Those who know, have played for or have consistently been around Gary Stewart are aware that the UC Davis men’s basketball program lost a tremendous asset last week when he stepped down from his role as head coach.
I had the privilege of playing my Aggie career under coach Stewart – an invaluable experience that taught me much more than the fundamentals of basketball. In an era where college athletics, and more specifically college coaching, has become a greasy business, coach Stewart conducted his program in a disciplined and principled fashion, with the goal of developing his student-athletes into well-rounded individuals. He no doubt practiced what he preached, and demanded the same consistency and attention to detail from his players that he expected from himself and his staff. And it was his quest for perfection or the elusive “Magical level” that so often had his team performing on the court and in the classroom at levels that had previously seemed unattainable to them. In short, in terms of leading an institution through the arduous four-year transition to Division I, coach Stewart was the ideal leader and coach for the challenge.
To call coach Stewart’s practices laborious may have been, at times, an understatement. Our Aggie regimen included 4:45 a.m. wake-up calls, limitless one-on-one full-court battles, gym-to-track-to-pool-to-weight-room workouts before the sun woke up, never-ending IBA drills and championship sprints, stance with bricks, slides with bricks, sprints with bricks, the swimming pool with medicine balls, sprints on the track with medicine balls, Social Science building climbs with medicine balls and nightly study hall (with no bricks or medicine balls, thank goodness). Coach Stewart was instilling in us a blue-collared and team-first mentality that would serve us well as we made the leap from Division II to Division I competition. No longer the Goliath of Division II and the CCAA, our margin for error had become slimmer than Robert Ehsan’s waist and my vertical leap. It was this coach Stewart-esque approach by our team bond that would aide us through times of adversity. His principles had infected our team and this approach paid dividends for us during our institution’s inaugural Division I basketball schedule.
More importantly than preparing us for our future on-court challenges, coach Stewart, with his demanding agenda and classic, “It’s not going to be that easy in Logan, Utah,” or, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” one-liners, was indirectly teaching us how to excel as young men. Excuses were not tolerated, mediocre efforts were reprimanded and selfish acts were punished. With coach Stewart, we grew up quickly and learned to become accountable contributors, both on the court and in the community. He stressed the importance of preparation with lines that Aggie alumni can today replay without thought. One of my personal favorites: “You can’t be a quarter-mile horse in a mile race.” Admittedly, I often took these words of wisdom for granted, and construed them as simply his daily rhetoric. However, today, these words resonate with me deeply and are often replayed in my head when I least expect to hear them.
See, for coach Stewart, the process of preparation was the essential ingredient to being successful. X and Y was not just about practicing our jumpers or perfecting our passes-and-catches during three-on-two drills. X and Y was a product of our mindset and our approach to life. If we coasted during a drill or took a play off during a practice, chances were high that we would coast in a political science course, or skip a lecture. If laziness settled in on a routine box out, chances were high that laziness would have settled in during a final exam. We were being molded into sound basketball players, but more importantly and unbeknownst to us at the time, we were learning to be fundamentally sound human beings.
With coach Stewart at the helm, the UC Davis basketball program played and carried itself in a manner that was a direct reflection of its head coach. The Aggies were tough and hard-working – similar to past programs, which had been established and carried out by previous Aggie coaching legends – most notably coach Hamilton and coach Williams. Coach Stewart, with the help of his tireless staff – coaches Nosek, Dubois, Lamanna, Clink, Laird and Kouba, among others – had placed a premium on selflessness and teamwork. A set of “best practices” had been instituted, and these attributes truly characterized what it meant to wear white, blue and gold on game day. And it was these guiding characteristics that ultimately paved the way to a strong CCAA finish, an upset win over Riverside on the road for the program’s first Big West victory, the defeat of The Cardinal, wins over every Big West program and a game at Cameron Indoor on national television, among many others.
So as I walked off Hamilton Court, with fellow seniors and co-captains Thomas Julleriat and Rommel Merentez, after we had wore down Bobby Brown, Frank Robinson, Scott Cutley, and the rest of the Fullerton Titans on Senior Night, 2007, I quickly reflected on our four years together with coach Stewart. Relief set in as I realized we would never have to execute another championship sprint, make another down-and-back under 10 seconds, sit in a 30-second “Carlyle Position” or hold another brick or medicine ball at the break of dawn or on the court.
Subsequently, sadness hit me as I realized that we had reached the end of something special. I was going to miss coach Stewart’s memorable one-liners, and “circles” and corresponding hugs at the outset of practice. Then satisfaction and a smile crept over me as I realized that our team had together reached the elusive “magical level” and had spent the last four years learning the invaluable lessons of life from coach Stewart. And finally it hit me – we were the mile horses and had just spent the last four years of rigorously preparing for the “mile race” that was life after college basketball.
For that, and many other reasons, thank you coach Stewart, and go Ags!