First-year Missouri coach Barry Odom’s debut at the Southeastern Conference football media days was overshadowed Wednesday by the surprise departure of athletic director Mack Rhoades.
Less than 15 months after Rhoades arrived in Columbia as Mike Alden’s successor, he is returning to Texas as Baylor’s new vice president and director of athletics, a stunning revelation only two hours before Odom took the podium for the first time at the SEC’s annual preseason media blitzkrieg.
“I met with (interim) Chancellor (Hank) Foley this morning to inform him of my decision,” Rhoades said in a statement from the Mizzou athletic department. “...While my family is excited to start this new chapter in our lives, we do so with great appreciation for our time at Mizzou.”
That appreciation may not be reciprocated given the rocky nature of Rhoades’ brief tenure.
A rising star in the athletic administration world, Rhoades’ hiring was cheered in the spring of 2015 when Mizzou lured him away from Houston — where he’d made major facilities improvements, established a reputation as an ace fundraiser and boosted the football, basketball and baseball programs to prominence.
His tenure at Missouri, however, will be best remembered for the football boycott last November and Gary Pinkel’s resignation less than a week later, one of the most tumultuous times in the history of Tigers athletics.
Amid racial protests on campus, the football team’s involvement drew so much national scrutiny that University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe and MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin both resigned within two days.
Rhoades’ tenure also will be remembered for the athletic department’s investigation into alleged verbal abuse by coach Ehren Earleywine.
The investigation, which morphed into a still-unresolved Title IX inquiry, prompted a weeklong protest by the Tigers’ softball team and called for Rhoades’ resignation in early May.
It’s unclear if those issues hastened Rhoades’ departure from Columbia, where he said he hoped to retire. He called Mizzou “a destination job” during his introductory news conference.
Baylor is embroiled in a sexual assault scandal that cost its football coach, president and athletic director their jobs, but clearly that wasn’t a deal-breaker for Rhoades.
“I look forward to the opportunity to join Baylor University at this important time in its history,” Rhoades said. “I am excited to support and develop programs of the highest caliber, in facilities that are second to none, alongside coaches who are among the best in the industry, all grounded in a Christian tradition and committed to academic excellence.”
Among other significant decisions, Rhoades hired Odom, retained men’s basketball coach Kim Anderson after a pair of lackluster seasons and replaced longtime baseball coach Tim Jamieson last month after extending his contract the previous June.
Rhoades introduced former Southeast Missouri coach Steve Bieser as the Tigers’ new baseball coach last week.
Now, Rhoades is gone.
By midafternoon, Baylor announced the hiring of Rhoades, who spent six years before coming to Missouri as the University of Houston’s athletic director.
“The past year has taught me a great deal about who I am as a person and as a leader,” Rhoades said in a statement from Baylor announcing his hiring. “I am very grateful to the people I’ve worked with and come to know throughout the state of Missouri. The experience has helped galvanized a commitment to my core values and to the values I want to infuse into an athletics program.”
He just won’t implement that vision at Missouri, which announced self-imposed sanctions for the men’s basketball team in January as a result of an NCAA investigation that predates Rhoades’ arrival.
Asked if he was blindsided by the news, Odom said, “I was surprised, yeah,” but he wasn’t able to offer any insight into Rhoades’ decision.
“We didn’t get into that all,” Odom said. “He said the decision had been made. We discussed it a little bit, but I didn’t ask why. I didn’t want to get into that.”
Tigers senior linebacker Michael Scherer’s initial reaction to news of Rhoades’ departure was an incredulous: “Really? He just got here. … I don’t have many answers for you on Mack. It’s so new, and he wasn’t around long.”
A central piece in Rhoades’ vision for Missouri athletics was renovations either at Memorial Stadium or the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex.
It’s unclear what impact Rhoades’ departure will have on those projects, but Odom seemed optimistic.
“We’ve got some great plans on breaking ground on that construction,” Odom said. “If it gets held up because of this, it won’t be for long.”
Of course, that decision won’t be made by Rhoades anymore.
“I absolutely know that we’ll get a great director of athletics in there, and the things we’ve done in the last eight months are going to set us up for the next 20 years,” Odom said.
None of it is likely to affect Rhoades’ legacy, which mostly will be noted for its brevity and smattering of embarrassing headlines.
“While I am disappointed for Mizzou, I am happy for Mack and his family,” Foley said in a statement from Mizzou athletics. “During our time working together, I’ve grown to admire and respect Mack’s leadership. He has moved the needle significantly, and we are well-positioned moving forward.”
Foley appointed deputy director of athletics Wren Baker as the interim athletics director. He previously served as athletics director at Northwest Missouri State and Rogers State in Oklahoma before working two years as a deputy athletic director at Memphis.
“My first question was, ‘Well, we’ll get a new athletic director, but who’s responsible for hiring that?’ ” Scherer said.
The university still has an interim system president, Michael Middleton, and interim chancellor, Foley, as a result of the fallout from the racial protests last fall.
Missouri’s board of curators also has three provisional members, including Jon Sundvold, who were appointed last month by Gov. Jay Nixon.
Sundvold and the other appointees from last month, Mary Nelson of St. Louis and Thomas Voss of Eureka, would have to be approved for a full term in January after Nixon is out of office.
Despite the turmoil and uncertainty, Odom — a 1999 Mizzou graduate who has spent most of his coaching career on the Tigers’ staff in various capacities — isn’t too worried about the school’s future.
“I feel really strongly about where Mizzou is headed, moving forward,” Odom said. “I feel strongly about our football program and what we’re going to get done and get accomplished and the direction that we’re going to have on campus in leadership. Mizzou’s been around since 1839. There’s been some good and some bad, and it’s going to be around a whole lot longer than any of us are.”
As for the Tigers’ football team, Rhoades’ departure is a blip on the radar.
“It kind of caught me off guard, right? But at the end of the day ... we’ve just got to focus on football,” senior tight end Sean Culkin said. “How we operate and what we do on a day-to-day basis isn’t going to change.”
Mack Rhoades timeline at Missouri
Key events at Missouri during Mack Rhoades’ 15 months on the job in Columbia:
March 9, 2015: Mizzou hires Rhoades away from same job at the University of Houston.
Nov. 7, 2015: Tigers football team announces a boycott ahead of BYU at Arrowhead Stadium.
Nov. 9, 2015: Missouri System President Tim Wolfe and MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin resign amid racial unrest.
Nov. 13, 2015: Football coach Gary Pinkel announces plans to retire at season’s end.
Dec. 3, 2015: Rhoades promotes defensive coordinator Barry Odom as Pinkel’s successor.
Jan. 13: Mizzou announces self-imposed sanctions on men’s basketball team amid NCAA investigation.
Jan. 28: Quarterback Maty Mauk dismissed from MU football team.
March 9: MU announces intent to retain men’s basketball coach Kim Anderson.
May 7: Softball team announces protest of investigation into coach Ehren Earleywine’s for alleged verbal abuse of players.
June 11: Baseball coach Tim Jamieson resigns after missing fourth straight NCAA postseason.
July 1: Rhoades introduces ex-Southeast Missouri coach Steve Bieser as new baseball coach.
Wednesday: Rhoades’ tenure at MU ends as he leaves Mizzou for the same job at Baylor.