Tommy Stewart passes away

CHAMPAIGN — Hall of Fame football coach Tommy Stewart, who retired as the state's winningest active coach, passed away Sunday. He was 86.

Stewart compiled a 31-year football record of 199-74-10 at Champaign High and Central high schools, retiring after the 1983 season. Counting two years he coached at Bement — where he will be buried — he won 207 games.

"He was such a great influence on the coaching staff," said Lee Cabutti, who coached Maroons basketball teams for 30 years. "All coaches wanted to be like Tom Stewart. He set a great example for the whole staff."

Stewart, who had been battling Parkinson's disease, made an impression outside of Champaign County.

B.J. Luke, a former Danville High School athlete and the Vikings' current football coach, said Stewart was "well-respected around the state."

An accomplished official in basketball — Stewart worked the state finals twice — Luke recalled times when he worked Danville games.

"He always had a word for you to make you feel important and acknowledge that he knew who you were," Luke said.

Jeff Trigger was able to see Stewart from two sides. A 1965 Champaign High graduate, Trigger played on Stewart-coached teams for two years and then joined the Central staff as a coach in 1969. He coached with Stewart for 15 seasons.

"He was consistent from both points of view," Trigger said. "Kids knew he would treat them fairly and consistently. Coaches knew he would never compromise his honesty and integrity. He was a great role model."

Though Cabutti was most known as a basketball coach, he coached football with Stewart for 11 years until becoming athletic director.

"He had a lot to do with me coming to Champaign," said Cabutti, who left Herrin for Champaign. "They had a lot better basketball coaches than me apply, but they didn't want to coach football.

"Parents were fortunate to have Tom Stewart coach their sons. He taught them more than to block, tackle and pass."

The oldest of five children, Stewart arrived in Champaign in August 1946, from Gary, Ind., to attend the University of Illinois, where he lettered in football four years. He played in the 1947 Rose Bowl game as a true freshman.

As Central's football coach, he guided the Maroons into the playoffs in four of his final five seasons. His last team, in 1983, was ranked first in Class 4A during the regular season.

Speaking from a player's perspective, Trigger said, "we always felt we'd have an edge because he'd be the best coach on the field. This is a sad day."

Stewart coached two unbeaten and untied teams prior to the creation of the state playoffs. His 1956 and his 1966 teams were each 9-0. Stewart took over the football program midway through the 1953 season for Fred Major and had just two losing seasons with the Maroons. His 1981 team won a still-standing school-record 10 games.

"He was one of a kind," Cabutti said.

Stewart also spent five years as Central's baseball head coach.

A memorial service will be scheduled for a later date.

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Bryan Trail wrote on March 26, 2012 at 11:03 am

God Bless you sir, Champaign is a lot less without you.