Alabama, Missouri brings back memories

Yesterday, January 20th, was Norm Stewart’s 88th birthday. Some may shake their heads or frown. Who? So?

Stewart was the Missouri head basketball coach for 32 years, from 1967 to 1999, and retired with a record 634 to 333 coaches for the Tigers. He was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007. The basketball court at Mizzou Arena is named after him.

And – sounds familiar – he grew up as the son of a gas station owner.

Alabama will be played at Norm Stwart Court starting at 5:00 p.m. CST today. The Crimson Tide, 16-2 overall and 6-0 in the Southeastern Conference game, takes on Missouri (14-4, 3-3), SEC Network will televise the game.

Mizzou Arena (15,061) opened in 2004. Missouri didn’t downsize when it upgraded its basketball facility. The former Hearnes Center basketball arena had a capacity of 13,611.

I’ve never been to Mizzou Arena, but I know it’s the same atmosphere as it was in the 1978-79 season when Coach CM Newton’s Alabama team faced the Stewart’s Tigers.

A select group called Antlers provides the student atmosphere. As far as I know, the Antlers don’t have official recognition, but opponents should beware. These guys don’t make waves. The declared goal is to penetrate the minds of opposing players.

Sometimes they cross the line. They are known to have been kicked out of the arena.

As the sports information director of Bama, I attended the Bama game on December 18, 1978. Wimp Sanderson was an assistant coach on that team and was known even then for wearing plaid jackets. I also wore a plaid jacket to the game.

As I stood at the scorer’s table making sure our players were entered into the official book, I realized I was being smiled at by the students who arrived early. I didn’t know anything about the Antlers at the time, but I couldn’t see why I caught their attention.

It has become clear. They thought I was Wimp.

As the team came out I heard some of the same barbs but now aimed at Wimp as the Antlers realized their mistake and adjusted the aim.

The good news is that Alabama won the game 65-58.

Reggie King was Alabama’s star and the hecklers’ primary target. Later he told me he thought it was funny. (As an aside, Reggie has lived in Kansas City for years since retiring from the NBA, including his first four seasons with the then-Kansas City Kings.)

The next morning, Wimp approached a young man at the airport and said, “You were one of the Antlers, weren’t you?” He was, and seemed quite cocky about it.

How, Sanderson wanted to know, did the Antlers have so much information about Alabama.

The student said Coach Stewart’s group received an Alabama media guide (and one for each other opponent) who told them to study it.