COLUMBIA — The makeover of a major college basketball program is rated R, so dont be fooled by the Joel Osteen book or the soft talk in Frank Haiths office. This is not a game to him. This is his life. His reputation.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
This is his climb from sleeping in a closet at a small college in North Carolina to being cussed by fans before he coached a game at Missouri to having the chance to lay down one of the most remarkable two-year debuts in his sports recent history. And if that means challenging the biggest man in the building then, well, 6-foot-9 Alex Oriakhi needs to throw his 255 pounds around a bit more for a better look.
Haith stops practice.
Why do you always go to that (expletive) shot? Haith screams.
This is clearly a rhetorical question. Oriakhi doesnt answer. Even in his first season here, he knows this is who his coach is. He knows its who Haith has always been. A fighter. An underdog. A man who knows he has something to prove, and who will challenge and push and holler until theres nothing left he can do to prove it.
Thats never been more true than it is right now, with his No. 11 Tigers facing No. 10 Illinois on Saturday in a season that may just be Haiths gateway to the broader recognition hes been chasing all his life.
No college basketball coach in the country has had a last few years like Frank Haith. He can think about this a little now that he feels more comfortable. Columbia has become his town, Mizzou basketball his identity. It wasnt always like this.
Haiths hiring was met with what an organized group of students called a peaceful but adamant rejection of Frank Haith. If hes being honest, he couldnt have known how long hed be around.
So much has changed in a year. Now, hes comfortable enough to quote everyone from business leaders to the Will Ferrell character Ricky Bobby in a 45-minute conversation. He chuckles.
This feels like home now, he says.
Simmering dramas remain. The mess at Miami, the struggling program he left behind for MU, still needs closure. Michael Dixon, the Lees Summit West grad and a preseason second-team all-SEC selection, left the team after two alleged sexual-assault incidents came to light.
Haith wont say much about the details of Dixons troubles, and nobody can be sure how his absence will affect the team. Dixon almost certainly wouldve been MUs leading scorer, and he played with a certain aggressive swagger that nobody left can really match.
But Haith may be uniquely qualified to navigate this winding path, and isnt it funny how so much about a mans perception can change in a year?
The embarrassment of Missouris loss to Norfolk State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament isnt going away soon, but neither is the pride in the 30 wins the Tigers recorded before that. Missouri had just seven scholarship players last season; one was a shooting guard who played power forward after the first power forward tore his knee.
But the Tigers came together for some of the most beautiful basketball you could see last year, Haith pushing them enough to significantly improve their rebounding from Mike Andersons last season and win the final Big 12 tournament championship theyll ever play for.
In a way, Haith has been making these adjustments his whole life. His father had other kids to raise and essentially wrote him off, so Frank found coaches to look up to. He wasnt good enough to earn basketball scholarships, so he worked out a deal with a small college in North Carolina called Elon to sleep in a closet while he helped coach.
The easier path may have been to market himself as a recruiter, but Haith intentionally aligned himself with coaches who would allow him to use all the clubs in his bag. He recruited, sure, and thats what MU athletics director Mike Alden accentuated after making the hire last year.
But Haith can also coach, and maybe it took the shine of a top 30 program for people to see it.
He transformed a team with no first-round picks and virtually no inside presence to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and No. 3 spot in the APs final rankings. He won several national coach of the year awards and this is the part he really likes enough respect that his guys are again ranked high despite returning only one player from last years team.
But now we have to adjust again, he says.
He means this in ways that are both obvious (Dixons departure) and less so (he might be the only man to coach in a different major league each of the last three years). The Big 12 has, generally, more skill but less athleticism; the SEC has, generally, a faster pace but choppier execution.
Last years team, with all those fast breaks and quick decisions, was more SEC. This years team, with more big bodies and better defense, is more Big 12.
This means Haith is drastically changing how he coaches and recruits nothings certain, but theyre recruiting as if Phil Pressey will leave for the NBA for the third consecutive season. That means when you walk into his office, you might catch him glued to his computer screen, running through categorized breakdowns of Floridas offense: ball screens, passing, offensive rebounds, great shots, drive and kick, and shooters.
I really, really want to be good, he says. I want to be good at my craft.
This is what drives Haith. By extension, this is what drives Mizzou basketball.
Frank Haith likes to say he doesnt care about criticism, but thats not exactly true. Or at least he does a rotten job of convincing you when he talks of being motivated in part to prove people wrong.
I cant believe some of the things I hear, Haith says.
This is something we dont see a lot of in sports, when you think about it. Athletes play the no-respect card all the time, sometimes ridiculously, like when some American NBA stars on the Olympic team talked of nobody believing they could win gold in London.
But you rarely hear a coach talk about coaching for respect. There is a method in how he does this, though, and if you listen closely to his players, you can get a hint.
Hes ferocious, Laurence Bowers says. I tell everyone that.
He coaches with a chip on his shoulder, Pressey says. I see that with him, and I try to be a reflection of that.
This is Haiths plan. This is his secret. This is why he calls out Oriakhis turnaround hook and hammers Earnest Ross about remembering the score and situation and tells Pressey that instead of nine assists and two turnovers he needs to have 11 assists and zero turnovers.
This is how Haith will try to make this crazy experiment work, and its not like he can study up on precedent. Who else has taken over a job nobody thought he deserved, with so few scholarship players and only one resembling a big man, and drive them into the nations top five and one of the most successful seasons in the programs history?
And then who else has been charged with doing the whole thing over again the next year, except with only one returning player after the unexpected loss of the guy who wouldve been his leading scorer?
So, yeah. Maybe youll just have to pardon him if he comes off a bit harsh. This is just how its going to be. This is Haith at his purest trying to both remain true to himself and improve himself the only way he knows.
Do I coach with an edge? Do I coach with a chip? Haith is saying. Yeah. Yeah, I do. Of course. I admit that. Look, I wasnt a great player. I went to Elon College. So do I have a little bit of that in me?
He pauses. Scoots his chair forward a bit, like he especially wants you to remember the next 15 words.
And I want my team to look like that. Because thats who I am, personally.
He lets those words hang in the air for a bit, leaving unsaid the fact that if he succeeds again this year, with a completely different team, playing a completely different way, in a completely different league, that hell need to adjust one more time.
Because then, there would hardly be anyone left doubting him.