They packed every seat and went two or three deep along the walls. The ones who couldn’t get that close stood in the hallways, most of them dressed for the occasion in at least business casual, all of them with smiles on their faces.
It’s impossible to say there could be a room that’s easier to win over than this one, where Missouri basketball coach Kim Anderson’s introductory news conference started with the school fight song, a long standing ovation, and aM-I-Z… Z-O-U!
This was Ollie Gates bringing platters to a pack of hungry teenagers.
“This is my dream job,” he said. “You all probably figured that out a long time ago.”
Anderson made ’em laugh and he made ’em cry and he made ’em think. He name-dropped Norm Stewart, small Missouri towns and talked about establishing an identity with defense and aggressive, steady, four-year players fans can get behind. This was a Missouri man who proudly brags about being “Mizzou made” talking to a room full of fans, donors and alumni about a common love.
“We’re Missouri people,” he said. “That’s what we are.”
It should be acknowledged that this had all the difficulty of a layup line for Anderson, but he was dazzling. If there is such a thing as “winning” or “losing” the press conference, these things usually present all the challenge of a November nonconference game, but Anderson was fantastic even by those standards.
Now comes the hard part.
Now comes the important part.
Because outside of that room, the greeting will be much different. Nobody who has met Anderson can root against the man. He is genuine, warm, smart, competitive, humble and funny. He worked his way up, putting in time as an assistant, a league administrator, and for the last 12 years building success at Division II Central Missouri. This is the kind of man we all hope is rewarded with success, in sports and the real world. There are few coaches in the country, if any, who are as prideful in the place they work as Anderson is in Mizzou.
But the real world can be a cruel place. It usually doesn’t happen like the movies.
Anderson is clearly a good coach — this year’s national championship, three Final Fours, and a winning percentage among the top 10 in Division II history — but that’s only part of it.
Major-college basketball is a different world than Division II, and Anderson will have to make his way through a skeptical and sometimes shady world. A disproportionate amount of Anderson’s success will be determined by his ability to recruit. Keeping assistant Tim Fuller on staff would be a good and obvious start. Even then, Anderson will have to make up ground with national recruiting contacts.
The college basketball recruiting scene is a big and diverse place, so you can find different points of view, but one Division I assistant said Anderson has “a brutal transition to deal with.” Another said that Anderson’s roots in Missouri would be an asset with in-state recruits, but his lack of recent D-I experience an obstacle everywhere else. Outside of the state, in other words, it just got easier to recruit against Missouri.
Bo Ryan is the example everyone likes to use about a successful transition from Division II or III to a high-major job, but there’s a reason he stands out. It doesn’t happen often and, besides, Ryan had two years at Division I Wisconsin-Milwaukee between a D-III job and starting at Wisconsin.
Beyond the justifiably warm reception at Tuesday’s news conference, Anderson is walking into a difficult situation. Johnathan Williams III averaged 5.8 points last season and is the team’s top returning scorer. Junior college All-American Kevin Punter has reopened his commitment.
A search that dragged on for 10 days put Anderson in a tough spot. Due diligence is important, but symbolically, it would’ve shown more belief in Anderson if the hire had been made quicker and without a national search firm (or reported rejections from at least one other coach).
Substantively, it kept Anderson from waving the flag and shaking hands during a critical recruiting weekend. Mizzou’s assistants were making the rounds, but even then, they couldn’t tell recruits who the coach would be or whether they’d have jobs next season.
There were always going to be challenges and skeptics for Anderson to overcome. That’s true of any new coach. This search’s delay robbed Anderson of a great chance to meet his particular obstacles head-on with the recruits and others in the recruiting world whose opinions matter most.
Again, nobody who has ever met Anderson is rooting against him. After three cycles of coaches with initial promise and ultimate disappointment, Mizzou deserves the kind of stable success it enjoyed under Stewart. There are reasonsAnderson made sense for Mizzou after three rejections
, and he has earned this chance.
But winning on the court and signing day will be a lot more difficult than a room full of friends.