When conference realignment occurred in 2012, the SEC braced for a shock. Texas A&M was added to increase the conference’s presence in Texas. Missouri was a late pickup to round out the conference.
Despite the attention the Aggies received after Johnny Manziel’s Heisman Trophy and for defeating Alabama, Missouri was quietly the better athletic program.
After a 5-7 season, football coach Gary Pinkel turned the Tigers into contenders. Missouri won the SEC East in 2013 and 2014, combining for a 23-5 record in the vaunted conference. The 2013 team might have played for a national championship had the Tigers not finished just short against No. 3 Auburn in the SEC title game.
Mizzou also won 23 basketball games its first season in the conference. And, really, the Tigers should be competitive in basketball. They made five consecutive tournaments from 2008 to ’13 despite playing in the Big 12. Former basketball coach Frank Haith even was National Coach of the Year in 2012.
However, Haith bizarrely left the program in 2014 to take the job at Tulsa. Later, an investigation showed multiple recruiting violations under Haith. The 2013-14 season was vacated.
Later, the football team made national headlines after threatening to sit out a game as part of a campus-wide protest. Pinkel retired after the 2015 season after being diagnosed with lymphoma.
With how tight the SEC remains, it didn’t take long for both programs to fall apart. The basketball team went 27-67 in three years with coach Kim Anderson. Barry Odom struggled to a 4-8 record in his first football season, worst in the conference.
Now athletic director Jim Sterk is tasked with making a decision that will shape the future of the department.
Earlier this week, Missouri announced Anderson will resign after the season ends. Presumably, that will be at Mizzou’s conclusion of the SEC Tournament. It’s a disastrous end for Anderson — a former Tigers star, this was his dream job.
However, it gives Sterk the opportunity to put his impression on the program. Hired in August, Sterk was formerly the athletic director at San Diego State, a program that prides itself on basketball success. He understands the impact having a successful program can have.
Football and men’s basketball dramatically impact the perception of a program. These programs appear on television the most. Fair or not, they earn the bulk of media coverage. For Mizzou, both were worst in the SEC this school year.
That’s not to say Missouri’s athletic program is down. Women’s sports are successful at Mizzou. Women’s basketball and softball rank in the Top 25. Volleyball won the SEC championship last season.
But to return to being a nationally relevant athletic department, Mizzou must start with its two biggest sports. Basketball is the preferable path.
Rebuilding the program
Missouri has resources for a competitive basketball program. The school recently was nationally relevant. Its fan base is fairly consistent. The Tigers play in a mediocre basketball conference. Unlike football, the school isn’t far from fertile recruiting ground. The Tigers need to do a better job in securing talent.
According to SB Nation, the state of Missouri produced a 5-star, five 4-star and 24 3-star basketball recruits between 2014 and 2017. Only two enrolled at Mizzou. The next coach must fix the perception of the program in the state. The lone recruit signed in the Class of 2017, 3-star point guard C.J. Roberts, played at Richland High School in Texas.
Luckily, basketball programs can be salvaged more efficiently than football teams. Only 13 scholarship players are allowed on a basketball roster, so the roster can be rebuilt with less effort. Just look at TCU in the Big 12, which jumped from 12 to 19 wins (and counting) in one season by poaching Pitt coach Jamie Dixon.
Missouri must be willing to throw significant money around to hire its next coach. Not only will doing so enable a quicker turnaround — it builds much-needed cache within the program. That must be the priority as the university continues to resurrect its national reputation after the protests that embroiled the school.
Indiana coach Tom Crean and Cal coach Cuonzo Martin — who is from East St. Louis, Ill. — have been mentioned as potential candidates. Both recruit at the highest level and have won games in major conferences. Either would be a statement hire and could bring instant credibility back to Columbia.