UT Martin coach Anthony Stewart could have gone on for hours gushing about his son, Parker. Whether it was the time Parker decided to transfer from Pittsburgh and opted to play for him instead of a host high-majors, or when he was able to graduate the summer after his second season in college.
“There’s nothing like being able to coach your son,” Stewart told me earlier this summer. “Nothing.”
“Stew” was a larger-than-life personality, according to Chris Lowery, who hired him at Southern Illinois in 2011. His good friend, Gerad Good, who met him when they were both junior college assistants back in 2001, said what set his friend apart from most other coaches was that “he was the realest person I’ve ever met in coaching.”
Anthony Stewart died suddenly on Sunday afternoon at the age of 50. He is survived by his wife, Cheryl, and three children: Anthony, Parker and Skylar.
Stewart told me on Friday that his team was shut down after the team’s first positive COVID-19 test, but followed up with a text just an hour or so prior to his passing that it wound up being a false positive and that he was hopeful the team could return to the court next week. UT Martin spokesman Ryne Rickman told me that Stewart’s COVID test last Monday came back negative, and those close to him said that he hadn’t shown any symptoms prior to Sunday.
Stewart had taken a different path than most to college coaching. A few years ago, he told me how he wasn’t in this for the money, that he came up through the business sector as a private entrepreneur. He broke into college coaching in 2001 at Columbus State Community College because it was his passion to help kids.
That was when Good first saw Stewart at an event in Akron nearly two decades ago.
“He’s in the bleachers recruiting, and he brought his daughter, Skylar and one of his sons,” Good recalled. “She was in a car seat in the bleachers and his son was running around. But that was just Stew.”
“He’s the guy that was always in Gym D when everyone else was in Gym A,” Good added. “He was always finding guys no one else knew about, guys no one else even knew existed. He went against the grain, and did his own thing.”
Stewart was an Akron native who played both basketball and baseball at the University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio. He spent nearly a decade in the private sector before taking the job at Columbus State. Stewart then made stops as a Division 1 assistant at Long Beach State, Wyoming, Southern Illinois and Ohio University.
“If you met him just once, you loved him,” said Lowery, now an assistant at Kansas State.
Lowery said he’ll never forget how much Stewart helped him through his final season at SIU before being fired, making sure that he remained upbeat even while understanding it was his final year as head coach.
“He kept my spirits high through a really tough time, and that’s what I’ll always remember about him,” Lowery added. “That and his personality. I’m really gonna miss him.”
Stewart joined Heath Schroyer’s staff in 2014 as the associate head coach and was elevated to head coach in 2016 after Schroyer left.
“He was a heck of a coach, and a great man,” Schroyer said. “But most of all, he was an unbelievable father. His kids were the light of his life.”
Stewart was set to enter his fifth season at the helm later this month. The Skyhawks struggled last season to a 9-20 record, but he was optimistic that this year would be different, especially after Parker decided to withdraw his name from the NBA Draft process following a season in which he averaged 19.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists.
“He almost didn’t come back,” Anthony admitted to me back in June.
The Milwaukee Bucks liked him a lot, but Anthony was ecstatic that his son decided to come back for another go-around.
“That father-son relationship was so important, so unique to him,” Lowery said. “He was so happy to be able to coach Parker.”
But he also wanted to win with Parker. He told me that this group at UT Martin would be more suited to his son’s game, as he brought in a bunch of skilled, cerebral players to replace a cast that had more athleticism than skill. He told me junior wing Cam Holden was going to be a matchup nightmare. He was so excited about coaching fellow junior college product Eden Holt because of his ability to shoot it from deep and also make quality decisions in ball-screens. He added Ajani Kennedy from the JUCO ranks, a stretch-four man who shot the heck out of it when he was at UC Riverside, and a pair of versatile, skilled wings in Jaron Williams and Anthony Thomas.
“I like our team,” Stew would say each and every year.
“But he cared more about the players than the wins and losses,” Rickman added. “I’m not sure if I’m supposed to say that, but it’s true. He cared about preparing them for life after basketball, and that’s what mattered most to him.”
There was always optimism in his voice, a sense of excitement, just a love for his job. Our conversations would last longer than most. He’d talk forever about Parker, raving about his versatility, whether it was his ability to shoot it from deep, play the point or play off the ball. If you didn’t know better, you’d think Parker was LeBron James with the compliments and acclaim he’d continuously throw his way.
“He was so proud of Parker,” Rickman told me on Sunday night. “He’d talk about him every chance he could, but he was even more proud that Parker got his degree in two years, and was set to get his master’s soon.”
Parker Stewart will have to play this season without his father, without his coach and without his best friend.
“This is the worst day of my life,” Parker posted late Sunday night on Instagram.
‘’You were my hero dad. You always said you owed back in this life, and you always gave everybody a chance who was counted out,” he continued. “You worked so hard just so we didn’t have to grow up like you did. You raised me from a boy to a man. You taught me how to play the game I love, but most importantly you taught me about life, and I’ll remember every lesson. You brightened up any room, you were always the funniest and had the craziest stories. You would do anything for your family.”
RIP, Anthony Stewart.