I guess first thing you want to know," Missouri basketball coach Norm Stewart was saying at a tournament banquet last December, "'is what am I doing up here making an ass out of myself?"
Funny, that question has come up a number of times since. Oh, Stewart's frightfully deep Tigers, by going 21-4 and settling into the aeries of the national polls, have done their best to divert attention from their coach. And Stewart earned some sympathy last week when he was hospitalized with bleeding ulcers as allegations of NCAA violations in the Mizzou basketball program came to light. But still the question persists.
What Stewart did at that early-season banquet was stand on a dais in Charlotte, N.C., wearing a woman's wig. Indeed, what was he doing making an ass of himself? It seems that The Charlotte Observer had run four photographs alongside a story previewing the Tournament of Champions, in which Missouri was taking part. There were Temple coach John Chaney, Arizona coach Lute Olson, North Carolina coach Dean Smith—and some dark-haired society belle where Stewart's likeness should have been. Stewart, who's keen on accuracy in journalism, was playing the gaffe for all it was worth.
And it was great. Stewart can be warm and funny, and he has a fine basketball mind. But the man who has presided over Missouri hoops for 22 seasons has made an ass of himself one too many times. His donkeying around is threatening to eclipse his team, his sense of humor and his own well-being. Consider:
•Before a Dec. 7 game at Tulsa, Stewart, seeing that a local cable station had stuck a camera into his timeout huddle, cursed for the TV audience's benefit.
•After that game, Stewart picked up a tape recorder belonging to Susan Harman, who covers the Tigers for the Columbia Missourian, and dictated into it, "It's kind of like Susan Harman, who reports for the Missourian. Kind of a little bowlegged gal. Too goddam small to play. Shouldn't even be covering the goddam team."
•On Jan. 7, at Colorado, he performed a lewd, onanistic pantomime, which was caught by TV cameras, after Tiger center Gary Leonard missed a late free throw.
•After the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published several stories in December about Missouri's recruiting practices, Stewart allegedly told Jim Thomas, the newspaper's beat writer, "Listen, are you trying to hurt me? I know some people who can take care of your one-year-old." Stewart denies making the remark to Thomas, the father of an infant boy, and university chancellor Haskell Monroe is investigating the allegation.
•On Jan. 28, Stewart wheeled around at the Nebraska fans behind his bench late in the Tigers' 89-72 win in Lincoln and yelled, "When your bush-league coach [Danny Nee] gets his——act together, then we'll stop pounding on you!" No one recalls there having been any bad blood between the two men before this.
Profane, petty, paranoid—call these episodes what you will. But, clearly, something has been eating at the Show-Me coach with the Show-Them chip on his shoulder. And as the Tigers made their way to Norman last Thursday for a nationally televised meeting with Oklahoma, the little critters inside him finally gnawed their way through.
Stewart, 54, was playing a game of spades on one of the team's two chartered planes—"Getting beat, as usual," assistant coach Rich Daly says—when he suddenly looked up and said, "I don't feel good. Do I look bad?"
Daly remembers Stewart looking white before passing out. Both planes made emergency landings in Oklahoma City—the team trainer was on the other one—and Stewart was rushed by ambulance to Hillcrest Health Center. He was treated for internal bleeding and diagnosed as having several ulcers, including one in the esophagus. The next day a private jet returned him to Missouri, and he was admitted to Columbia Regional Hospital, where his wife, Virginia, was recuperating from surgery she had undergone eight days earlier.
The day before Stewart's collapse, his other assistant, Bob Sundvold, had been suspended pending the outcome of an investigation into alleged NCAA violations, and the Tigers faced the Sooners with Daly and two graduate assistants, one a part-timer, in charge. Stewart spoke by phone with each player from his hospital bed that afternoon, and Missouri, seemingly inspired, jumped to an 18-5 lead. Even though the Tigers had been called for more fouls at that point than Oklahoma, Sooners coach Billy Tubbs vented his displeasure at the officiating and picked up a technical foul.
Soon after, the crowd began raining debris—mostly toy megaphones that had been handed out to the first five thousand fans—onto the floor, whereupon the officials asked Tubbs to help restore order. As he took the microphone, the second-largest basketball crowd ever to gather in Norman (11,734) quieted to a hush. "The referees," said Tubbs, "have asked that, regardless of how terrible the officiating is, please...."
The bedlam began before Tubbs could finish his sentence. A second T, miraculously without an ejection, followed. Would Tubbs have dared pull such a stunt with Stewart on the opposing bench? "Norm would have demanded equal time," Daly says. (The first time he ever faced Larry Brown, Stewart watched the young Kansas coach pick up two technicals, then screamed at him, "Sit down! You haven't been in the league long enough!" Not wanting to be outdone, Stewart picked up two T's of his own.) If Stewart hadn't been laid up, it might have been Open-Mike Nite at the Lloyd Noble Center.
Given the crowd's frenzied disposition, Tubbs's little speech was tantamount to incitement to riot—and it was appallingly effective. Seven of the next eight foul calls went against Missouri, and the Sooners outscored the Tigers 18-6 to make a new game of it. And what a game it was: a medley of individual moves, of Sooners and Tigers taking turns doing chin-ups on the rim, that would have tested the stoutest of stomachs. So furious was the first half, which ended tied at 53, that Daly sneaked outside during the intermission to gulp some fresh air. Only when Oklahoma senior center Stacey King outdueled Mizzou freshman Anthony Peeler over the final minutes was the Sooners' 112-105 victory assured.
Stewart's recent behavior calls to mind another tightly-wound Midwestern college basketball coach who has outstripped all institutional controls. Indeed, Stewart's admiration for Indiana's Bob Knight is legendary. In 1983, when he agreed to speak at Stewart's coaching clinic, Knight said that he had a commitment on the East Coast the next day. So Stewart arranged for Sundvold to drive Knight to the Columbia airport in the morning. But Sundvold overslept, leaving Stewart to dash out in pajamas and bathrobe, to give Knight a lift.
A few days later Knight phoned Stewart. He had missed his connecting flight, Knight said, and had had to charter a Learjet. He would send Stewart the bill. Knight did send an invoice, and Stewart paid up with what must have been the entire profits from the clinic. When he received Stewart's check, Knight came clean that there was no missed flight or Learjet. He returned the check, but Stewart loves to recount how Knight bamboozled him.
Stewart and Knight share more than the same vaporizing glare, faith in man-to-man defense and insistence on taking the good shot. (Stewart's 1979-80 Tigers hold the NCAA single-season field-goal-percentage mark of .572.) And neither has much use for sportswriters.
In recent years, Stewart's distaste for the press has blossomed into open contempt. Not only is he flanked by big-city dailies in Kansas City and St. Louis, but also his every move is studied by several hundred aggressive scribes-in-training at Missouri's fine School of Journalism. Add the simple fact that Stewart's coaching accomplishments haven't been widely trumpeted, and it's no surprise that he has a bunker mentality when it comes to dealing with the press.
This season printed volleys have landed all around him. In mid-December the Post-Dispatch ran a series on the Missouri basketball program, which touched off Stewart's alleged threat against Thomas's infant son. The newspaper described how Daly—known in the recruiting subculture as "Doctor Detroit"—has mined Motown's talent-rich church gyms and rec centers for inner-city black players, whom Stewart had been unable to attract to Columbia. The series did not accuse Daly of misconduct, but some of the reporting—the P-D identified one of Daly's recruiting contacts, a Detroit hoops junkie named Vic Adams, and quoted some Midwestern coaches raising questions about the Tigers' sudden success in that city—seemed to imply that something was amiss.
Then last week The Kansas City Times reported that Sundvold had admitted to Missouri officials that, in apparent violation of NCAA rules, he had bought a round-trip airplane ticket for P.J. Mays, a freshman from Cincinnati who has since left school for personal reasons. The Times also printed an excerpt from a phone conversation between Sundvold and Yvonne Mays, the recruit's mother, who had taped the exchange, in which Sundvold repeatedly asked for her help in concealing the violation. The Times also reported that P.J. Mays alleged that Sundvold had broken another rule by giving him and two other players, Mike Wawrzyniak and Jamal Coleman, $100 each last summer—in the presence of Daly. Both Daly and Sundvold deny the allegation.
Stewart has suffered a few more broadsides, including a piece by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Terry Boers, who ripped Stewart's habit of intimidating sportswriters and called him "a poor excuse for a human being."
But Stewart is more complicated than that. The son of a gas station owner from Shelbyville, Mo., he attended Missouri, where he starred in baseball and basketball in the mid '50s and met Virginia Zimmerley, the homecoming queen who would become his wife. Stewart has always warmed to players who remind him of himself—small-town Midwestern kids who would outnasty you. Through the 1970s and '80s, as Missouri football fell apart and 26 other Big Eight basketball coaches came and went, Stewart's power increased.
Like Knight, his methods have been hard-nosed but, so far, beyond the NCAA's reproach. Unlike Knight, Stewart has never been to a Final Four—in fact, Missouri has not won an NCAA tournament game since 1982—and that eats at him. However, few who know him think it eats at his ethics, the current probe notwithstanding.
"He's one of the most competitive people I've ever met, whether it's golf or cards or basketball," says Tom Dore, a center on Stewart's teams during the late '70s who's now a radio sports director in Austin, Texas. "But when I got recruited—and I got all sorts of offers under the table—Norm told me exactly what I would get at Missouri: room, board, books, tuition and fees."
It's ironic that, after losing the brilliant but free-spirited Derrick Chievous to the NBA after last season, Stewart's current team is so delightful and industrious. NBA scouts consider the late-blooming, 7'1" Leonard, a senior, among the best prospects at his position. And three splendid guards—roommates Byron Irvin, Lee Coward and Peeler—provide an almost scary explosiveness. On Jan. 21, Oklahoma State led Missouri by five points midway through the second half, as Leonard and forwards Doug Smith and Mike Sandbothe rode the bench with four fouls each. The In-It-To-Win-It Crew, as Peeler calls the roommate trio, touched off a 42-15 stampede that chased the Cowboys back to Stillwater.
There was irony, too, in Missouri's 93-80 win over Kansas last Saturday, the first time in the Stewart Era that a national network, in this case NBC, had deigned to originate a broadcast from Columbia. Stewart has cultivated such a rabid rivalry with Kansas that he once wondered aloud whether the Jayhawks were tapping his phone. Saturday's game was an event Stewart had worked toward for two decades, and he could hardly savor it from his sickbed.
"This may sound self-righteous,' Stewart said in the hospital on Sunday with Virginia by his side. "But I've basically tried to do things keeping in mine that, if it were all over, I'd not look back with any regrets. I've taken all sorts of criticism and innuendo from writers saying I must change. I'd like to write them a letter and tell them to change." Even from the third floor of Columbia Regional, Stewart was still competing.
"He needs some leisure activity,' mused Irvin last week. "It's too cold to play golf. Maybe I'll get him a Pictionary set."
It's a nice thought. But, like golf cards and basketball, Pictionary is a game, and you either win or lose. And right now, Norm Stewart sounds like a man willing to do just about anything—including imperil his own health—to keep winning.