Missouri athletic director Mike Alden, who has been publicly guarded throughout his 17-year tenure at the helm of the Tigers’ athletic department, struggled to fight back tears several times Friday as he discussed his impending retirement.
During a news conference at the Reynolds Alumni Center one day after he announced plans to step down, Alden got choked up when he mentioned his executive assistant, Sandy Matthew, and again later when discussing his childhood — a departure from his usual public persona.
Alden, 56, whose retirement takes effect Aug. 31, will transition to a teaching position in MU’s College of Education. He’ll be an instructor in the Positive Coaching Program, for which he’s been a guest lecturer, and also teach some classes on higher education leadership.
Missouri chancellor R. Bowen Loftin said the move was Alden’s decision to make.
Alden insisted that stepping down was his choice and it wasn’t related to his health, anything with his family or finances or anything else. He said he had been contemplating retirement with his wife, Rockie, for a few years, but “zeroed in on it a little more back in late spring, maybe early summer.”
“This is a perfect time,” Alden said. “We love the University of Missouri. We love the state of Missouri. Our family has been so blessed by this institution … (but) if you truly want to be selfless, if you truly want to be a servant leader, if you truly want to let other people be the drum major, and you really believe that in your core, then you want to take that baton and you want to hand it to someone else.”
Loftin said he “didn’t really try to talk” Alden out of retirement.
“I respect Mike’s decision,” Loftin said. “It’s his decision to make. … he made it very clear this was a firm, deliberate decision he and Rockie had come to together. I couldn’t dissuade him from that. I respected that decision, but my heart sank a bit, because we’re doing so well.”
Alden oversaw the most prosperous chapter in Missouri athletics history — an era defined by unparalleled revenue growth, four conference football title game appearances and a successful transition from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference, but also marked by a handful of high-profile controversies.
While never mentioning any specifically, Alden acknowledged on Friday several missteps during his tenure.
“Have we made some mistakes along the way? Absolutely, we have,” he said. “Have we stumbled along the way? Absolutely, we have. And have we had challenges? There’s no doubt about that.
“But I believe, and I think we believe, that each and every one of those challenges, each and every one of those stumbles, each and every one of those mistakes that we learned from that. Our program learned from that, and we grew from that.”
Alden was criticized for his handling of several sexual assault allegations against Missouri athletes.
When former tailback Derrick Washington was investigated by MU Police for allegedly raping a female student in her dorm room in October 2008, the university didn’t launch an independent investigation as required by federal law. Alden said in August, after an ESPN report, that he knew of the allegation at the time but was unaware of Title IX-mandated reporting procedures for sexual assaults. Washington was not charged in that case and was not disciplined by the athletic department.
Washington wasn’t dismissed from the team until September 2010, after he was charged with felony sexual assault in a different case in which he was ultimately convicted and sentenced to prison.
Basketball player Mike Dixon Jr., who started the 2012-13 season under indefinite suspension for an undisclosed violation of team rules, left the team on Nov. 30, 2012, after two allegations of sexual assault against him were made public. Dixon was not charged in either case.
Perhaps most troubling was Missouri’s inaction when swimmer Sasha Menu Courey alleged that she was raped by football players in 2010. She committed suicide in 2011. An investigation by the university prompted sweeping changes to the way MU handles sexual assault allegations.
“There’s always things you’re going to go back and look at and recognize either you have mistakes or you could have done things better …” Alden said. “But as you look at that, in these types of jobs, there are always going to be those types of issues or crisis type management.
“You’re regretful that things happen, but what you hope is that, if they happen, and you know inevitably something’s going to happen, how you’re able to approach that and learn from it and go forward. Those are the things that I really choose to focus on.”
Alden said he believes the timing was perfect to hand the baton off to a successor, who will be chosen by Loftin as part of a national search.
“This is one of the best athletic departments in the country,” Alden said, “one of the best athletic director jobs in America.”
Under Alden, Missouri ranks second in the 14-team SEC in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate. He also said facilities growth, campus integration and fundraising have improved along with on-field competitiveness. Of course, the crown jewel of Alden’s legacy might be the Tigers’ move to the SEC, where the football team has won back-to-back Eastern Division championships.
“It has been an amazing impact, not only on this athletic program, but frankly on this university and the state of Missouri,” Alden said.
When Alden arrived at Missouri, the school had a $13.7 million athletic budget, one of the lowest in the Big 12, but it has grown to more than $83 million, according to the figures obtained by The Star. More money is expected in 2015, when the SEC Network begins to add revenue to the department.
Alden’s tenure includes the building of Mizzou Arena and an ongoing overhaul of Memorial Stadium. MU also recently upgraded its golf, tennis and baseball facilities and has plans in the works for a new softball stadium.
“He’s leaving at the top of his game,” Loftin said. “This university has never been in a better position in terms of athletics than it’s in today.”
Alden didn’t rule out the possibility of returning to athletics administration someday, but he said it wouldn’t be as the SEC commissioner. Mike Slive announced in October that he would retire July 31.
On balance, the good outweighed the bad during Alden’s tenure, which included a messy divorce with men’s basketball coach Norm Stewart in 1999 and the ill-fated tenure of Stewart’s successor, Quin Snyder.
Snyder’s time at MU was marked by the Ricky Clemons fiasco, which ended with NCAA sanctions and included a slew of embarrassing jailhouse tapes that were made public in December 2003.
Alden’s handling of both Clemons and Snyder, especially Snyder’s eventual resignation in February 2006, were heavily criticized. The Board of Curators met to discuss Alden’s future on the morning Mike Anderson was introduced as Snyder’s replacement.
Anderson led MU to an Elite Eight in 2009, matching Snyder’s trip in 2002, before leaving in 2011 for Arkansas. Alden hired Frank Haith as Anderson’s replacement despite a developing booster scandal at the University of Miami. Haith eventually was suspended five games in 2013 for NCAA rules violations with the Hurricanes.
When Haith left for Tulsa last spring, that brought Alden full circle, hiring Kim Anderson, a former player and assistant under Stewart who was dismissed from the MU coaching staff after Snyder arrived.
“Not that everything was fun and roses all the time, but it’s very unusual for an athletic director to stay at one place for that many years … ” MU football coach Gary Pinkel said. “He is so well-respected nationally, he is so well-respected in the SEC for his accomplishments and what a first-class man he is.”
Certainly, the football program is in better shape than when Alden arrived, a reflection of his willingness to stick with Pinkel through some lean early seasons. Pinkel had losing records in three of his first four years, then reached a school-record seven consecutive bowl games and won two Big 12 North and SEC East titles.
“When I accepted the job, I said, ‘I need somebody that, when things get tough, I need somebody to be able to stand next to me and give me an opportunity to build the program’ and it happened,” Pinkel said. “It happened a couple times in his first five years, so I’ll be indebted to him forever.
“Without that strength and that leadership, guess what, they’d still be flipping coaches here and the program wouldn’t be near what it’s like.”