Virtually from the moment he was hired in March, University of Missouri men’s basketball coach Dennis Gates spoke of an appreciation for his predecessors. To this day, he often refers to how he stands on their shoulders in this job.
No one’s shoulders are broader in that context than those of Norm Stewart, who recruited Gates out of Chicago in the late 1990s only for Gates to land at the University of California at Berkeley.
They’ve been in touch so much that Gates joked last spring that he thought the 87-year-old Stewart might be itching to coach again.
So with MU (9-0) about to play host to No. 6 Kansas (8-1) on Saturday at Mizzou Arena in KU’s first visit to Columbia since 2012, no wonder Gates wanted to consult anew with Stewart — the most enduring embodiment of the ancient rivalry suddenly gone dormant because of MU’s departure from the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference.
While demonstrating a healthy respect for the series and KU coach Bill Self, with whom he shares a mentor in Leonard Hamilton, Gates on Thursday declined to reveal anything that Stewart or those who followed him offered about the dynamics.
But in a phone interview on Thursday, Stewart recalled putting it this way to Gates:
“‘I know you’ve been through some championship things, but you won’t experience anything like this. It’s just different than anything. It’s going to be an interesting day. An interesting day.’”
It’s hard to conceive of anyone more enmeshed or animated in the history of the rivalry than Stewart, who from 1967-1999 was 33-41 against Kansas.
Before commencing his Missouri varsity career in 1953, he first saw the schools play during his senior year at Shelbyville High:
On Jan. 12, 1952, Dean Kelley hit a jumper in the waning seconds of what Stewart likes to call “the Moberly end of Brewer Fieldhouse” as top-ranked Kansas beat Missouri 60-59 on the way to a national title.
Seventy years later, Stewart is thrilled to see KU coming back to Columbia. And you bet he plans to be there.
As much as his fire was a defining element of the rivalry for so long, Stewart understood something essential about it all along: that it was a symbiotic relationship and that KU was to be valued.
That’s why as MU moved to the SEC, Stewart related to why Kansas didn’t want to play Missouri any more and even criticized Mizzou for burning some bridges.
And that’s why he treasures the at-least temporary rekindling of a series that he did as much as anyone to promote with his often-excellent teams and plenty of showmanship and gamesmanship ladled over it.
That included playing up the fever of the competition and the Missouri-Kansas border itself.
Never mind that Stewart was recruited by KU coach Phog Allen, who became a longtime friend.
Stewart still has a book Allen signed with a letter commemorating the recruiting trip. And he remembers receiving a $40 reimbursement check for his mileage to and from Lawrence — where he might well have gone to school had his high school coach not insisted he was meant for Missouri.
For that matter, he always loved Allen Fieldhouse so much he tried to duplicate elements of it at the Hearnes Center and often would tell his teams, “ ‘If you can’t play here, you can’t play. This is competition at the top.’ ”
Then there’s that bit about Stewart professing to have never spent money in Kansas.
Fun as it was to say, alas, it wasn’t true.
“It got me out of a bunch of tough questions,” he said, laughing.
Long story short, it was hatched by a talk with then-Missouri Lt. Gov. William Morris about the importance of doing business in-state.
Soon thereafter when Stewart had his team stay in Kansas City before a game in Lawrence, he was asked why …. and conjured the line about not spending a dime in Kansas.
In fact, Stewart’s wife, Virginia, grew up on the Kansas side and other family members have lived in the state.
Which brings us to a story Stewart told me a couple years ago.
One night after the family watched his grandsons play a football game at Shawnee Mission East, Stewart’s daughter’s cell phone went missing and was tracked by computer to … Lawrence.
It remains quite unclear how it would have gotten there. But let’s now sweat the details. Through a circuit of friends, the phone was retrieved. Suddenly, Lawrence police were asking Stewart who could pick it up.
Somehow, Stewart was able to deputize Bill Self to take care of it.
“‘For a guy who won’t spend a dime in Kansas,’” Stewart recalled Self saying, “‘you sure as hell got a lot of people working for you here.’”
More seriously, he considers Self a good friend and admires his work.
And while it’s early in Gates’ first season at MU, Stewart also is an admirer of what Gates has been able to achieve so far.
Particularly with only three players back from last season’s team, something that struck Penn coach Steve Donahue after the Tigers beat the Quakers 92-85 last month.
“When you put a group of kids together who haven’t played (with each other) and get them to buy into, ‘This is how we’re going to win,’ that’s impressive,” Donahue said then.
Also noting Gates’ recruiting and outreach to the community and overall energy, Stewart said, “He’s just been spectacular.”
All of which figures in what should be a spectacle on Saturday at Mizzou Arena, where Stewart hopes it’s a worthy environment but also one that doesn’t get overheated.
While allowing as how he’s biased about who he’d rather see win, and the Tigers look to be much more competitive than they were last season when the Jayhawks clobbered them 102-65 in Lawrence, Stewart also said he hopes both teams play well.
Because more than anything else, what matters most is that they’re playing again.
And here’s hoping this can be another step toward creating a new frontier of the rich history in which Stewart was so instrumental.
Like Stewart told Gates, after all, you won’t experience anything like it.