The University of Missouri’s basketball team, pride of the Show Me State, has shown it can overcome turmoil.
The Tigers, who play Syracuse in a National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Midwest Regional semifinal game tonight at the Metrodome, have made headlines more suited to the supermarket tabloids than the sports pages this season. Consider:
--After the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Kansas City Star-Times had published stories examining Missouri’s recruiting tactics, Coach Norm Stewart allegedly threatened the infant son of Jim Thomas, who reports on Missouri for the Post-Dispatch.
“Are you trying to hurt me?” Stewart reportedly asked Thomas after a practice Jan. 4. “Do you love Timmy? I know some people who can do something about that.”
Stewart has denied making the threat, which was reported by the Columbia Missourian.
--Assistant coach Bob Sundvold was suspended Feb. 8 after admitting having paid for a plane ticket for P. J. Mayes, a freshman guard who has since left school because he didn’t meet NCAA academic standards. The NCAA is investigating.
Sundvold would not be interviewed for this story.
--Stewart, 57, passed out on a charter flight to a game at Oklahoma on Feb. 9. The plane made an emergency landing, and Stewart was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer. When tests also revealed a cancerous tumor on the colon and a diseased gallbladder, Stewart underwent surgery. He is recuperating at home.
--Rich Daly, Missouri’s only remaining full-time assistant coach, was elevated to interim head coach.
And Daly has led Missouri, which hadn’t won a postseason game in five years, to the NCAA sweet 16.
“Missouri seems to be playing on some kind of mission,” Tom Penders, Texas coach, said after losing to Missouri by 19 points in a second-round game last weekend. “They’re really a motivated ballclub. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them make it to (the Final Four).”
Penders credits Daly for Missouri’s resurgence.
“Daly’s not trying to over-coach. And I think that’s smart. I think he has asserted some authority. I watched him during the games before we played him and I got the feeling that if a (player’s) not doing his job, Daly’s going to take him out of there. It’s a very difficult situation that he came into, but I think he’s taken the attitude that he has everything to gain and nothing to lose. And that’s the proper way of going about it.”
Rich Daly picked up the phone to call home.
Suddenly, his fingers froze.
“What’s my home phone number?” Daly asked a reporter. “Three months ago, I could rattle off 150 phone numbers but my mind has been shot since I took this job.”
Daly has also forgotten to eat and sleep. He spends hours tossing and turning, thinking about games.
He used to sleep like a baby when he was Missouri’s chief recruiter.
“When things got bad around here, I’d just get a plane ticket and get out of Dodge City to recruit,” Daly said. “I don’t care how good a coach you are, you can’t win the Kentucky Derby with a Missouri mule.”
He was nicknamed Dr. Detroit for his success in signing the seven Tigers who call Detroit home.
“Rich Daly is the world’s greatest recruiter,” Derrick Chievous, a former Missouri star, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Rich Daly could sell you a pair of bad underwear, that’s what kind of recruiter he is.”
A tireless recruiter who calls seven recruits seven nights a week, Daly has easily made the transition to bench coaching.
“Coaching is like riding a bicycle,” Daly said. “You never forget how to do it.”
When did he learn to coach?
A native of Moberly, Mo., Daly, 47, began his coaching career at Moberly High. He moved on to Moberly Junior College, where he was an assistant under Cotton Fitzsimmons, now coach of the Phoenix Suns.
Daly’s next stop was Pensacola Junior College in Florida, where he spent six years as head coach before leaving for Tennessee Chattanooga, where he spent five years as an assistant coach-recruiter.
Daly, who arrived at Missouri in 1983, recruited all of the players on this year’s squad, which is a mix of inner-city players from Detroit and small-town players from Missouri.
Doug Smith, center from Detroit, arrived at practice the other day wearing a coonskin cap, and monster cables, the thick gold rope chains favored by rap musicians.
“Doug’s the only guy I know who looks good with a squirrel sitting on top of his head,” quipped Gary Leonard, senior center.
Greg Church, a senior forward from Palmyra, Mo., looked as if he was ready to go deer hunting when he arrived at practice in jeans.
Despite their cultural differences, the two factions peacefully coexist on and off the court.
“We’ve got a weird chemistry,” said Leonard. “But I think that’s what’s helped us through all this. Everybody’s unique, but we all blend together on and off the court.”
Whereas Stewart ruled this eccentric bunch with an iron hand, Daly’s touch has been kinder and gentler.
“I can’t be Norm Stewart,” Daly said. “I’ve got to be Rich Daly.”
So who is Rich Daly?
For one thing, he comes across as a refreshing change from workaholic coaches.
Whereas many other college coaches are consumed by their jobs, watching tape and conducting long meetings and practices, Daly disdains such tactics. His well-organized workouts rarely last longer than 1 1/2 hours.
After replacing Stewart, Daly gave the seniors a role in planning game strategy. But the experiment in coaching by committee failed. Missouri, which had won 19 of its first 22 games under Stewart, finished the regular season by splitting its last eight under Daly.
So Daly began to assert his authority.
He benched guard Byron Irvin, the team’s leading scorer, after Irvin had been late for practice, and although the players chafed when Daly tightened the reins, the new tactics have been productive.
The Tigers have won six straight in the postseason, including NCAA tournament wins over Creighton and Texas. After finishing second to Oklahoma in the Big Eight, Missouri won the conference tournament, beating Oklahoma in the final.
So Daly’s stock has risen, although he says he’ll be content to return to being an assistant coach when Stewart returns. Still, Daly aspires to become a head coach eventually and realizes that the kind of publicity he is generating can help his cause.
“Any assistant that says he doesn’t want to be a head coach is lying,” Daly said.
Has Daly’s performance helped him?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t gotten any letters. But I don’t know if I’d want a job at a place that would send me a letter.”
For 22 years, Norm Stewart was Missouri basketball.
But with the Tigers on the road to Seattle, he has kept a low profile.
“I’m not doing (interviews),” Stewart told a reporter who phoned him at home.
When the reporter persisted, Stewart quickly ended the conversation.
“You don’t understand,” Stewart said. “Rich Daly has been appointed interim coach and he’s doing a wonderful job handling the team. Nothing has changed.”
Stewart did consent to go on a statewide radio talk show last weekend, where he made his first public statements since he was hospitalized.
“I’m getting stronger and I feel good about everything,” Stewart said. “Having major surgery, I just needed to get back and convalesce and get myself well. I try to do everything I can to help my ballclub. But at the same time, I felt, one of the first priorities was that I’d better take care of myself. Now that I’ve had a little time, feel stronger . . . it’s fine to watch the ballgames.”
Stewart attended a workout last week and when the team returned home from last Sunday’s game in Dallas, he met them at the airport.
What did Stewart tell the team?
“He was giving us words of wisdom in his old style,” said Church. “It was like nothing has changed.”
In reality, though, lots has changed.
Midwest Regional Notes
Illinois (29-4), which meets Louisville (24-8) in the opening game, got a scare when forward Kenny Battle twisted his right knee after he slipped on a wet spot during Thursday’s practice. He’s expected to play tonight. Why was the floor wet? The Metrodome’s roof was leaking. Metrodome officials hope to have it fixed by today.