How do you take down No. 1? Norm Stewart reflects on Mizzou Tigers’ 1997 upset over KU

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As his team prepared for a meeting with No. 1 Kansas on Feb. 4, 1997, there was one thing in particular that was bothering Norm Stewart.

Missouri used to host pep rallies before home men’s basketball games. But as the former head coach recalls, there weren’t very many people in attendance ahead of the Tigers’ bout with the undefeated Jayhawks.

“So I remember going to a dorm or going to one of the places and telling them that they had to come over,” Stewart, 87, told The Star in a recent phone interview. “Then I told them at the end, I said, ‘And we’re gonna win the game.’”

Stewart stuck to his word. Unranked Missouri handed Kansas its only loss of the regular season, 96-94 in double overtime.

Mizzou hasn’t been able to knock off a top-ranked opponent in the nearly 25 years since. It’ll have its first shot at doing so since 2019 on Tuesday night when newly anointed No. 1 Auburn comes to Mizzou Arena for a 7:30 p.m. tip.

Though multiple coaching changes and two and a half decades separate the two teams, the 1996-97 Missouri Tigers entered that matchup at a juncture in their season astonishingly similar to that of the current one.

Cuonzo Martin’s squad has lost seven of its last 11 games and is 8-10. Stewart’s team had lost eight of its last 11 games and had an 11-10 record before playing KU at the Hearnes Center.

“That was a year that we didn’t anticipate — well, we always anticipated doing a little better than what we were doing,” Stewart said of the 1996-97 season. “But I think every game presents a challenge. And I still feel that today, that everybody has an opportunity and it’s what you can do with the opportunity. That one though, that was pretty uphill.”

The Kansas City Star sports section on Feb. 5, 1997, the day after Missouri men’s basketball beat No. 1-ranked Kansas.
The Kansas City Star sports section on Feb. 5, 1997, the day after Missouri men’s basketball beat No. 1-ranked Kansas.

Stewart undoubtedly took advantage of such opportunities. He remains the only coach in program history to beat the No. 1 team in the nation. And he did it four times, the last of which came in that 1997 contest.

In his early days at the helm, Stewart admitted that he may have “put a little too much emphasis on certain games.” He was unsuccessful in his first three meetings against No. 1 teams: a 94-75 loss at UCLA in 1970, a 64-57 loss at North Carolina in 1983 and a 84-63 loss to the Tar Heels on a neutral court in 1985.

But in 1988-89, the Tigers got a try at the top team in the nation at the Hearnes Center for the first time. Missouri, ranked No. 7, knocked off No. 1 Oklahoma 97-84 on Feb. 25, 1989.

Though he gets credit for the upset, Stewart missed that game while dealing with colon cancer. Assistant coach Rich Daly served as the interim.

Once back on the sidelines, Stewart led upsets over No. 1 teams in each of his two tries after that.

Both were against Kansas the following season. In the first, on Jan. 20, 1990, the No. 4-ranked Tigers defeated the Jayhawks 95-87 at Hearnes Center. Bumped up to a No. 2 ranking, Missouri took down its rival 77-71 on the road a few weeks later on Feb. 13, 1990.

Stewart went 4-7 against No. 1 teams over his tenure at Missouri from 1967-99. So what was the approach for the legendary coach?

“Every game is different,” Stewart said. “And if there’s different circumstances surrounding the game, you try to use it.”

The Tigers were unranked and unproven entering that 1997 game. They had come up short against four top 25 teams: No. 10 Clemson, No. 22 Arkansas, No. 4 Iowa State and No. 23 Texas.

“The first thing, if you’re going to do something, you’ve got to believe you’re going to do it,” Stewart said at the time in a Kansas City Star article written by former MU beat writer Mike DeArmond. “I’m not sure that our ball club all year long has had their mind set on the right things.”

But this was a game against Kansas. That changed everything.

“My responsibility was to prepare the team as well as I could, as good as I could,” Stewart explains all these years later. “... I’m a slow learner, but after a few years I found that you didn’t have to put any emphasis. In fact, you had to control the emphasis when you were playing Kansas.

“Because the players in those days — now, today I think it’s a little different — the players at that time, you didn’t have to do anything special. They would get ready to play. What you had to do is control that level so that they could perform at their best level.”

In this file photo, Missouri coach Norm Stewart (right) gives instructions next to Jason Sutherland. Stewart’s Tigers, led by Sutherland’s 18 points took down No. 1 Kansas on Feb. 4, 1997.
In this file photo, Missouri coach Norm Stewart (right) gives instructions next to Jason Sutherland. Stewart’s Tigers, led by Sutherland’s 18 points took down No. 1 Kansas on Feb. 4, 1997.

Leading the way for that Missouri team that day were Kelly Thames (24 points, 11 rebounds), Derek Grimm (20 points, 6 rebounds), Jason Sutherland (18 points, 3 assists) and Corey Tate (14 points, 5 rebounds). They went toe to toe with a loaded Jayhawks squad led by future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce and NBA players Raef LaFrentz, Scot Pollard, Jacque Vaughn and Billy Thomas.

With time winding down in regulation, the Tigers held a 71-68 lead.

“We were up three with a few seconds to go and I elected to foul,” Stewart said. “And so I fouled, the free-throw shooter (Vaughn) made the first one and then they missed the second one intentionally. And then — and on film — they pushed (Grimm) underneath the basket, grabbed the ball, put it in to tie the game.”

Regulation wouldn’t be enough to decide this one, nor would one overtime period. The two teams continued to trade blows in the second overtime until the game-winning bucket with 5.6 seconds left.

“In the second overtime, I set up one of my never-fail plays,” Stewart said.

But it didn’t go according to plan …

“We fumbled the ball,” Stewart recalled. “And Corey Tate picked it up off the free-throw line and shot it in the basket.”

Missouri then made a defensive stop on the other end to escape with a monumental victory. Hearnes Center erupted as the crowd stormed the court in celebration.

“I thought it was a tremendous environment when people came to Missouri,” Stewart said.

One of the faces in the crowd was former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall. According to DeArmond, Hall shouted to Stewart from the crowd: “You’re the man!”

Stewart looked up to see his old friend and replied, “I am tonight.”

Hall died at age 93 earlier this month. Stewart had spoken with him recently.

“He and I had a special relationship, not just because of coaching,” Stewart said. “He had colon cancer, one year to the date that I had colon cancer. And so we talked periodically about that, more so than about coaching.”

Though of a much younger generation, another coach Stewart is close with is the one who leads the No. 1 Auburn team coming to Columbia on Tuesday night. That’s how Stewart, the only coach to take down the best of the best at Missouri, knows a tall task lies ahead.

“I’ve known Bruce Pearl for so long,” Stewart said. “He does an outstanding job. It’ll be a tough ball game for Missouri.”