When he arrived in Columbia, however, Sterk didn’t find a university overrun with dysfunction.
“You get a perception of something, especially from the national press, but what I’ve learned is that’s not us,” he said during his introductory news conference. “We’re not a campus of turmoil. This is a very great place to go to school and work and live in.”
But selling that vision — especially to prospective student-athletes who aren’t familiar with the town or school outside of its athletic programs and those news reports — remains a challenge.
Interim MU chancellor Hank Foley and two other leaders spoke Tuesday about the progress the university has made since the protests, which called for more diversity in the school’s leadership and faculty and a stronger response to reports of racism on campus. Foley said he visited 18 cities across the state in 18 weeks beginning in January “to talk about the issues, to face the criticism and to try to get people beyond where they were and back into the fold.”
“We didn’t get everybody, but we’re still working on it,” Foley said. “For some people, the boycott was a very big issue. It was a real embarrassment for them. I can’t pretend it wasn’t.”
Missouri football coach Barry Odom says he discusses the topic when speaking to recruits or their parents, and even “if they don’t bring it up, I’m bringing it up.”
“I want to address it and I have embraced the opportunity to do that,” he said, “to sell my vision on where Mizzou is now and where we’re going.”
Days after the boycott, one Missouri football recruit reopened his commitment to the Tigers. But he said reports of racism at Mizzou, not the boycott, led to his decision to sign with Louisville instead of Missouri.
Another football recruit and the mother of a men’s basketball recruit said the boycott and how it was supported by then-football coach Gary Pinkel was a positive factor in choosing to play at Missouri.
Pinkel retired because of health reasons and was replaced in December by Odom, and school administration has talked extensively about avoiding another boycott.
“I think it was a pretty unique situation last year,” Foley said of the boycott, “one that we’re unlikely to ever see again.”
Much of the vitriol among Mizzou sports fans centered on the boycott, which could have cost the university $1 million if the Tigers’ game against BYU had been cancelled. Days before that game, a group of Tigers football players joined in solidarity with a hunger striker and vowed not to practice or play again until former University of Missouri System president Tim Wolfe was fired or resigned. He did, and the Tigers returned to practice before the game.
But examples of racism at Mizzou — including black students being subjected to racial epithets, threats of violence on social media and erroneous reports that the Ku Klux Klan was patrolling Mizzou’s campus — may hurt recruiting more than the boycott or protests.
Linebacker Tobias Little of Atlanta committed to the Tigers on July 30, 2015, and planned to take an official visit after his senior season ended. But he never made it to Columbia.
Instead, Little reopened his commitment Nov. 17 after Pinkel’s retirement announcement.
“The racism going on up there bothered me,” said Little, who signed in February with Louisville. “We were having conversations about it almost every night. The boycott itself didn’t have an impact on my decision, but it was the other things going on. I planned on going (for a visit), but after everything that happened, I changed my mind. Maybe if I had been there before, that might’ve made a difference.”
Little said he “wouldn’t tell people not to consider Missouri.”
“I felt uncomfortable with it,” he said, “but I’m not going to tell anybody they don’t have a good school or a good program. That wouldn’t be true.”
Other football prospects — including Lee’s Summit North senior Da’Ron Davis, who was a junior at Hogan Prep when he committed to the Tigers two days before the boycott began last November — felt better about their decision because of the football team’s stand.
“I thought it was cool that they stood up,” Davis said. “Most players wouldn’t do that, because they’d be scared. It made me think the team was pretty strong.”
But Little believes questions about the environment in Columbia as it relates to minority students could prompt some recruits to look elsewhere.
“It’s hard to come back from that being nationally televised,” he said. “Most teams are made of predominantly black males, so it could be a problem trying to recruit because of the situation.”
Odom said he’s fielding fewer protest-related questions from recruits but remains mindful of the potential shadow cast on the school.
“I don’t want anybody to think, ‘Well, he doesn’t want to address it,’” Odom said. “That’s not it.”
Odom also says he speaks with his team about race and other important topics unrelated to football.
“I want to talk about the things that are going on in the world, and make sure I have the comfort level in myself and our program that we’re able to sit down and I can have a conversation about anything going on,” Odom said. “I think that’s the way family should work and the way my football program’s going to be.”
Two freshman men’s basketball players who committed to Missouri last fall said they were mindful of the events on campus.
Mitchell Smith, a freshman center for the Mizzou men’s basketball team, committed to the Tigers last September and signed four days after the boycott was announced. After numerous conversations with family and friends, he maintained his commitment.
“That could happen anywhere you go,” Smith said during the spring. “It wasn’t just at Missouri, so I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it or make a big deal about it.”
Willie Jackson, a forward from Cleveland, committed to Missouri six weeks before the protests erupted. His mother, Tamika Robinson, said she paid close attention to the situation.
Conversations with Mizzou men’s basketball coach Kim Anderson and assistant coach Rob Fulford, who was Jackson’s primary recruiter, helped ease Robinson’s mind. Then she visited the campus.
“When we came down for a visit, it was just like being at home,” said Robinson, who has family in the St. Louis area. “That was what was important to us, as well as his curriculum and how the program worked. I never felt like Missouri wasn’t safe and I didn’t feel like Willie was in any danger, so I wasn’t uncomfortable.”
She especially thought it was important Mizzou wasn’t indifferent to the protests.
“The fact that Missouri addressed it and it wasn’t swept under the rug was actually comforting,” Robinson said. “It was a peaceful way that they dealt with it. There’s no violence to it, and I thought that was great. The protesting was peaceful. To watch the athletic department step up and stand behind those students was big.”
Pinkel and former athletic director Mack Rhoades, who resigned July 13 to become Baylor’s athletic director, publicly supported the striking football players, holding a joint news conference after Wolfe and then-MU chancellor R. Bowen Loftin stepped down.
Not everyone on the team or within the athletic administration agreed with the players’ decision to boycott, but Pinkel presented the team as unified.
As Foley conducted interviews earlier this year to replace Rhoades, he quizzed candidates about how they’d handle a similar situation. After a national search led by Foley, Mizzou hired Sterk, who had been San Diego State’s athletic director since 2010, as Rhoades’ replacement on Aug. 9.
“I can’t say what I’d do, but I’d tell you most of my efforts would be preventative, if you will, and not getting to that point where they felt they had to (boycott),” Sterk said Aug. 11 during his introductory news conference.
Language in Odom’s contract, which was officially executed last week and obtained by The Star, contains a unique clause that differs significantly from Pinkel’s contract.
Odom must “keep public statements complimentary to the athletic program and to the University,” which is standard, but he’s also required to avoid public comments and settings “likely to bring undue criticism or discredit to the University, its curators, officers, employees or students,” according to his contract.
There also is new language about ensuring a “fair, safe and responsible treatment of student-athletes on the football team, and avoiding behavior that could in any way jeopardize a student-athlete’s health, safety or welfare, or that could otherwise cause harm or risk causing harm to a student-athlete.”
Violating either clause is grounds for Mizzou to fire Odom “for cause with no further monetary obligation by the University.”