A young Jim Sterk pulled on his football pads and helmet for the first time at Western Washington University in August 1974.
Sterk, a farm boy from Nooksack, Wash., would set a Vikings record with 164 tackles as a senior linebacker in 1977 — a record that stands today — but he started his career as a wide-eyed cornerback.
And he’ll never forget the rude introduction, a sort of welcome-to-college-football moment, from Western Washington linebacker Gary Gilmore.
“He was a Vietnam vet, like 26 (years old), and I was barely 18,” Sterk said. “He hit me harder than I’ve ever been hit in my life. He hit the guy (with the ball) and that guy hit me. I’d never been hit like that before. Oh, my gosh.”
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Given the turmoil Sterk inherited when he took over as Missouri’s athletic director a year ago Wednesday — his contract was approved by the board of curators Aug. 9, 2016 — it’s fair to wonder if Sterk had a similarly jarring introduction at his newest job.
“I can’t think of anything right now the really jumps out at me that way,” Sterk said.
Tempered by a series of medical crises that provided uncommon perspective, Sterk has proven to be a calming force at a time Mizzou athletics, and the school in general, desperately needed it.
The Tigers were floundering when he took over after Mack Rhoades’ abrupt departure for Baylor last July.
Mizzou was drowning in bad PR from a series of racist incidents on campus, which culminated in a brief boycott by the football team that drew national headlines and led to the ouster of the campus’ top administrators.
The department’s most iconic figure, Gary Pinkel, resigned after revealing he’d been diagnosed with cancer the previous spring amidst the chaos.
Tigers men’s basketball was in freefall, enduring its worst three-year stretch in program history.
That almost seems a distant memory now.
Under Sterk’s leadership, Missouri athletics had its highest finish in the Learfield Directors’ Cup standings and set a single-year fundraising record, including a record for seven-figure gifts.
During the 2016-17 school year, 16 of Missouri’s 20 teams made the postseason and 10 finished in top 25 in their respective sport.
Sterk also resurrected the Memorial Stadium south end-zone project, which has received $50 million in private donations and should be finished before the 2019 season.
“He’s brought a great level of stability,” said Tigers volleyball coach Wayne Kreklow, who won a second SEC title in four seasons last year. “… With a lot of the stuff that had been going on prior to him getting here, what we needed was somebody that had a very calm, measured approach. He’s very personable and his approach to people has been exactly what we needed.”
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing.
Former tutor Yolanda Kumar went public with allegations of alleged academic fraud in November, a case that is in the NCAA’s hands now, and Sterk fired Kim Anderson in March.
During the coaching search for Anderson’s replacement, Sterk’s father, Martin, landed in the hospital, where he watched Cuonzo Martin’s introductory press conference on a granddaughter’s iPad.
“It was crazy, but I had enough time,” Sterk said. “It wasn’t like it was a surprise, so I had enough time to go back and spend some time with him. People around here were great support and allowed me to do that.”
While Sterk deflects credit for the department’s resurgence to Mizzou’s coaches and support staff, others are effusive in praising him.
“I’ve said it a number of times publicly — and if I haven’t, I need to say it more — that he’s done such an unbelievable job on providing us guidance and leadership and stability,” second-year football coach Barry Odom said. “I admire the way that he’s stepped into a situation, the way that he’s calmed the waves, and the direction that he’s put us in a lot of different ways. … He’s done a heck of a job.”
Asked how much credit Sterk deserves for course-correcting the Tigers as a department, Odom said, “More than he’s getting.”
There was no particular trick to Sterk’s calming influence.
“I’m 61 and I’ve been around a bit and kind of understand things, but I’ve also had personal things, being close to death a couple times on surgeries, that you change your perspective on things.”
That’s not hyperbole either.
Shortly after college, Sterk developed ulcer-like symptoms and underwent a Vagotomy, a now-obsolete therapy for peptic ulcer disease that clips the Vagus nerve to stem the production of acid in the body.
“That was probably the worst thing they could’ve done, because later it was diagnosed that I had an obstruction in my bowel that was causing acid and food to sit up,” Sterk said.
While interning at North Carolina, the obstruction closed and a bypass was required, but surgeons severed Sterk’s pancreatic duct performing that procedure.
It was repaired, but continually scarred shut requiring three subsequent surgeries.
“I went from (weighing) 205 (pounds) and lifting 350 pounds to 145 and they’re feeding me through a tube in my neck,” Sterk said. “I was in another hospital for most of three or four months.”
He’d accepted a job as the assistant athletic director for finance at the University of Maine and felt fortunate the job was held for him during the lengthy recovery before “they filleted it open (my pancreatic duct) and got it working.”
During his tenure at Washington State, Sterk had a recurrence of pancreatitis in 2004 and underwent a Whipple procedure in Seattle.
“They did the surgery, and it went fine, but then I got a staph infection in the hospital,” Sterk said. “That almost killed me there.”
He’s the head of a $100 million enterprise, but Sterk doesn’t approach it as life or death.
“When you have those life-changing experiences, it’s not that (professional obstacles) are insignificant, but you’re not as worried about the things that happen,” he said. “I try to not overreact and try to respect people and try to treat them how I would want to be treated. I’m not a yeller and screamer or an intimidator. I try to understand what people want and what they need and help them the best I can.”
That’s not to suggest Sterk is a pushover, though.
“He’s never a guy that stands up — ‘Look at me, rah-rah’ — but he’s a really calming force and obviously, his demeanor, there’s no confusion on who’s in charge,” Odom said. “He does an unbelievable job in every setting that I’ve been in and he can relate to people, which is nice. He’s a Missourian almost, it seems like to me, a guy that values hard work and values doing things right.”
While happy with the progress Mizzou has made in the last 12 months, Sterk remains far from satisfied or complacent.
“I feel we’re in a lot better place …,” he said. “Our annual fund is up, and that’s a good sign that people are regaining confidence in us, but I don’t think we’ve hit the glass ceiling. I’m excited about both athletically and the development side.”
Missouri may never keep up with the Joneses of the SEC, like Alabama and Texas A&M, but Sterk believes it’s possible to close the gap.
“For us to grow, we’re going to have to have the support of the state of Missouri with people coming to games and making donations,” he said. “That’s where our biggest upside is. We’ve got to really mobilize that. … If we can try to grow to the average of the SEC, we are going to be competitive nationally, and that’s what we’ve got to look at.”
That’s how Sterk hope to keep the momentum going in year two.