Norman''s been stormin'' for years

Norman''s been stormin'' for years

  Norm Stewart is your old-style, fire-eating coach. Jut-jawed and scowling, he wheels around like a caged tiger in front of his bench while carrying on a running debate with three stripe-shirted zebras.

   He''s been called Stormin'' Norman for a reason.

   And there he was at the St. Louis Arena before Christmas in 1993, pointing and shouting at the midcourt circle, perhaps 30 feet directly behind Kiwane Garris as the Illini freshman stepped up to shoot two free throws with the score 97-97 and no time left in the second overtime.

   If officials Tom Rucker, David Hall and Denny Freund had turned around, they would have been obligated to call a technical. Stewart was right there in the center of the court.

   But like thoroughbreds with blinders, the refs were oblivious to what was happening behind them because ... well, why complicate an already incendiary situation when Garris could end the game and send everybody home with a free throw. They were just a quick sprint away from the safety of their dressing room? Let''s get out of here was the obvious imperative of the moment.

   Then, a hush of disbelief swept the giant audience as Garris missed the first attempt. And the ever-thinking Stewart, suddenly aware of his precarious position, darted back to the sideline. He didn''t want to be the cause of more free throws if Garris somehow missed again.

   As fate would have it, Garris failed to connect and Stewart''s Tigers won in triple overtime, 108-107.

   By any account, Stewart''s relentless competitiveness was a major factor that night, and that competitiveness instills a tenacity that Missouri players always display in this annual Border War, a war that will be renewed at 7 p.m. Saturday.


   If the Final Four has escaped him, Stewart has captured most everything else. In 30 years at the Mizzou helm, he owns eight league titles and six tournament crowns in the former Big Eight Conference, and was voted by AP and the Kansas City Star as the all-time Big Eight coach He''ll retain that title since the conference no longer exists.

   With 684 career victories, he''ll soon top 700 overall and 600 at Mizzou. To attain these milestones of durability, he took life''s lethal 1-2 punch, knelt for a nine-count, and came back swinging.

   In February 1989, on the same day the NCAA sent a letter of inquiry to Missouri to announce its investigation of the basketball program, Stewart blacked out on a trip to Oklahoma.

   The diagnosis was colon cancer, a diseased gallbladder and eight ulcers that led to extensive blood loss. He underwent surgery and a variety of treatments, including chemotherapy. Assistant Rich Daly took over the Tiger team for the last 14 games that season. Stewart''s career, not to mention his life, was threatened.

   "Norm didn''t have all his strength back when he returned the next fall," said Bob Brendel, sports information director. "And ever since he''s been more careful with his scheduling, like not combining a morning breakfast after a late recruiting trip. So, yes, he has changed somewhat. I''d say he lives life more for today. But he definitely bounced back strong."

   Unlike Illinois, which slumped after its same-period run-in with the NCAA, Missouri won the Big Eight race with a 12-2 record in 1990 and, while barred from the NCAA tournament in 1991, won the Big Eight postseason tournament at Kansas City. Then, in 1994, the Tigers waded through a rugged Big Eight season with a 14-0 record and reached the NCAA Elite Eight in Los Angeles, losing to Arizona 92-72.

   Stewart never conceded anything to NCAA or school investigators, challenging anyone who questioned his ethics. He flashed his wry humor to former Illini assistant coach Dick Nagy when he commented in the midst of the investigation: "What we should have all done was wear convict uniforms and walk out on the floor dragging balls and chains."

   Since his colon scare, Stewart has become deeply involved with charitable work. Said Brendel:

   "After Jim Valvano (former North Carolina State coach) died, the National Association of Basketball Coaches adopted cancer as their charitable off-court thrust. Norm picked it up here (Norm''s Special Challenge) in 1993, and took his ideas to the coaches'' board in 1994, and they adopted it nation-wide as part of their coaches vs. cancer program."

   Stewart has played a lead role in roasts and celebrity golf outings to benefit cancer, and was honored in 1994 at the White House by President Bill Clinton, who presented him with the American Cancer Society''s "Courage Award."

   The University of Illinois is one of more than 100 institutions now participating in the "three-point attack" against cancer.

   "He doesn''t talk about his sickness," said assistant coach Kim Anderson. "He is still a very active guy. He doesn''t sit around. He lives each day fully."



   Illinois'' Lon Kruger likes to joke that he remembers his kindergarten days when Stewart played for Missouri. Stewart counters that they played against each other, and he (Stewart) was a better shooter.

   Regardless of their exaggerations, they''ve been doing battle for a quarter century, Kruger going 2-4 against Stewart''s Tigers as a Kansas State player in the early 1970s, and 3-5 as K-State head coach ending in 1990. Lou Henson is just the latest in a long line of rivals who have retired during the Stewart tenure.

   "You bring it up," said Stewart, "otherwise I don''t think about the coaches who have come and gone over the years. To me, we''re like gunfighters (he''s the one left standing). I concentrate on my club. I''m standing in the gym right now. I''m concentrating on today."

   Back from Iowa Monday after Saturday night''s disappointing loss, Stewart was only half-joking when he said:

   "I asked the guys what''s better on a Sunday than early church and a good practice. And I gave them the answer: church and two practices. We worked out twice Sunday. We''re trying to get better."


   Throughout the years, not many coaches have worked the officials more relentlessly than Stewart.

   "Man, you don''t want to go to Columbia," said John Orr, former Iowa State and Michigan coach. "We got some really bad calls down there. Oohhh, I remember a particularly bad one when they beat us at the buzzer (58-57 in 1984). We only won one game in Columbia during my time (14 years) at Iowa State. But we won some big games in Ames, and we beat a really good Missouri team with Steve Stipanovich and Jon Sundvold on a buzzer shot by Barry Stevens in 1983.

   "But the game I''ll always remember  because it made me popular my first year in Ames  was when Stipanovich hit our little 5-9 guard over the head with the basketball. Stipanovich was about a foot taller, standing there holding the ball up high with both hands, and he just hit our guy with the ball and knocked him on his butt.

   "No whistle! No foul! No call! I ran out on the court and I intercepted the pass, and then I wouldn''t give the ball back to the refs. I said, ''Didn''t you guys see that? We have 14,000 people who saw it, and you guys didn''t see it?'' They called a ''T'' and said they''d call another one if I didn''t give the ball back and sit down. I told ''em they didn''t have the guts to call another one, and they didn''t.

   "The people in Iowa always thought Iowa State got the worst end of things, and that incident really helped my popularity because they felt I stood up for them. That helped get our program going.

   "When they asked Norm about it, he said, ''John made a nice catch and if he had cut left, he could have had a layup.'' "

   Orr says the Illini are "far better off" playing each year in St. Louis than in going to Columbia every other year.

   "Jud Heathcote took his (Michigan State) team to Columbia once (1983), and he said he''d never go back. That''s a bad trip."

   Henson agrees. He recalls Missouri shot 34 free throws to Illinois'' 10 in a 76-75 Tiger win in 1976.

   "The officiating was terrible," said Henson, "and I complained after the game. Then Norm got after me for complaining. Later I sent our manager down to pick up the game film, which he had promised, and Norm said he wouldn''t give us the film because Henson had made negative remarks about the official. We never got the film. He just refused.

   "Our relationship got better over the years but we never made the mistake of going back to Columbia."

   Orr said the issue of officiating was an annual ritual for Stewart.

   "We had coaches meetings prior to the start of the Big Eight season," said Orr, "and in our private discussions he''d always point out that we needed to learn the rules better and cooperate better with the officials. Then we''d get into individual evaluations and if we''d support a particular official, he''d get upset and say, ''I can''t believe you like that guy.'' Before it was over, he''d be ripping every one of them."

   Dale Kelly, supervisor of Big 12 officials, said Stewart is no problem for seasoned officials.

   "I worked his games in the NCAA, and I didn''t find him hard to communicate with," said Kelly. "The key is approaching him in the right manner. It doesn''t always appear that way to spectators, but he is a reasonable man."


   For what seemed like an eternity to him, Stewart fielded strong quintets but couldn''t handle Henson''s charged-up Illini in St. Louis.

   Stewart tried buses, cars and planes. He transported his team the night before and, when that didn''t work, he flew them in directly beforehand. He changed hotels and he changed benches. He became so frustrated that if he could have found a voodoo doctor, he would have hired him.

   The Christmas-spoiling "hex" lasted eight years, from 1983 through 1990. The last three games of that stretch were epics. In 1988, Kenny Battle racked 28 points as No. 5-ranked Illinois rallied from an 18-point halftime deficit to edge No. 8 Missouri, 87-84. In 1989, Marcus Liberty and Kendall Gill combined for 51 points as another fifth-ranked UI team prevailed 101-93. And in 1990, Andy Kaufmann drained a school record seven treys as he scored 33 and Deon Thomas 23 in an 84-81 thriller.

   From a fan standpoint, the annual "Braggin'' Rights" game was made. Fan rivalry is seldom more heated. Sellouts were assured. It had become the year''s biggest night of basketball in St. Louis. But for Stewart, all he could think of was how he could maneuver and return the game to home-and-road in Columbia and Champaign as the refrains of an old World''s Fair tune rang in his head:

   Beat me in St. Looie, Louie,

   Beat me fair and square.

   Match me up with those Illini,

   Anyplace but there.

   "Norm told me, ''I just can''t beat those guys. To hell with this. I''m gonna quit playing them,'' " recalled Orr. "He said it was a big game for Illinois and he just couldn''t get his kids to that level."

   Stewart said this week he never wanted to drop the game. He just wanted to win it.

   Missouri assistant coach Kim Anderson offered, "Down deep, Norm really wanted to beat Illinois in St. Louis. To tell him he can''t do something just makes him more competitive."

   Actually, the eight-game run was a combination of good Illini fortune and an exceptional string of UI players, who usually came out of the gate strong under the fundamentally sound Henson. In December games in the 1980s, the Illini won 72 of 83, and they were riding high until the long NCAA investigation pulled them down.

   Stewart was quick to point out all the UI players who wound up wearing NBA jerseys, athletes like Derek Harper, Ken Norman, Stephen Bardo, Nick Anderson, Battle, Liberty and Gill. There was also some very good ones like Efrem Winter, Bruce Douglas and Deon Thomas who didn''t.

   As former UI athletic director Neale Stoner once said: "The ''80s belonged to the Illini."



   That UI''s lucky streak ended in 1991 as Stewart''s Tigers emerged from their infraction-laced bout with the NCAA in better shape than shorthanded Illinois.

   The Tigers breezed to a 61-44 victory in 1991, and won four straight including the astonishing 108-107, triple-OT game in 1993.

   That''s when Stewart, trekking to mid-court with Garris on the line, made his retreat to the bench before the officials could whistle a "T," and the Tigers pulled it out after Garris missed both chances. This was perhaps Stewart''s most opportunistic team, serving one of just three losses by the Illini in their last 15 overtime games. Those Tigers went on to an undefeated Big Eight championship and reached the NCAA''s Elite Eight in a 28-4 season.

   It took another overtime two years later  Dec. 20, 1995  for the Illini to put Stewart back in his old, familiar glum Christmas mood.

   Offsetting Kelly Thames'' 25 points for Mizzou two years ago, five Illini attained double figures with Jerry Hester drilling two back-breaking treys in overtime and Garris adding six extra-session free throws in a 96-85 verdict. Having been the goat in 1993, Garris nearly attained a triple-double with 23 points, 8 assists and 8 rebounds.

   The triumph ranked alongside a 75-65 win at Duke as peak moments in an 11-1 Illinois run prior to the start of Big Ten play ... and prior to injuries that blunted the promising seasons of Garris and Hester.


   One astonishing aspect of Stewart''s durability is that he has been a player, assistant coach and head coach in 1,042 Tiger games, more than half of all the basketball games played by the university.

   "Norm enjoys competition in everything he does, whether its golf or basketball or getting the luggage off the carousel," said Anderson, a six-year staffman who was Missouri''s Big Eight Player of the Year in 1977.

   "What Norm Stewart did for me was teach me how to compete. He instills that in all his players, and that helps in whatever you do in life, whether you''re a doctor, lawyer or in business.

   "When I was a young kid in Sedalia, I recall Missouri winning only three basketball games (in 1966 and 1967). Then Stewart took it over as I was growing up and this became the Big U., the place I wanted to attend. I went to his summer camps in the eighth and ninth grades, and I got to know him. I had respect for him then, and even more now that I see how hard he works. Look at all the coaches who come and go, and you realize how difficult it is to stay in this business for 30 years at one institution.

   "He''s a coach who knows what to expect and how to anticipate. There aren''t many situations he hasn''t faced before. He''s very aggressive on the sideline but he never loses control. He sees the big picture, and he''s always alert to what we have to do offensively or defensively."

   Has he mellowed? Now 61, will he retire in a year or two?

   "He signed a five-year contract that will take him into his mid-60s and to the next century," said Anderson. "I don''t anticipate him stepping down in the near future. Right now he''s deeply involved in the planning and fund-raising for our new arena. They already have $10 million in startup costs.

   "Has he mellowed? Well, I think he has changed with the times. He doesn''t let the little things  a bad call, a player''s idiosyncrasies  bother him anymore. But there''s been no change in his intensity. That won''t change."


Comments embraces discussion of both community and world issues. We welcome you to contribute your ideas, opinions and comments, but we ask that you avoid personal attacks, vulgarity and hate speech. We reserve the right to remove any comment at our discretion, and we will block repeat offenders' accounts. To post comments, you must first be a registered user, and your username will appear with any comment you post. Happy posting.

Login or register to post comments