Then-San Diego State athletic director Jim Sterk believes fate intervened, pushing him toward Missouri in recent weeks.
After meetings with the Tigers’ search firm and MU interim chancellor Hank Foley, Sterk told his wife, Debi, he thought it was an opportunity he’d like to pursue.
That’s when the universe stepped in.
“There was divine intervention,” Sterk said Thursday during an introductory press conference at Memorial Stadium’s Columns Club.
When Debi, whose family is from southern Missouri, went for a hike later that afternoon at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, she crossed paths with a fellow hiker in a Mizzou shirt.
“Then, I’m driving on San Diego State’s campus and there was a Missouri plate right in front of me at the stoplight,” Sterk said with a laugh. “I’m going, ‘OK, I think the Lord is saying I need to go in that direction.’”
By the time Foley called and formally offered Sterk the job as Mizzou’s 17th athletic director, Sterk only needed 15 minutes to decide he was Missouri-bound.
Mizzou’s place as the state’s flagship school coupled with membership in both the Association of American Universities and the Southeastern Conference made it an easy decision, Sterk said.
“It was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down,” he said. “It’s one of four in that category — AAU, flagship and SEC (along with Texas A&M, Florida and Vanderbilt). There’s only four in the country and those don’t come around very often.”
Sterk was particularly impressed with Foley after an interview at the Dallas airport.
He walked out of the meeting and told Collegiate Sports Associates president Todd Turner, who was hired to assist with the search, “I can go to war with that guy.”
Foley, who will be considered for but isn’t a lock to remain as the school’s permanent chancellor, was flattered, but he didn’t want a candidate focused overmuch on the leadership vacuum at Mizzou.
“Even when you’re permanent, you’re interim, because these jobs turnover quickly,” Foley said. “I wanted somebody who wasn’t so concerned about me and had the self-confidence to come here and do the job independent of who was ‘the chancellor.’ I put that right out there, and if people couldn’t jump over that hurdle, then I wasn’t interested in them.”
Prior to his arrival at San Diego State in February 2010, Sterk served as Washington State’s athletic director for 10 years, and he was Portland (Ore.) State’s athletic director for five years before that.
But now, “I’m very honored to be at Mizzou and become a Tiger,” Sterk said. “The University of Missouri is a destination for me and my family.”
Missouri’s budget — the Tigers pulled in more than $91 million in revenue during 2014-15 — dwarfs anywhere else he’s served, but Sterk’s experience trying to squeeze the most from limited resources should help at Mizzou.
The Tigers still rank 11th in revenue among the SEC’s 13 public schools — which, along with Vanderbilt, will receive approximately $40 million each from the conference, according to the figure SEC commissioner Greg Sankey provided Sterk.
Still, Sterk’s philosophy won’t change.
“You’ve got to work smart and work hard at it and then get the right people in place,” Sterk said. “The people make the difference, and that’s what we’ll try to do here.”
Sterk doesn’t plan to bring anyone with him from San Diego State and feels comfortable with Missouri’s entrenched executive assistant athletic directors — including former interim athletic director Sarah Reesman, Bryan Maggard, Tim Hickman and Mary Ann Austin.
“I’m not one for quick change,” Sterk said. “I’ve heard great things about the staff. … I’m excited to work with them and roll up my sleeves beside them and help continue to move forward.”
Sterk, who was appointed to the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee in May, hasn’t officially been told that he’ll have to give up that position, but several sources indicated to The Star that he will.
Each conference is permitted one representative and Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart — an Ottawa, Kan., native — also was appointed to the committee in May.
“Mitch isn’t giving up his seat … but I think it’s also probably a blessing,” Sterk said. “That’s a hard committee. You put in a lot of hours, so I need to dedicate myself to this job. I’m glad from that standpoint, because that would pull at me and it would be difficult to do both.”
Sterk, who was groomed on Duke athletic director Kevin White’s staffs at Maine and Tulane from 1987-95, didn’t indicate if he’ll take part in the decision on softball coach Ehren Earleywine’s future, but he said he thinks it’s close to a resolution.
As for men’s basketball, Sterk pledged to support third-year coach Kim Anderson “in every way I can” and already was set to meet with football coach Barry Odom and senior department staff to discuss the new football facilities project.
“I’m damn excited,” Odom said. “I like his aggressive nature. He’s very matter-of-fact, talking about wanting to win and planning to win a championship. That excites me, and that’s really what I believe in. I look forward to working with him for a long time and getting that done.”
Sterk said he expects to assume his new job full-time Aug. 22, the first day of fall classes at MU.
There will not be another interim athletic director appointed during the next two weeks as Sterk shuttles back and forth between Columbia and southern California.
“I want to just dispel the rumor that I’m going to appoint (school mascot) Truman (the Tiger) as the interim athletic director,” Foley joked.
Instead, Sterk intends to hit the ground running. He’s already spoken with several of Mizzou’s major donors by phone and pledged to be a visible leader for Tigers athletics.
“I’m not from Missouri, but I am now,” he said. “I know this is the Show-Me State. I will not tell you something that I don’t believe in. I will try to show you by my actions, my words and my deeds. I’m committed to meeting, listening, collaborating and building relationships with all of you who care so deeply about this program.”
History of Missouri athletic directors
1. Clark Hetherington, 1897-1908
2. W.J. Monilaw, 1911-18
3. Chester L. Brewer, 1911-18 and 1924-34
4. Walter E. Meanwell, 1919-20
5. Zora G. Clevenger, 1921-23
6. Don Faurot, 1935-42 and 1946-66
7. George Edwards, 1943-45
8. Dan Devine, 1967-70 and 1992-94
9. Wilbur Staclup, 1971-72
10. Mel Sheehan, 1972-77
11. Dave Hart, 1978-86
12. Jack Lengyel, 1986-88
13. Dick Tamburo, 1988-92
14. Joe Castiglione, 1994-98
15. Mike Alden, 1998-2015
16. Mack Rhoades, 2015-16
17. Jim Sterk, hired Aug. 9