Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: Mizzou and new A.D. Jim Sterk, Justin Houston and the Chiefs, and more

Jim Sterk.
Jim Sterk. The Associated Press

Athletic director hires are a strange thing to analyze, in part because sports fans care about the people who wear uniforms, not suits, and in part because with rare exceptions we have very little idea who these people are.

They are executives, and in the world of sports, executives are boring. They deal with money and facilities and have staff meetings. We focus on the athletes who generate the money and play in the facilities and have games.

I am guessing that 90 percent of Missouri fans had not heard of San Diego State athletics director Jim Sterk before the news broke yesterday afternoon that he’d been hired at Missouri.

So we’re all speculating here, but the move is somewhat surprising since most of the talk had centered around True Sons like Jon Sundvold and to a lesser extent Mike Owens. More than most places, Mizzou values its own, and I figured if the school would go outside the family it might wait until a permanent chancellor was hired.

But a power five AD I spoke with yesterday made a few good points about that, saying that waiting too long would unnecessarily harm the athletic department, and that when a chancellor is hired he or she will have more important things at the university than hiring an AD. If that’s one thing that can be cleared off off the list, then all the better.

That makes sense on some levels, and so does Sterk’s background, the more I think about it. He has the background of a grinder, and a fighter. He has been at SDSU since 2010, and at Washington State for 10 years before that, and Portland State for six years before that. He also worked at Tulane, Seattle Pacific and Maine.

That’s the resume of a man accustomed to and adept at working for everything. You are not handed riches, or popularity, at any of those places. Everything you get there, you earn. At Missouri, Sterk will have far more money and donors and human resources than ever before, and if he can bring the same fighting spirit and creativity he’s shown in the past, this can be a terrific fit.

Sterk is one of four reigning ADs of the year, and his stature on the men’s basketball selection committee is a sign of the respect he has around the country.

There are many, enormous challenges waiting for Sterk at Mizzou, but he has shown himself up to many, enormous challenges before. He’s essentially trading one set of problems for another, but it’s the same skillset required.

Even more than a coach, an athletic director needs help and resources and some fortunate breaks to succeed. There are no guarantees in this world, but Sterk is more than qualified to give it a try.

This week’s reading recommendation is Rob Demovsky on coaching Brett Favre, and the eating recommendation is the wings at Blvd Tavern.

Please join me on Twitter and Facebook, and as always, thanks for your help and thanks for reading.

Well, we’re off to a spectacular start this week...

...and now look at the buzzkill.

I was surprised about Chiefs GM John Dorsey’s shift on Justin Houston’s return in 2016. I hope you read the column if you haven’t already, because there’s a lot in there, but the part people are talking about is the growing uncertainty around Houston’s recovery from February ACL surgery.

In April, he said this: “I’m not a medical expert, but I can tell you Justin Houston will be playing this season.”

Also, he said this: “...our doctors have reassured us that he will play this season.”

Now, Dorsey makes his living in football so he likes to be vague in his answers. He will sometimes answer your question with a non-answer and a smile that lets you know he knows he’s giving you a non-answer. But I’ve never known him to lie, particularly when he answers something that directly.

So, last week, in our conversation, he said that expecting Houston to play is “the eternal optimist in me.” He said “there is a chance,” and when I asked if he expects Houston to play, or if he hopes Houston will play...

“Expect is a strong word,” Dorsey said.

OK. To answer your question: no, I don’t believe the Chiefs think Houston is slacking his rehab. I don’t believe there’s a 2 percent chance of that. I’ve also been told that there have been no setbacks.

If that’s true — and, this being the NFL, I’m not convinced it is — then this is closer to the Chiefs covering their tail.

The most likely scenario, to me, is that the doctors expressed optimism to Dorsey, which he heard as “reassurance,” and when the season is more than four months away optimism can grow into something else. I believe that Dorsey is being told to err on the side of caution, either by the training staff or someone else in the organization, because it’s always better when guys exceed expectations.

Either way — and this part shouldn’t matter to anyone — I’ve backed off my expectation of when he’ll play. I still think it’ll happen this season, but instead of after the bye week to play the fifth game at Oakland, it feels more like November.

I do want to be clear that my expectation is only a guess, same as before. We’ll know more at the end of the preseason. At that point, the Chiefs will have three main options: active him and eat the roster spot until he’s ready, put him on the PUP list which would keep him out for at least the first six weeks, or put him on active IR which would allow him to play after eight games.

The Chiefs know more than they’re letting on — and if not, there’s a much bigger problem — but their choice of what to do with Houston at the end of the preseason will tell us a lot.

I appreciate that this is a Jason La Canfora reference, and whether this makes what I’m about to write more or less relevant, I should mention that I don’t believe I’ve ever met him. He does fine work reporting on the NFL.

Around Kansas City, of course, he is known for persistent and shameless twitter trolling of the Royals and their fans, enough that when I typed his name into Google I got to around the “c” in his name and the second option was “jason la canfora royals.” The third hit is titled, “Here are some of the times Jason La Canfora ripped the Royals.”

Now, most of you are not going to like what I say next. Some of you will say I’m sticking up for writer, but this is not about professional loyalty. This is about the Internet:

You cannot be trolled, at least not repeatedly, unless you are a willing participant.

My assumption is that Jason — again, a fine and respected NFL reporter — is using his harmless and repetitive trolling of the Royals as some combination of blowing off steam, supporting his Orioles, and pushing whatever online persona it is he thinks is best for his career. And good for him. He’s doing well.

Another assumption is that many — perhaps even most — Royals fans see this as the dumb sports parlor game that it is. They are willing participants, in on the joke, the same as Jason. And in that exchange, this is an even trade. Everyone gets what they want.

But I also believe there are at least some Royals fans who are legitimately furious every time he tweets about their team, and if you fit that description please indulge me the following paragraph:

None of this is serious. It’s all a joke. What someone you’ve never met says about your team should have no negative impact on your daily life or enjoyment of said team and, more than anything else, expressing your anger only serves as encouragement. So stop.

I’m actually not sure soccer would make it for me, mostly because the Olympics are not that sport’s greatest once-every-four-years global tournament. The World Cup is a much bigger deal.

But, anyway, you made the rules, and you didn’t specify whether track and field is its own sport or should be broken into events but now the rules are up to me so here goes:

5. Diving. I think this is because of my mom. She was into the diving, and I was 10 when Greg Louganis hit his head on the board and still won gold. It’s gymnastics with water.

4. Fencing. They’re like something from the future, in all that gear, stabbing each other, with the beeps and the lighting and everything else. It’s mesmerizing.

3. Volleyball. Men’s and women’s. Volleyball is a great sport. And I know I’m supposed to specify beach volleyball here, but that’s not a real sport. It’s a Top Gun montage, or something you do on the beach as a way to talk to girls.

2. Handball. Love the handball. I said this on Twitter the other day, but I don’t know why it’s not a bigger American sport. It’s athletic, physical, can easily be played in any gym. I guess the knock would be that it’s basketball without the dunks, and with lesser athletes, but once every four years it’s great.

1. Track and field. If this was the only sport in the Olympics, the Olympics would be wildly popular. These are athletes in perhaps the purest form, and the uniforms highlight the ridiculous shape they are in, both during the events and otherwise. The 100 meters in London is the most amazing sports event I’ve ever seen, and I’m not sure it’s close. Just breathtaking.

And, speaking of speed...

...I respect but must note your exclusion of Terrance Gore here. The others you mention are on Kansas City rosters. Gore, if you were wanting an update, is hitting .241/.315/.259 with 35 steals in 39 attempts at Class AA Northwest Arkansas.

* And before we get on with this, a few questions: how’d he get thrown out four times? And how has he only stretched three of 54 hits into extra bases? Are they all bunts? Does he figure it’s easier just to steal the bag?

Tyreek Hill might be the fastest team sport athlete I’ve ever seen in person, other than Bo Jackson. My mind is probably being lazy right now, and local, but he and Gore both look like glitches in a video game.

There are a lot of guys worth considering here. Russell Westbrook, Dee Gordon, Billy Hamilton, and others.

But Hill has the kind of speed that finds you, whether you’re watching him or someone else on the field. It looks fake. I still don’t know how it’ll play when contact comes — nobody does, because he hasn’t been hit by a professional in a live game yet — but the speed is distracting.

And, speaking of Hill...

...he’s a better player than Dexter McCluster, and a better player than De’Anthony Thomas. At least, that’s what I think. He is faster, bigger, and at least so far — OTAs and training camp — has shown better ball skills and tracking ability than either.

I’ve written a lot about Hill already, both about football and the ugly burst of violence that will always define him to many, and I hope a few things are kept in mind.

First, no amount of football success can erase what he did to his then-pregnant girlfriend.

Second, no amount of OTA or training-camp success can guarantee he’ll succeed in actual football games.

And, third, no amount of success in actual football games will mean that all Chiefs fans are comfortable rooting for him.

Now, at this point, we should emphasize that second part. Sticking strictly to football, Hill has only shown potential, because at this point in the season it’s impossible to have shown anything more than potential.

Scouting reports from people who watched him college question his ability to take a big hit, some saying it affects how he plays after. The Chiefs’ offense puts a major emphasis on receivers being versatile, so in order to have a big role in the passing game he’s going to have to prove he can go over the middle.

Now, even if that doesn’t happen, he can still be a positive as a returner, but at that point would be more like a younger De’Anthony Thomas than a major upgrade.

Yes.

First, if you haven’t seen it...

So, some reactions:

▪  He’s really good at his job. It’s hard to be funny and smart, at the same time, particularly when you’re talking about serious issues.

▪  Obviously, I appreciate how much he values newspapers, and the journalism done by newspaper reporters. I have a silly job, so I’m not talking about myself here, but there really is a tremendous amount of good work coming out of local newspapers. Just off the top of my head, and only very recently, and only at our paper, Glenn Rice wrote a terrific profile of KC police chief Darryl Forte, Judy Thomas did a deep dive into HOAs from Hell, and there was an important package on mental illness.

▪  Newspapers remain the dominant media outlet in most American cities, including Kansas City. I hear people — even some who work at other local media outlets, who should know better — talk about “the dying newspaper industry” when the Star still employs more journalists, with more resources, producing more work for a bigger audience than anyone else. It’s not what it was 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, but I’m proud to work with people at the Star, and proud to be associated with their talents.

▪  Oliver is absolutely right that newspapers — all media companies, but newspapers in particular — are struggling with how to generate revenue. Journalism is expensive — salaries, travel, time — and people have become accustomed to getting their news for free.

▪  His suggestion that people pay more for the news is the best solution, at least from our point of view. More people are reading more stories than ever before, but it’s on us to figure the money part of it out. It has to be a combination of quality of work and convenience of delivery and ease of use.

▪  I don’t know that that can carry the day alone. We have to figure out a way to better connect with readers, tell our story, provide valuable advertising that allows us to produce relevant content, and be creative with other forms of sponsorship without compromising our value. That’s a big challenge, and the answer is far above my head, but I’m hopeful we can get there.

▪  I’ve always said that if I live to be 100 years old, I am fully confident that my obituary will be in The Star. I am also fully confident that it won’t be printed on paper. Change is scary, and the newspaper industry will never again be what it was in the 1990s, when we were essentially printing money at obscene profit margins, but we are still better positioned than anyone else to reach and be relevant to the people in our communities. We have to take advantage of that.

▪  This may be entirely naive, and it may be driven in part because this is the only way I’ve ever made money* and the only way I ever imagined making money from the day I gave up the astronaut dream when I was 12.

* That’s not entirely true. I worked a summer stocking shelves at Walgreen’s, mowed lawns when I was a kid, and ran what I assume was an illegal candy business out of my junior high locker, charging sucker seventh graders a 200 percent markup on blow pops and laffy taffy.

▪  My goodness this was a tone-deaf, misguided, and embarrassing response from the CEO of the Newspaper Association of America.

Chris Jones is the obvious answer, and he’s probably the correct answer. He is 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, but more than that, he displays an enthusiasm for food that would carry him through a competition.

You know how the Chiefs talk constantly of looking for “guys who love football,” because those are the ones who’ll get better? With Jones, you’re getting a guy who loves barbecue, so you know he’ll attack a contest with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.

But if you’re looking for a smaller guy, I feel like Charcandrick West would do better than you might think. He’s a hard worker, and would likely appreciate the opportunity to show his talents. Skinny guys tend to do really well in eating contests.

I also think there’s a chance that Tyler Bray may blow everyone out. Something about that guy.

The temptation is to say equestrian, because it’s the only Olympic sport where the human isn’t the one doing the work, and as much as dressage is the lay-in-a-hammock-and-read-a-book event of the Olympics, there are subtleties of guiding a thousand-pound animal that I’m sure are under appreciated.

Shooting is another one, because, assuming you have a steady hand, it’s a difficult but simple matter of putting the gun in a place to do the work.

But I believe the two easiest events are on the water. The first is sailing. It would seem to be a matter of being rich, having a high but not elite level of flexibility, strength and quickness, and learning enough to know what the boat needs and when. If you have the right sponsorship and enough time, this seems pretty straightforward.

But my choice — and this may be cheating — would be as the coxswain on a rowing team. You’re not doing the rowing, so you don’t have to worry about timing or consistency or strength or anything like that. Basically, you need to not weigh a lot, have the trust of your team, and the knowledge of how best to race.

Because, let’s be honest, if a group of rowers are good enough to be at the Olympics, they probably don’t need the coxswain as much as the coxswain thinks they need the coxswain.

I respect the tendency to retroactively make judgments on guys, but there’s a lot here, starting with the idea that Gordon hasn’t been good in more than a year. That’s simply not true.

He missed time with the groin injury, but his .809 OPS last year would’ve ranked fourth among qualified left fielders, and was higher than Jason Heyward, who signed a $184 million contract. That was, basically, the same season Gordon had had since his move to the outfield in 2011. Since his move to the outfield, his adjusted OPS is 21 percent better than league average, and ranks eighth among 33 left fielders with at least 300 games at the position — right between Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Brantley.

There is also the matter of his exceptional defense, and the home run off Familia in the World Series.

He is having a dumpster fire of a season in the first year of the biggest contract in franchise history, and is the single biggest underperformer in a disappointing follow-up to the world championship, but let’s be honest about it.

Your bigger point, though, about Dayton Moore having a rotten offseason, is well taken. Ian Kennedy is having an interesting season — lots of strikeouts, lots of home runs — but on the whole has been about what should’ve been expected. Most every other move, however, has turned out awful.

But if Moore is a big dummy now, he’s the same big dummy who built a world champion out of rubble. And if he was a genius then, he’s the same genius who now has a roster full of financial constraints and underperformers.

I do think Moore was motivated to keep the 2015 team together, which absolutely fits into his worldview. He is loyal, and he believes in his guys. Gordon has been a critical piece of the build, Chris Young may have been the MVP of the pitching staff, and Soria had a more reliable track record than Ryan Madson at a similar price.

It’s frustrating that none of it worked out, at least this year, but baseball is a weird sport.

Sam Mellinger: Alex Gordon re-signs? Alex Gordon re-signs! 

Terez is one of my favorite people in the world, and this would be true even if I only knew him socially, and hated football. He is smart and incredibly hard working and hilarious and able to laugh at himself. I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of great people here, but I’ve never been prouder of someone’s rise, because Terez has done this with work and passion and a lot of hours with nobody watching.

Terez and I are also very different. He sometimes jokes about my “cool, detached style,” which, I have to say probably fits. I love what I do, but have different ways of showing it than Terez. I enjoy getting nerdy with football film, or baseball numbers, but would generally rather acknowledge the absurdity of sports (like we do in this space every week), or the importance of sports, of the places sports can impact the bigger world.

But, I don’t know if any of that answers your question. I get hyped when my 2-year-old wants to wrestle, when my wife and I get a night out by ourselves, and when I’m with my friends around a table full of beers and nachos. I get hyped when a column idea comes together, when Next Girl comes on Spotify, and when both kids sleep past seven in the morning*.

* This has not happened in a very long time.

I get hyped with a nice day to smoke a brisket, or drive with the sunroof open, or when the baby does that gut laugh from the stupid game I play turning him into a drum set. There’s a lot that gets me hyped.

But, now that I think of it, yeah. I’m not sure anything gets me as hyped as Terez with a guard pulls and flattens a linebacker.

Long passes were plentiful as the Chiefs offense worked on going deep. Creating a pass rush without Tamba Hali and Justin Houston could be a challenge. Video by Shane Keyser, skeyser@kcstar.com

So, there’s actually some reason to believe the USMNT is not even the most popular national soccer team in America.

But, putting that aside, and maybe this is just the bias of the moment, but it’s hard to beat the women’s gymnastics team. That thing is a star maker, with such wide appeal that goes far beyond sports fans.

There isn’t a lot of staying power for those personalities — except for Mary Lou Retton, and a few others — but that’s true of most Olympic athletes.

Gymnastics typically does monster TV ratings, and I know the same can be said of the World Cup, but with soccer there is much more interest in the non-American teams, even among Americans. And not just the with the Mexican team, which I already referenced, but from others rooting for the country of their roots, or interested in watching the stars from the Premier League or La Liga.

I would say this about the USMNT, though: the growth there is more than most other sports, so this answer could be much different in five years.

It depends largely on how the rest of the locker room views this. I can make a very good football case for the Chiefs to not re-sign Eric Berry. I can talk about him not playing a premium position, and about John Dorsey’s ability to find safeties, and the risk of investing so much money and cap space into that position.

Nobody wants to acknowledge this, but it’s true: you don’t know how his body will hold up.

Now, I believe a deal should’ve been done, and for a lot of reasons. But among the most important is that Berry is an exemplary teammate and man, in an organization that purports to prioritize such things. He is universally loved and respected in the locker room, and football executives have long believed in the value of using long-term contracts to send messages to the rest of the roster.

Berry and Justin Houston are particularly close, and if there is a sour feeling from Berry not getting the money — and remember, in that world, money equals respect — his teammates feel he deserved, then this could be a problem going forward.

The most important thing for the Royals remains, as always, what happens with the guys already employed by the organization. If Danny Duffy continues to pitch like this, and Yordano Ventura can perform closer to his ability, then along with Ian Kennedy (and perhaps Ed Volquez) the Royals have the basis of a decent rotation.

They also need Wade Davis healthy, Joakim Soria back to being a good pitcher, and Raul Mondesi to come along. They need Alcides Escobar’s bounce back, Mike Moustakas’ knee strong, and Alex Gordon to perform up to his contract.

If all or most of that happens, it doesn’t matter much what the Royals bring from the outside.

But, like all teams, they will need to make some additions. Most importantly, they need to add pitching depth — expect some low-risk gambles like the Chris Young signing of 2015 — and a hitter who can play right field or DH.

I’m going to write more about this later in the week, but that’s a good start. More than anything else, however, this is about the guys already under contract performing better. That’s what’s held them back, more than anything else.

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