Unless you’re a Supreme Court justice, 17 years is a long time for anyone, in any job. It is a lifetime, maybe more, for an athletic director at a major university. Mike Alden got this job when many of the athletes here at Missouri were in diapers.
So there’s a lot to go over. He has invited some reporters to this back corner of the dining hall at Mizzou’s training center, and the changes are all around him. As he speaks, there is a giant sign to his left with the logos of all the schools in the Southeastern Conference. That’s different.
He nods his head toward the athletes eating their bananas and bagels and eggs. Everything about this room changed when the power conference schools voted to provide what essentially amounts to unlimited food for athletes.
“So many changes,” he says.
Alden is leaving this job at the end of next week. He’s already turned in his company vehicle and bought his own car. His replacement has held an introductory news conference.
Alden says he’s leaving at the right time. He’s 56 years old, and never wanted to be an A.D. when he was 60. Something about that didn’t seem right. His faith is strong, and he is at peace with this new life. Some of that is because of these changes.
“I am concerned,” he says.
Money is bigger than ever, he says, and patience is shorter than ever. It’s harder and harder to build connections between fans and programs. The priority of putting more games on more devices makes it harder to fill stadiums. There are lawsuits, and an NCAA rulebook struggling to keep up with the times.
But like a lot of things in life, Alden’s concerns are largely about money. When he got this job, Mizzou’s athletic budget was $13.7 million. The year after next, it will surpass $100 million — and still be far behind many others.
Alden sees the growth is unsustainable, a bubble waiting to pop, and the irony here is that the thing he is most concerned about is the thing that drove the biggest professional decision he ever made.
“Yep,” he says. “That’s the game.”
Mike Alden has made mistakes. When a man walks away from the job that will always define him, the view in the mirror has a way of clearing up.
It’s been about three months since Alden announced he would retire. That’s almost three months of taking professional inventory, of mistakes, of successes, of the fact that the other night was the last time he’ll be able to have a few dozen athletes over at his house for dinner.
The announcement started a cycle of others taking inventory of Alden, too. He read and heard a lot of it, particularly the parts about how he was too distant to too many people around Mizzou, and that he was too removed with his leadership at times.
In particular, he needed to be more engaged when the school was going through scandals involving former basketball player Ricky Clemons and the tragedy of former swimmer Sasha Menu Courey’s story.
Alden expressed surprise that people thought he wasn’t open enough, but essentially pleaded guilty to needing to be out front on some issues.
“Some critical issues, too,” he says.
Failures in those moments are on Alden’s permanent record. He talks of the importance of learning from mistakes, but it is impossible not to notice that the Clemons and Menu Courey crises happened more than a decade apart. Perhaps it’s unfair to simplify it like that, but at least in this view it’s hard to see an A.D. learning from mistakes.
But, right or wrong, those are not the issues that will define the lasting legacy of a man who led Mizzou athletics through some of the most transformative years in school history.
He was hired when it was ESPN and ESPN2 and not much else, and when the relatively few people who had cell phones needed to flip them open.
He was hired in the third year of the Big 12, and leaves after the Tigers’ third year in the SEC, and here is where we see how a professional life can often be boiled down to a few particular moments.
Because for all of the mistakes or personality quirks that kept Alden from being a more thorough success, he will forever be remembered for getting the two most important parts of his professional life absolutely right.
He hired and kept a terrific football coach.
And he led the school from a bickering and unstable conference to the most powerful and richest league in the country.
Mike Alden will always be the athletic director who moved Mizzou from the Big 12 to the SEC. He and the rest of the university’s leadership often describe that as “a 100-year decision,” and no matter the metaphorical shrapnel left behind in the fight, Alden and Mizzou walked away from college sports’ most recent conference realignment crisis as clear winners.
The collateral damage most notably includes wounded relationships with leaders in the Big 12, many of whom are — or, at least, were — friends. There are decision-makers in the Big 12 who still cuss how it all went down, referencing specific moments or ways they felt misled by Alden.
For his part, Alden says he understands. He wishes he could’ve had more conversations with others in the Big 12, but business is business, and for a lot of reasons that just wasn’t possible.
The biggest loss in Mizzou’s move was the rivalry with Kansas, but Alden thinks his departure could be a step toward renewing those games.
“It will help that thawing,” he says.
That’s the hope, anyway, not just from Alden but from many others. But no matter what happens there — and every year without a Border War game is another year to grow used to its absence — Mizzou is fundamentally in a better place because of a move done with Alden’s leadership.
Revenues and donations are up. Energy around the program has never been higher. Alden smiles when he talks of the pride Mizzou’s athletes take in competing in the SEC, and he’s led efforts to make sure fund-raising and facilities keep pace.
As it turned out, the conference Mizzou left was merely rocking and not sinking. There is no shortage of Big 12 officials who will point out that Mizzou would’ve taken in more revenue in their league than the SEC these last three years, but the dollar figures are about to tilt back toward the SEC and reasonable people can see the attraction of switching leagues.
In that way, Alden leaves the job much better than he found it. He came to Mizzou as one of college sports’ forward thinkers, one of the first athletic directors to speak in terms of brand recognition.
He leaves a college sports world where that’s a standard talking point, and where the escalating dollar figures make him uncomfortable about the industry’s future — the circle of life in college sports.
Alden played the game well, even if he didn’t always like the rules. He made mistakes, of course. But he made critical success, too, the kind that let him keep this job far longer than most of his peers and now leave it knowing it’s in a better place.