longer he could sustain the passion for a job that was paying about $13,000 a year.
He was mindful of an impending career crossroads if he didn’t advance soon.
Shazam, 50 years ago, his alma mater, the University of Missouri, followed up a 3-21 season by going 3-22.
Coach Bob Vanatta resigned, and Mizzou turned to Stewart.
But he was skeptical after his interview with Don Faurot and Dan Devine.
“I really don’t know if this job’s better than what I’ve got,” he remembers thinking. “Now, for the future, I know it is. But right now, this isn’t a gem.
“There’s no place to play. I don’t know how many players we’ve got. Turned out that I had a great group of guys, (but) I didn’t have any shooters.”
Meanwhile, any financial benefit to the prospective change was pretty much cosmetic because Faurot — gracious and magnanimous in every other way — was a tightwad as an athletic director.
“Dan Devine hired me, but Don set the salary,” Stewart said, laughing, during an interview at his home.
When Stewart protested that it was basically the same money, Faurot told him: “But if you do a good job, we’ll give you a raise.”
Something inside compelled Stewart to take the job at his alma mater, where he’d also met his wife, Virginia.
For a while, though, it was hard to know how if he’d ever earn that raise.
The newfangled Hearnes Center still was a dream, leaving MU stranded in dilapidated Brewer Fieldhouse.
Stewart put a premium on recruiting Missouri players, on the premise that “the wrinkle in the neck comes up quicker” with state pride. But it was tough to immediately appeal to them after MU’s rough few years.
The scenario, Stewart likes to say, was reminiscent of the old “Pogo” comic strip: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Yet there was always this to fall back on:
“Oh, my last name is Stewart,” he said. “And in that tribe, you’re just hardheaded and competitive.”
That, as much as anything else, explains how Stewart ended up exactly where he belonged.
And how he would coach 32 years at Mizzou and win 634 games and eight regular-season conference titles and take the school to 16 NCAA Tournaments and be inducted in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame … and why he’ll be further honored on Nov. 10 with a statue outside Mizzou Arena.
For decades, Stewart’s name was the most-recognized at a university with which he became synonymous — now a forever part of MU lore that might have played out differently for so many reasons.
Let’s start with the most colorful and perhaps surprising aspect of what could have gone otherwise.
Excelling at basketball (and baseball) in rural Shelbyville, which then had a population of just more than 600, Stewart was a natural recruit for MU.
Also, as it happened, Kansas — where Stewart made a recruiting visit and holds as keepsakes a book signed by Phog Allen and a letter commemorating the trip.
After his drive to Lawrence and back, Stewart recalled getting a check for $40 in mileage and expenses from a trucking company in Lawrence.
“Nothing illegal” about a transportation check, Stewart said, but he joked that he thought perhaps Clyde Lovellette and Wilt Chamberlain got reimbursed more.
That check isn’t the only little-known truth regarding money changing hands between Stewart and interests on the other side of the border.
The myth that Stewart played up for years as he coached in the rivalry was that he refused to spend money in Kansas, against which Stewart was 33-41.
But … it’s not true.
It was just propaganda that grew out of Stewart’s considerable imagination (in this case, stoked by a talk with then-Missouri Lt. Gov. William Morris about giving state business to state businesses). He was asked why MU had stayed in Kansas City one year instead of Lawrence for a game, and delivered the now-famous line.
“I said, ‘Why, I wouldn’t spend a dime over there,’” he said, laughing. “So I lived on that for about 20 years.”
In fact, many of Stewart’s fondest memories are of MU-KU, starting with the fact that the first major college game he ever saw in person was their 1952 meeting at Brewer.
And that rocking chair they gave him at Allen Fieldhouse, where they used to chant “Sit Down, Norm” but honored him a few years after he retired?
It’s being used to rock his great granddaughter now.
“Those Kansas people will get a kick out of that,” he said.
His sentiment about KU is part of why Stewart has conflicting feelings about MU’s decision to leave for the Southeastern Conference in 2012.
He has such clarity about a consequence that his view actually sounds more like a KU perspective than a Mizzou one:
If there is to be a resumption of play between the schools, he believes, it’s on Mizzou to continue to “make the amends and appeal to them,” because MU turned its back on tradition.
“It’s in the top five or competitive situations for all sports and everything involved,” he said. “And we’re the ones who left, if you were arguing a court case …”
Ultimately, Stewart went to Missouri based on counsel from his high school coach and mentor, C.J. Kessler, who sought advice from his friend, Indiana coach Branch McCracken.
“Tell him to go to Missouri,” McCracken told Kessler. “Because if he can play, he can play any place. But just in case he can’t, (then-MU coach Sparky Stalcup) has got to take care of him.”
Meaning, Stewart added, “You made sure he got his education.”
In truth, there was no place else he’d fit better — as a student-athlete (the first in his family to go to college) and later a coach. After all, growing up 45 minutes west of Hannibal, Stewart’s childhood had a certain Mark Twain tint to it.
Stewart’s father, Kenneth, delivered oil and drove a school bus to support the family, whose home had no indoor plumbing until Stewart was in high school.
For entertainment, they’d listen to the radio … in the dark.
“There was no reason to turn (lights) on,” he said. “You don’t have to see anything. You’d just listen.”
He was one of 16 to graduate in the Shelbyville High class of 1952, and for a long time he was prone to mischief such as tossing rotten eggs from Wayne Fox’s Produce House or jumping down the coal chute to get in the school gym at night.
But when Kessler told him to “straighten up” after he made the mistake of clowning around in Kessler’s wife’s class, Stewart took it to heart — especially during basketball season.
“In a small town, if you’ve got a good imagination, you can do a lot of things. And we did ’em,” said Stewart, who with prodding from Kessler became such a “straight arrow” that he annoyed some of his friends. “I had such respect for him, and that’s what he told me not to do, so that was it.”
If that upbringing forged anything, it was a certain fire that came to define him.
“We were rich in so many ways … but financially and economically, we were poor,” he said. “I think that can make you competitive.”
That was true as a player at MU, where he averaged 24.1 points and was named All-America as a senior and pitched for the 1954 national championship baseball team.
Indicative of his disposition, Stewart said Stalcup once told him as he took the floor for a game to call a timeout if the other team scored a couple quick baskets.
“I said, ‘You know what, I’ll hit two quick ones and let them call the damn timeout,’” Stewart remembered shooting back.
He was drafted by the St. Louis Hawks, playing five games before being cut, and signed with the Baltimore Orioles.
But when he was on a road trip in Winnipeg for their Aberdeen affiliate in 1957 and Virginia had just given birth to their first child, Jeff, Stalcup called and planted a thought:
Wasn’t it time for Stewart to quit dabbling in baseball and roaming — they’d lived seven different places already — and come back to Columbia as an assistant coach?
The call proved persuasive to Virginia, and thus her husband, so Stewart returned to work for two of his greatest influences: Stalcup and baseball coach John “Hi” Simmons.
Four years later, he took over at Northern Iowa, where he went 97-42 to become the obvious choice at MU in 1967.
It was a slog early, with Mizzou improving to 10-16 his first year as he tried to establish a tougher culture by working his players harder than ever.
“My squad wished me a Merry Christmas by vote of 8 to 6,” he said at the Big Eight holiday tournament tipoff banquet in 1967 in Kansas City.
But recruiting was on the upswing, with future All-American John Brown of Dixon, Mo., arriving in 1969.
Soon, he was joined by others that Stewart considered foundational, such as Al Eberhard and Mike Jeffries and Greg Flaker and Bob Allen and Willie Smith and Jim Kennedy and Kim Anderson and others.
His first five teams won more games each year. The Tigers dipped back to a losing record in 1973-74, but two years later MU won its first Big Eight title to clinch the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1944.
But the spirit of that ’76 breakthrough carries double-edged meaning for Stewart, whose team beat Washington and Texas Tech to advance to the elite eight against Michigan in what was then a 32-team tournament.
At a time the dunk remained illegal, MU led the Wolverines 76-71 as Anderson went in for a layup that seemed to make it 78-71.
But Anderson grabbed the rim to protect himself from being undercut by a defender and was deemed to have dunked.
The basket was waved off, and Anderson was called for a technical foul that gave Michigan free throws and the ball and reset a game also marked by Smith’s 43 points and the Tigers making just 10 of 22 free throws.
Mizzou lost 95-88.
Referee “Hank Nichols came in and asserted his importance in the game,” Stewart said, still with a certain bite all these years later.
No wonder: Weeks before he retired in 1999, Stewart told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “I believe that changed the course of my life.”
That’s because he came to feel “everything that we accomplished, we repeated.”
Stewart had one more Elite Eight run … but never could break the barrier to the Final Four.
Asked if he’d ever reconciled not getting there, he said, “I don’t know if I have or not.”
But he added, “To reconcile it, you look first of all, has it happened to anybody else (or) are you just the Lone Ranger?”
He’s not. Consider John Chaney, Lefty Driesell, Gene Keady, Ralph Miller …
“Some of the greatest coaches I coached against never made it, but the real thing that does it for me to reconcile is (what) I always tell the players,” he said. “ ‘You don’t worry about what you haven’t done. Better be proud of what you have done.’
“And that’s kind of the way I handle it. Because we did a lot of things.”
Plus, he added with a smile, “the positive is that all the guys come to my house, you know? And I’m proud of that, too. Number one, that I want them here, that’s the first prerequisite. (And) that they want to be here.”
When it comes to “the guys,” out of a galaxy that includes local products such as Jon Sundvold and Anthony Peeler, Stewart is reluctant to pick favorite players or even favorite teams.
Although he allows as how he believes the team that achieved the most was the 1993-94 group that lost 120-68 at Arkansas but went on to go 14-0 in the Big Eight before an elite eight loss to Arizona.
Mostly, his favorites “depend on who you’re with” when he’s talking.
Which is to say that he has many favorites.
The closest he’ll come to naming an all-star cast is to offer up an all-defensive team: Marvin “Moon” McCrary; Ron Jones; Prince Bridges; Willie Smith; and Steve Stipanovich.
If his teams were known for that defense, they also were known for Stewart’s color and intensity.
Sometimes, he’d just will a team to win, like he seemed to with his possessed sideline cajoling during MU’s 1992 NCAA Tournament victory over West Virginia.
“At times, we thought we had somebody else out there,” former MU player Jamal Coleman said then after that game. “Just like a ghost whispering in our ear.”
He’d joust with the media, with officials and even other coaches — never more amusingly than in riffs and rifts with Oklahoma’s Billy Tubbs and Iowa State’s Johnny Orr, each of whom Stewart socialized with.
He relished the gamesmanship: whether it was making the team walk through the gantlet of fans in Manhattan to demonstrate they could ignore the taunting … or refusing to come out of the locker room for warmups against Illinois in St. Louis because he deemed the practice balls Illinois furnished unusable … or entering Allen Fieldhouse in a hard hat.
And so much more in a man who could have been a humorist in another life … albeit one with an edge.
“I was abrasive and competitive,” he said.
When a new coach entered the conference, he shared with Stewart that he’d been told, “You’ll like the coaches in this league except Stewart.”
But the new man also said, “Hell, you’re about the only guy I do like. Kind of worried about myself.”
For all its highlights, Stewart’s 32-year MU career wasn’t without harsh times that included nine first-round NCAA losses.
More substantially, in 1968, Stewart was jolted when freshman Sanford Boyd died from what reportedly was a heart issue a day after he arrived on campus.
Then in 1989, with Mizzou under an NCAA investigation that would result in probation, Stewart collapsed on a plane flight to Oklahoma.
As they took players off the plane, reserve center Jim Horton walked by “absolutely ashen,” Stewart said.
“This poor kid,” Stewart said. “So I said to him, ‘Hey, (assistant coach Rich) Daly’s not going to play you any more than I did, so lighten up.’”
Stewart soon underwent surgery for cancer of the colon and removal of a diseased gallbladder (but not his gall, as the joke went).
“I was told that I should get my papers in order,” he said, calling it the first time he’d ever really thought about mortality and adding, “I guess my desire for survival was good.”
Stewart returned the next season, guiding MU to another Big Eight title, and remained healthy until his surprising departure in 1999 at age 64.
“In the entertainment world, they always said some people get off the stage early, some have good timing … and others wait too long,” he said. “And I think I probably got off a bit early. But I haven’t second-guessed that.”
He still cares deeply about the program he built, but not with any proprietary sense. He’s hopeful about Cuonzo Martin’s first season.
But he’s also saddened that it didn’t work out for Anderson, who inherited a jumbled mess and lost his job.
“Kim’s resume should just say, ‘I cleaned it up, and I made it possible then for somebody else to come in and have the advantages of the program that they should have had,’” Stewart said. “But his resume’s going to be that he lost games. So that’s the way it is. It’s cruel.”
But 50 years after fashioning a program in his image, Stewart has other priorities.
He remains an influential force in Coaches vs. Cancer, and with Virginia has partnered with Boone Hospital Center to create the Virginia and Norman Stewart Cancer Center.
Most of all, he continues to make up for lost time with his children, grandchildren and Virginia, whom he met at MU in 1954 and married in 1955 and treats with adoration.
Each has had more health issues that Stewart prefers to keep private.
So maybe that means they won’t get to keep traveling the world the way they’ve done for years: Africa, Australia, China, Egypt, Europe, India, South America …
But what a journey it’s been and remains, starting with the one from Shelbyville to Columbia 65 years ago and soaring with their return there just in time for all concerned a half-century back.