Missouri has no long-term chancellor, system president or athletic director. The football coach has not yet called a game, and the men’s basketball coach may be working an impossible task. Three curators and three deans have resigned in the last eight months.
Other than that …
Mack Rhoades, whose time as Mizzou’s athletic director was so short he inherited basketball coach Kim Anderson, is leaving for Baylor. And normally that would be enough for a melodramatic prediction of a doomed future for a school and an athletic department that’s seen far more than its share of turmoil.
Surely, those predictions are being made.
Never miss a local story.
And almost just as surely, they are premature and possibly even misguided.
But this situation has to be handled the right way. Carefully. Deliberately. With a plan, and an emphasis on loyalty and commitment.
A few points: Nobody thought Rhoades was a long-term fit at Mizzou, and he did very little in his 15 months on the job to endear himself to the university or its sports fans.
He earned a reputation as a poor communicator, both internally and externally, which limited his ability to solve or at times even identify problems. He was hired as a fundraising savant, but while alumni pride can be seen with the academic side setting an annual donations record, Rhoades has frustrated many by essentially stalling the renovation project at the south end of Faurot Field.
If it’s remembered at all, Rhoades’ tenure will mostly be marked by the football team’s strike and subsequent administrative shakeup, a continued slide for men’s basketball and the mess around the softball team — that last one was an unforced error and could have been easily avoided by a more capable leader.
Put another way: What accomplishment can Rhoades claim at MU? What positive impact? And if he left after such a short time, how engaged could he have ever been at Mizzou?
Maybe he was committed in the beginning, or thought he was, but became discouraged with the steady drama on campus. That’s natural, but it’s also less than what should be expected of the CEO of a Southeastern Conference sports program.
For those inclined, this is an opportunity to kick more mud toward Columbia, to make jokes about all the problems there and to wonder just how bad a situation it must be if a fully functioning adult just made a lateral move for the shambles at Baylor.
But there’s another side to this — one that will outlast the jokes floating around in social media, message boards and text messages.
This is an opportunity for Mizzou athletics to be better, to kick-start the department’s march away from drama and back toward success.
The focus now should be stability, vision, energy and commitment to the cause. Within hours of the news about Rhoades’ departure, Mizzou named Wren Baker as interim replacement. Baker was hired in May 2015 as deputy director of athletics for external relations.
Baker might be underqualified to take the long-term job, and with potential options like Jon Sundvold and former AD Mike Alden perhaps available, naming him the interim guy is an underwhelming first step.
But ultimately the placeholder is not the important thing here. No strong long-term candidate is going to come to Mizzou until a long-term chancellor is hired, so the athletic department has an opportunity right now for some self-assessment. Done the right way, that process can better position MU to identify exactly what it needs and who the best candidates are.
Virginia Tech AD Whit Babcock, Memphis deputy AD Mark Alnutt and Rutgers senior associate AD for development Sarah Baumgartner will be discussed. All three have ties to Mizzou, and each would bring significant strengths. But this is too important of a job, and it’s too important of a time at MU, to not pursue all options. If one of those three is ultimately determined to be the best choice, great.
But it would be a mistake not to use the wait on a chancellor hire to make this AD search as comprehensive as possible — both in scope and depth.
The next AD will need to stabilize a program that’s operated more like a bad daytime drama and to bring love to fans who have too often had reason to be angry.
He or she will be expected to promote a department that’s been accustomed to playing defense, to tell a different story about a university that has a lot to be proud of and to deal with the inevitable but unexpected bursts of drama that surround all college sports but have been particularly common at MU.
More tangibly, the next leader will be tasked with pushing forward facility improvements to keep pace in the country’s best and most expensive conference and to help support a rookie football coach. If things don’t improve quickly, he or she might also be hiring a new basketball coach.
That’s a lot to handle. Rhoades wasn’t up for it. Making the right decision on the next AD is critical. Mizzou has a lot to overcome and much to fix. But the Tigers also have a passionate fan base with a demonstrated generosity and every reason and opportunity to get this right.
Around the country, this is being seen as one more sad day for Mizzou.
But handled the right way, this can be the beginning of something much better.
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.