NCAA Tournament

MU coach Frank Haith stays cool amid Tigers’ ups and downs

The tiny room in the lower reaches of Mizzou Arena has a rectangular table, some hard chairs, a sofa and, on the walls, a flat-screen television and two grease boards illustrated with diagrams of basketball plays.

This is Missouri coach Frank Haith’s sanctuary, just outside the coaches’ dressing room, down the hall from the Tigers’ locker room and around the corner from the basketball court.

It’s where Haith, the Tigers’ second-year coach, buries himself in studying scouting reports, plotting matchups and putting the final touches on game plans. And it’s where he finds solitude from the uproar created by two of the most triumphant and turbulent seasons in Missouri basketball history.

“As long as he can do his job every day, he’s happy,” said one of those who know Haith best, his son, Corey, a walk-on freshman. “I’ve never seen many people go through what he has and be able to coach as well as he does.”

Two years after he was greeted with questions of “Frank Who?”, Haith could make history Thursday against Colorado State in the Tigers’ NCAA Tournament opener. With a victory, Haith, 47, will become the first Missouri basketball coach to win 24 games in each of his first two seasons. That follows a debut season in which Haith won 30 games and the Big 12 tournament title in Mizzou’s final year in its original conference.

But there are more twists and turns to Haith’s saga. The Tigers, 23-10, were stung by a series of late-game miscues in close defeats this season, including their quarterfinal exit from the SEC tournament last week. Last year, MU suffered one of the worst upsets in NCAA Tournament history, losing to a 15th-seeded team.

Meanwhile, Haith has faced much more serious issues off the court.

In October, he suspended senior guard Michael Dixon Jr. for a “violation of team rules.” The specific violation was never revealed, but two sexual assault allegations against Dixon were uncovered last fall. Dixon was not charged in either case, but he left the basketball team the same day the second allegation was reported by The Kansas City Star.

Before Haith even coached a game at Mizzou, he was rocked by an NCAA investigation at his previous school, the University of Miami. The most serious allegation was never proved, but the cloud of its investigation hounded Haith for 18 months until February, when he was charged by the NCAA “with failure to monitor.”

“You can only worry about what you can control and what I can control,” Haith said last week in his refuge at Mizzou Arena. “My preparation is what I can control. The NCAA stuff, I couldn’t control any of that. All I could be was me and rely on faith and family.

“I’m proud how our staff and players have handled all those distractions or adversity. That’s what builds character. That’s what makes you stronger when you go through things.”

No Missouri basketball coach — not Norm Stewart, Quin Snyder, Mike Anderson or Sparky Stalcup — won 50 games as quickly as Frank Haith, who did it in just 63 games.

Leave it to Stormin’ Norman, the school’s iconic figure with 631 victories in 32 years, to put Haith’s first season in perspective.

“I told Coach Haith, I’ve never seen a guy screw up so much the first year,” Stewart said sarcastically. “You don’t come in and win 30 games, for (goodness) sakes.”

When Haith arrived from Miami in April 2011, he sold his style of coaching to a senior-laden team stung by Anderson’s departure to Arkansas. Even without senior forward Laurence Bowers, lost to a knee injury before the season started, and playing just seven scholarship players, the Tigers went 30-4, earning Haith national coach of the year honors and setting the bar high for a deep run in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.

And then came Norfolk State.

The Tigers, playing the same lineup they had used all season, were ambushed 86-84 in Omaha, Neb., by a big Norfolk team that made 10 of 19 shots from three-point range and took advantage of Missouri’s lack of size and depth. Missouri became just the fifth No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament to lose to a No. 15 seed in 28 years.

This year, the task was equally daunting. Rather than being forced to lean on freshmen, Haith filled the roster with transfers such as Keion Bell, Earnest Ross, Jabari Brown, Tony Criswell and Alex Oriakhi, who would be eligible for all or part of the 2012-13 season.

“When he inherited our program,” athletic director Mike Alden said of Haith, “he had three scholarships still to give, and the next year you’re graduating six seniors, so that’s nine scholarships. That’s unbelievable. He complements this class with transfers and freshmen so you’re selling yourself to a brand new group of guys less than 12 months from when you got started.”

Haith knew it wouldn’t be easy, even though expectations created by the 30 wins last year would be great, especially because the Southeastern Conference was not considered as strong as the Big 12.

“You have all these different personalities who are different, and their roles were so different with their other team,” Haith said. “Older guys had to change their roles. That’s hard. Then you have the things that you’re not expecting to happen. So you can’t develop the cohesiveness that is important to success.”

Nowhere has this been more evident than at the end of games, where Missouri has struggled to close out opponents away from Mizzou Arena. The Tigers have lost six of their last seven games decided in the final seconds, giving fans another reason to question Haith, who was 0-1 in the NCAA Tournament at Miami.

“I’m disappointed he hasn’t found a way to get them to play better at the end of games,” said Paul Blackman, a Kansas City attorney and Tiger Club member. “But I don’t hear people clamoring for Haith’s head. I just think they want him to figure out whatever the problem is and get it solved.”

Doing so might have been a lot easier had he not lost a player — amid a storm of controversy, no less — whose talent would be difficult to replace.

When the Tigers played their Senior Night game March 5 at Mizzou Arena, one player was noticeably absent.

Last fall, Michael Dixon Jr., the Tigers’ leading scorer, had been expected to join gifted junior point guard Phil Pressey in the MU backcourt.

Dixon and Pressey played together during Missouri’s preseason tour of Europe in August. But in October, as the Tigers prepared to tip off the season, Haith suspended Dixon indefinitely for academic reasons.

In November, The Star reported that Dixon was accused of rape on Aug. 20. The case was closed Nov. 16 after a Boone County prosecutor ruled there was insufficient evidence to file charges.

Another allegation against Dixon emerged the same week. According to a police report, a woman who worked in the MU athletic department said Dixon sexually assaulted her Jan. 9, 2010, at her apartment. She told a detective in the MU police department that she did not want to prosecute in the case.

The same day the second allegation was made public, Dixon announced he was leaving MU.

That night, Haith maintained the reason for Dixon’s suspension was for academic reasons and “wasn’t a legal matter at the time.” But neither he nor Alden would give specifics for Dixon’s departure, other than to say it was Dixon’s choice.

Without Dixon, the Tigers started the season 11-2. But MU lost seven of its nine SEC road games. Six of the defeats were by three points or less, or in overtime, and involved late-game miscues by Pressey.

While the Tigers stand by Pressey, some players wish Dixon had been able to play this season. That includes Bowers, who referenced Dixon in his Senior Night speech.

“I told this guy I would never forget him when I got the mic, and that’s Mike Dixon,” Bowers said to a smattering of applause. “Obviously, he couldn’t be with us, but he was a part of this class too, and we love him.”

Haith said he would do what he could to help Dixon, who has said he is looking for a school to transfer to and play his senior season.

Alden said: “Here’s an issue that comes up, that he (Haith) has to deal with as the CEO of basketball, and to deal with that in a compassionate way, toward not just Mike, but the whole process the people who were involved, and allegations. His ability to deal with that in a forthright manner, but in a compassionate and balanced way, was impressive.”

Alden’s phone rang on an August day in 2011, only four months after he hired Haith as head coach. It was Yahoo Sports asking for comment for a story that contained this claim: Miami booster Nevin Shapiro alleged that Haith had knowledge of a $10,000 payment Shapiro made to secure the commitment of basketball recruit DeQuan Jones.

Yahoo even had pictures showing Haith, then Miami’s head coach, with Shapiro — who is now serving a 20-year prison term for masterminding a $930 million Ponzi scheme — at restaurants and a bowling alley.

Haith and an assistant coach who was alleged to have served as the primary liaison in the payment both denied the claim. But some wondered if Haith would ever coach a game at Missouri.

And his family bore the brunt of some fans’ ill will.

“It was hard for us to even go around anywhere,” Corey Haith, then a senior at Rock Bridge High School, said of the atmosphere in Columbia as the case dragged on. “The social media, everything just exploded. Everything got blown out of proportion. It’s constantly around you.”

Haith kept grinding away at the job, producing the second 30-win season in school history in 2011-12 and winning 23 regular-season games this year despite having to use eight different starting lineups.

“I couldn’t have done a good job here if I worried about that,” Haith said of the NCAA investigation. “I would have been doing a disservice to these young people, and I wasn’t going to let that keep me from doing the best I could for them and for this university.

“Whatever the perception, or what people thought, I was going to do my job because I knew who I was.”

Dave Odom, the head coach at Wake Forest when Haith was a rising, young assistant coach, wasn’t surprised that his protege did not flinch.

“If you know you are innocent, you sleep well,” Odom said. “Still, the worst thing about that type of situation is you cannot talk publicly to defend yourself. You’re forbidden to do that. Unlike civil law, where you are innocent until proven guilty, the NCAA works the opposite way.

“In not speaking publicly, people have a tendency to assume the worst.”

Haith leaned on his wife, Pam, and his two children, Corey and daughter Brianna, for support.

“When things get out of kilter,” Odom said, “Frank circles the wagons with his family right beside him inside that circle of strength and faith. That’s really the answer for how, emotionally, he got through it.”

In February, a year and a half later, Haith learned his fate. The NCAA’s enforcement staff were found to have acted unethically during the case, causing some evidence to be thrown out. But the NCAA still found that Haith had violated a bylaw regarding failure to monitor, a less serious charge than if proof of a payment to a recruit had been discovered.

According to the NCAA’s notice of allegations, Shapiro threatened to claim he had paid a Miami recruit unless Haith or his assistant coach provided money to Shapiro. Instead of alerting the athletic department, the notice said, Haith gave money to Morton that he then provided to Shapiro.

Haith has until June to respond to the notice, and he will face the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions this summer. If the charges stand, he could face a brief suspension or recruiting restrictions.

“There have been a lot of issues,” said Stewart, who was involved in an NCAA case as a coach as well. “When you’re trying to coach, you try to keep all those things to the side and concentrate. He’s been able to do that about as well as you could expect anyone to do it. That’s tough.”

Haith was uncharacteristically late for a session with reporters on the Monday after the Tigers’ two-point loss at Tennessee this month. He had been meeting with mercurial point guard Phil Pressey, whose ill-conceived airball with 12.6 seconds left was another in a maddening string of poor decisions or plays by Pressey in the final seconds of defeats on the road.

“You look at those games that they lost — and you can’t skirt around the issue — point guard play is critical,” said veteran ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes. “Phil Pressey, at times, has been Missouri’s best player, and he’s also been the other team’s best player on a handful of occasions.

“But I think Frank will be the first one to will look at himself first and say ‘Have I pushed every button possible with this guy?’ And I’m sure Frank is continuing to try to figure out that puzzle right now.”

Haith was even doing it in the days after the Tennessee loss.

“I talked to Phil Pressey the whole weekend,” Haith said. “I’m texting him, we’re talking, I talk to our guys on the phone. I’m not going to rely on them just figuring it out. They’re going to know how I feel. I want to hear them respond.

“If you only coach your guys between the 94 feet on the court, it’s not going to happen. You don’t coach basketball, you coach people. I talk to them about whatever is going on their world. Every coach says that, gives lip service to it, but I believe in it.”

Oriakhi, who was part of an NCAA championship team at Connecticut in 2009 before transferring to Missouri this season, appreciates the personal touch of his coach.

“He’ll text me and tell me I need to dominate,” Oriakhi said, “or ask how I am doing in classes. He’s definitely a relationship guy, and he talks to my mother and my father, so when you have a coach like that who cares about more than basketball, it says a lot.”

But true success as a college basketball coach is measured by the NCAA Tournament, and Haith and the Tigers badly need to erase the memory of Norfolk State on Thursday night.

Even Stewart had his share of heartbreak in the NCAA Tournament when his Tigers teams were ambushed by the likes of Xavier, Rhode Island and Northern Iowa in first-round games.

“You don’t want to be cast as one of those coaches who can only win regular-season games any more than you want to be classified as a coach who can only win home games,” Odom said. “It’s important that his team wins some games in the NCAA Tournament.”

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