Mack Rhoades may or may not have just gotten a haircut and new clothes and been, say, toting a super-hero lunch box as he left home around 6 a.m. on April 27 for his first official day of work as athletic director at the University of Missouri.
Just the same …
“I felt like it was the first day of school. Really,” Rhoades said.
Rhoades was hired in March from the University of Houston and spent nearly two months finalizing his work there and prepping for his new job. The complicated dual duty left him mostly feeling like he had “this bottled-up energy” to start at MU.
When the day at last came, Rhoades, 49, apparently was almost giddy. So was his family. His wife, Amy, took a picture of him as he was leaving their townhome in Columbia and texted it to family.
And then … reality set in.
“The first time you have to figure out (how to) format your computer, which you never thought about for five years, and Microsoft Outlook didn’t look the way I wanted it to look: How the heck do I change this?” he said. “And I’m calling (executive assistant Sandy Matthew), ‘Can you come in here?’ Sandy probably made 50 trips into my office the first two hours.”
The notion of hitting the ground running, as Rhoades put it, has only accelerated. After about 100 hours on the job, he said he believed he’d slept about 10 and evidently had consumed vats of Red Bull.
Amid the whirlwind of his first week, Rhoades unfurled his plan for the first 90 days or so and projected an intriguing and appealing first impression for those of us who hadn’t yet been around the man following in Mike Alden’s considerable footsteps.
Alden should enjoy a proud legacy at Mizzou, where his efforts were nothing less than transformative and trumped missteps along the way. He left MU athletics much better than he found it.
But at some point, a reboot is refreshing for all concerned … if the change brings the right fit with it.
By all appearances, the energetic Rhoades has that capacity, starting with a clear determination to turn the prism and look at it through unexplored angles with fresh eyes.
In his case, that means already considering new possibilities for deeper engagement with boosters (meetings with the top 25 donors are being set up) and satellite athletics offices in Kansas City and St. Louis.
“We talk about, ‘Why not Missouri?’” he said. “Why can’t Missouri be the best athletic program in the country? Why can’t it be?
“I haven’t heard a good answer yet, so we’re going to work hard at doing that.”
That’s the sort of thing about anyone could say in such a job, of course.
But there’s something about Rhoades that says he’s bent on making good on it, something in his demeanor that says he has the juice to at least help MU further maximize what it can be.
Among the aspects of him that resonate:
He exudes confidence without audacity or the suggestion that he knows it all, has a plan but is open-minded, has both a sense of humor and a no-nonsense edge.
And he favors engagement and being direct and to the point.
Thus he had no hesitation to speak to provocative matters such as the dormant rivalry with Kansas and the status of basketball coach Kim Anderson, who inherited the disarray and decay left by Frank Haith but now has a 9-23 record on his own ledger.
In fact, Rhoades said he already had spoken with KU athletics director Sheahon Zenger about resuming the rivalry that was terminated by MU’s move from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference.
That in itself re-opened an entire line of communication that had been shut down … even if it is a line that still is clogged some.
He was careful not to put words in the mouth of Zenger, whom he called a “great person” and athletic director.
“I think he’s open to it down the road; I think the time’s got to be right for both institutions,” he said. “There’s got to be, obviously, a willing spirit for that to happen, and hopefully we can continue to develop that spirit as we get to know each other better. …
“It was a good first conversation, and I hope to have a good second, third, fourth, fifth, whatever it takes.”
As for Anderson, Rhoades called him “a heck of a person and heck of a basketball coach” and later added, “I want him to know that I’m going to be in the trenches with him, sleeves rolled up, and we’re going to do this together.”
The idea, he added, isn’t to salvage a winning season but to rebuild a “winning program.”
None of which means Rhoades has infinite patience, by the way.
But he seems to understand that the big picture stands on all the pictures within the picture, a view that seems to incorporate both perspective and accountability.
Speaking in generalities, Rhoades said, “I have great patience if I really believe we’ve got the right person and they’re doing it the right way. If we don’t, then I probably have very little patience.”
That accented a point he’d made earlier, that he doesn’t believe he’s a micromanager but that “if I have to be, then that’s probably not good news for that person.”
Change always brings uncertainty and discomfort, of course, which is one reason part of Rhoades’ plans in the next few months is to meet individually with all 200-plus athletic department staff members even as he further reviews how everything is done in his departments.
But in a week of first impressions, Rhoades already clearly has some of his own in terms of enhancing giving, making experiences at MU venues more worthwhile than watching on television and just getting more people in seats.
“I really feel like we’ve got to do a better job in terms of the ticket sales piece,” he said. “Right now, I feel like we’re a little bit of an inbound company, meaning that we do a really good job of taking phone calls but we’ve got to get aggressive.”
He also revealed more of how he thinks by indicating he has no immediate interesting in adding stadium seating (or sports, despite chancellor R. Bowen Loftin’s hint he’d like to see men’s tennis).
“Let’s make sure we sell out every home game, and then we’ll think about adding more seats,” he said. “It’s one step at a time.”
Rapid as he might want them to be.