One aspect not addressed in “Norm,” ESPN’s spot-on new documentary of venerable University of Missouri basketball coach Norm Stewart, was Stewart’s relationship with the school’s student journalists. Understand that Mizzou, as home to the world’s first School of Journalism, churned out an unusual number of wet-behind-the-ears pests whom Stewart often accused of “disrupting my team.” Realize, too, that Stewart—devilishly clever and never above haggling to get an edge—knew how to get across his point about school loyalty to us practitioners of theoretical neutrality. Often by announcing that he was “declaring war on the local writers.”
I was a reporter for the university-run Columbia Missourian when Stewart assumed the head coaching job in 1967, and therefore embodied so much of what annoyed him about J-School. “They’re in a learning situation,” he argued to me years later, “They don’t have any knowledge about history, or any interest in it. They’re like all kids. Live for today.”
Guilty. Unlike Stewart, who hailed from the tiny farming community of Shelbyville, near Tom Sawyer’s Hannibal, and had been a two-sport star at Mizzou in the 1950s, most J-School students are virtual foreigners, drawn by J-School’s reputation and not steeped in such matters as Missouri’s established hate for neighboring Kansas. I went to high school in New Mexico, and had classmates from California, New York, Iowa, Virginia, Oklahoma, Illinois and other distant points.
It further rankled Stewart, and justifiably so, that the state’s media centers of St. Louis and Kansas City were slow to acknowledge the rapid ascent of his teams into perennial contenders in the old Big Eight Conference.
In 1982, Mizzou opened the season with 19 consecutive wins and briefly was ranked No. 1, at last in line for some national attention, but the instant it lost its first game, NBC cancelled a planned feature on the team. “I guess I ought to go out and lose five or six games so I can get on TV all the time like UCLA and Notre Dame,” was Stewart’s sarcastic reaction.
It was that February that I maneuvered a Newsday assignment to return to campus, as a ploy to to introduce our Long Island readers to “Stormin’ Norman,” who had created an image throughout the Midwest of a cantankerous soul. Regularly wrangling with officials (and sometimes fans) as he stalked the sideline, Stewart inspired opposing fans to serenade him with “Sit down, Norm!” chants.
Yet, up close, Stewart could be as charming as he was caustic, with an open, sly sense of humor, a crooked smile and tales to tell.
When I visited in ’82, Mizzou was days from a nationally televised match-up of Top 10 teams at Georgetown, which was riding the all-encompassing skills of freshman giant Patrick Ewing. Stewart sat in his office, grinning mischievously, and gilded his reputation as an agitator by relating how he once spliced together a film of what he considered the worst officials’ calls and shipped it to the Big Eight office. He told of a Notre Dame fan who had been badgering him, and how he considered mailing the man a rosary and a snuffed-out candle with the note, “You have caused me to lose my Faith.”
That evening, after Mizzou’s game against Iowa State, Stewart invited me to his home to continue the conversation. He addressed his occasionally brusque coaching techniques and manic attention to defense with self-deprecation: “Players sometimes say, ‘Coach, how do you stop that [offensive move].’ I say, ‘As coaches, we don’t do that. We just identify problems.’”
He spoke fondly of his high school coach in Shelbyville, C.J. Kessler, who originally made a name for himself in basketball-mad Indiana but, as Stewart told it, happened to marry a Shelbyville girl and, when Kessler came to visit the in-laws, “some of the local boys took him out for golf and possibly drinks, and the next morning he wakes up as superintendent of schools and basketball coach. And his wife as the school’s English teacher.”
It was about then I felt the time ripe for a little good-natured J-School revenge, recalling that Mizzou’s coaching job had become open, following the 1966-67 season, not long after I had scrutinized the failures of Bob Vanatta in a column for our student newspaper, The Maneater.
Vanatta’s team had lost 43 of 49 games the previous two seasons. Might I, a smart-aleck sophomore possibly abusing the power of the pen, have hastened Vanatta’s departure—and therefore Stewart’s shot at the job that came to shape his legacy? (He stayed for 32 seasons, won 634 games and eight conference titles and appeared in 22 post-season tournaments. He also survived colon cancer and founded the Coaches vs. Cancer organization that has raised more than $87 million since 1993. All of that is in the “Norm” documentary.)
I don’t recall Stewart’s reaction, although the hurling of rotten tomatoes would not have been out of line. I fully suspect he grasped the jest factor.
And here’s the irony:
In the spring of 1969, months short of graduation, I had arranged to interview Stewart about his landing of prize 6-foot-7 recruit John Brown, the future second-team All-American and eight-year NBA veteran. Stewart was in the hospital receiving treatment for a bad back, but invited me to his bedside to detail the lengthy process of romancing Brown and keeping him away from the likes of despised Kansas U.
That drawn-out struggle, the neighborhood rivalry, the name of the lad whose physical presence was being fought over, put me in mind of Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic 1928 poem, “John Brown’s Body,” about the radical abolitionist in Civil War days.
It was a cheesy premise for a column, but a visit to the university library unearthed lines in the poem that spoke to Mizzou’s basketball situation, of gaining a real edge on the bitter adversary across the state line only two years into Stewart’s tenure:
The papers praise, but the recruiting is slow,
The bonds sell badly, the grind of the war goes on—
Go down, John Brown,
Go down, John Brown,
Go down, John Brown, and set that people free!
Kansas, bleeding Kansas,
I hear her in her pain.
The vice president of the United Press International wire service happened to be in town for Mizzou’s annual Journalism Week and saw the John Brown column. He offered me a position in UPI’s sports department in New York City.
So it was Stewart who generated the opportunity to get me a job.
P.S. In 2008, when Missouri’s J-School celebrated its Centennial with three days of forums and exhibits, Stewart was in the audience for a panel discussion on the ethics and future of sports journalism. It was good to see him. The war was over a long time ago.