It all started in 1958 with a phone call to Dr. Harold Nichols, one of the most legendary figures in Iowa State athletics history.
That was the year that Bill Stewart, a 29-year-old, who was employed at the Iowa State Highway Commission while working on his civil engineering degree at Iowa State, asked Nichols if he needed help on the scoring bench at Cyclone home wrestling matches in the Armory.
When Nichols said yes, it started a memorable, 60-year service for Stewart assisting at various Iowa State athletics events in a multitude of roles.
Now 88 years old, Stewart is calling it quits, walking away from the front row seat where he witnessed so many historical Cyclone moments.
Stewart’s incredible journey almost didn’t happen.
“I made the mistake of calling him Dr. Nichols,” Stewart laughed. “He stopped me and said, ‘No, call me Nick.’”
Nichols gave Stewart the assignment as official scorer/timer for wrestling matches. It’s a meticulous job requiring focus and concentration. It also helps if you have a passion for wrestling, something Stewart developed during his time as an undergraduate at Iowa State.
Stewart met Olympic Gold medalist and Iowa State national champion Glen Brand at the 1948 Olympic Trials at State Gym. Stewart talked with Brand often as he started working at wrestling meets, further piquing his interest in the sport.
“When I first came to school, I really didn’t know much about college sports,” Stewart said. “I had never been to anything more than a high school game when I graduated from Leon High School in 1947. I started helping out at wrestling matches and I met Glen Brand, who was one of the greatest wrestlers in Iowa State history.”
What Stewart didn’t know at the time was he was on the verge of watching a wrestling program become a dynasty under Nichols.
By 1965, the Cyclones won the first of their six NCAA titles under the Hall-of-Fame coach. Stewart still reflects fondly on the man that touched so many lives in his 32-year (1954-85) career with the Cyclones.
“He (Nichols) was a great man,” Stewart said. “He could analyze and he knew who he could push or who needed pushing. That’s what great coaches do.”
Word started spreading of Stewart’s excellent work on the scoring bench and he was offered the opportunity to assist at the NCAA Wrestling Championships. Beginning in 1959, Stewart attended 47 NCAA Wrestling Championships in his career, including a string of 44-straight from 1970-2013.
Stewart called in reports to Iowa media and worked 15 tournaments as an official scorer.
Stewart was a spectator at one of the most famous wrestling matches ever in 1970. The NCAA Tournament was held at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and Iowa State legend Dan Gable was aiming to cap off another national championship season with an unblemished record.
Over 9,000 fans crammed into McGaw Hall to watch Gable take on an underdog from the University of Washington named Larry Owings in the 142-pound title match.
Nobody thought Gable could be beat, including Stewart, who watched Gable routinely destroy opponents throughout his Cyclone career.
Stewart noticed early on that this wasn’t going to be a typical Gable match.
“Gable was the prohibitive favorite, so a lot of the crowd was rooting for Owings,” Stewart remembered. “When people started to realize that Gable was going to lose, then it got a little quiet. We all sensed we were witnessing history, you know? After the match ended, everyone stood up to give Gable a round of applause, except one person. He was the Michigan State coach, and he was right across the aisle from me. I never liked him after that.”
Stewart rubbed elbows with all of the Cyclone wrestling greats. One of his all-time favorites was Chris Taylor, the 400-pound, heavyweight behemoth who thrilled Iowa State fans with his personality and quick pins from 1972-73.
“Chris was a sensational wrestler and a very kind person,” Stewart said. “I ran into him at the 1972 NCAA Championships in Maryland and I asked him if I could see if I could lock my arms around him. I’m not a very big guy, but I thought I could reach around his chest, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get my arms around his middle, that’s how big he was.”
As the years flew by, Stewart was eager to begin helping out at other Iowa State sporting events. In 1976, he started working as a scorer at home men’s basketball games in Hilton Coliseum.
Stewart calculates he’s maybe missed one or two home basketball games in the last 41 years.
During this time, Stewart saw the birth of “Hilton Magic” under the colorful Johnny Orr.
“Orr was a character, as you know,” Stewart said. “Anything that came out of his mouth was funny. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
As the official scorer at basketball games, Stewart wore the familiar striped shirt that referees don on the bench.
One time an Iowa State student told him after a game what a poor job he had done in the game. Stewart responded, “Wait a minute, I live here in Ames.” He later sent an apology, which Stewart very much appreciated.
Stewart’s job at basketball games was a little more high profile, and a little more stressful. With games on television and over 14,000 fans in attendance, one minor mistake was more noticeable, and could potentially figure into the outcome of the game.
Stewart had his fair share of moments with coaches in his 40 years on the bench.
One incident stands out over the others.
At the end of the famous Iowa State-Iowa men’s basketball game in 1987, the one where Lafester Rhodes scored a school-record 54 points in a 102-100 overtime ISU victory, there was an altercation after the game between Orr and Iowa assistant Gary Close.
The spat was over the game clock, and Stewart was caught in the middle.
“Very close to the end of the game the ball went out of bounds on the sideline,” Stewart recollected. “It’s the timer’s job to wait for the official to blow the whistle before you stop the clock, but the official couldn’t see it right away, so he was a little late. You have to wait for the official’s signal to stop the clock. The coaches from Iowa complained that we rigged the clock, which wasn’t the case.”
Two months later, Norm Stewart (no relation) and the Missouri Tigers rolled into town to play the Cyclones.
During warmups, Norm Stewart walked over to the scoring bench and approached Bill with a postcard. “Here you go. This doesn’t do me any good,” Stewart said.
The letter was addressed to Norm Stewart and it read:
When your team plays at Ames, watch the timekeeper. If the game is close and Iowa State is ahead, he will run the clock. He did it against Iowa and Kansas.
-A Hawkeye Fan
Stewart still has the card as a keepsake. More than anything, it reminds him of the difficult job officials have in a game. He’s grown to appreciate the men in stripes over the years.
“My daughter complimented me one day by saying, ‘You’ve taught me a lot about the referees and how they are working as well as they can in whatever sport it is.’”
The decision to step away after 60 years was tough for Bill. He doesn’t move around as well as he used to, and getting up and down Hilton Coliseum grew to be tiresome.
After talking it over with this family, it was time.
Iowa State Director of Facilities and Events Brian Honnold has been dreading this day for a while.
Honnold has worked in the Iowa State Athletics Department for over 10 years and having someone with experience and wisdom like Stewart on the bench is immeasurable.
“Bill is the epitome of Iowa State,” Honnold said. “He has worked his tail off for any event we asked him to be at, whether it was wrestling, basketball or football, the guy did everything for us. This was his decision, because we would love to have him back. We will miss him quite a bit. He has so much knowledge and everybody has always relied on him. He just knew how to do everything and it certainly won’t be the same without him.”
Thank you Dr. Nichols, I mean Nick, for answering that phone call in 1958.