Sam Mellinger

New Mizzou A.D. Jim Sterk makes fine first impression, but the important stuff starts now

Meet new Mizzou athletic director Jim Sterk

Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk was introduced Thursday during a press conference at the Columns Club at Memorial Stadium in Columbia.
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Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk was introduced Thursday during a press conference at the Columns Club at Memorial Stadium in Columbia.

The Tiger Club of Kansas City is proud of its tradition of welcoming the Missouri athletic director for its first meeting of the fall. That’s no small feat, getting a six-figure executive to take what amounts to a full day to meet with a few hundred proud fans, but here they are, well into the second decade of this annual routine.

Mack Rhoades, through his assistant, confirmed for the meeting the day before news broke he was leaving for Baylor. No problem. The club confirmed interim Wren Baker, and when he left after a week, confirmed the next interim, Hank Foley. And when he gave up the job for Sarah Reesman, they confirmed with her, too.

So, on Thursday, when Jim Sterk was introduced as Mizzou’s AD — we are resisting the urge to say “permanent” — he was also next in line to meet with the guys at Westport Flea Market in a few weeks.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “We just need to figure out the date.”

In relative terms, that’s an iron-clad commitment and speaks to the challenges Sterk now faces. His is a job full of opportunity — the head of an athletic department in the Southeastern Conference at a school with full membership in the Association of American Universities. His old job, at San Diego State, involved rationing out $3 million in revenue sharing from the Mountain West. Now, he’ll have close to $40 million.

[ Podcast: Sam Mellinger and Tod Palmer discuss Sterk ]

This is also a job full of challenges. Sterk’s interview process included hypothetical questions about how he would handle a team threatening to boycott, and updates on the investigation into softball coach Ehren Earleywine — a messy and unforced error by Rhoades, and a symbol of what some around the university call the worst year they can remember.

Sterk, it needs to be said, appears entirely competent, committed, and up to the task. He made impressive progress at Washington State, and built San Diego State into one of the nation’s most successful athletic departments, particularly among non-power five schools. His history of compliance, academic emphasis, and fundraising helped him be named one of four reigning national athletics directors of the year.

On Thursday, he said all the right things. He complimented Mizzou, its administration, and its fans. He said he was looking forward to being back in a college town, referenced his wife’s Missouri connections, and spoke of being all-in at “a destination spot,” and excited to meet as many people as possible.

“I’m not from Missouri, but I am now,” he said.

That line doesn’t make sense in literal terms, but the sentiment behind it is what Mizzou needs.

When Rhoades left, much of the speculation centered around Jon Sundvold and Mike Owens, two “True Sons” short on college administrative experience but long on love for the university and business background. Mizzou, perhaps more than most, values its own. The football coach and basketball coach are both alums, and “Mizzou Made” billboards are displayed all around the state.

But there is also a case that Sterk brings something else, something the university could use more of. He walks in with an appreciation of MU’s stature and potential, but also new eyes. All four executive associate ADs — including Reesman — have degrees from MU. Maybe some turnover is coming, but particularly when you add the coaches, MU’s decision-makers do not lack for institutional knowledge.

If Sterk can find the balance between respecting what’s here and imagining what could be, then this could be a productive partnership.

“It’s a new year and a new day,” he said. “And I have a fresh start.”

Much of that is on him. He must do what Rhoades was either uninterested or unable to do, by communicating both within the athletic department and with fans, donors, and potential fans and donors. He must make up for his lack of familiarity by making new friends and relationships around the state. That requires energy and humility. Sterk appears equipped with plenty of each.

Much of it is on others, too. No athletic director can succeed without being surrounded by good people, something Sterk has referenced plenty of times already.

Sterk will be a much better fundraiser if Barry Odom pushes the football program regularly back into the top 25. He’ll have a chance to replicate the attendance success of San Diego State basketball if Kim Anderson is able to pull his program out of a deep hole.

So in that way, nothing that happened on Thursday matters. Nothing Sterk has done before now matters. This is simply boilerplate executive introduction stuff — play the fight song, invite the cheerleaders and the mascot, have a lot of people say nice things about the new hire.

One thing Sterk should try to use to his advantage is pride. The best jobs to take are often the ones that look like the most challenging. If this really is the worst year Missouri has had in anyone’s memory, it also included record donations to the school.

People here care, and they want Mizzou to succeed. That’s no small thing. Sterk replaces a man who never made the effort to form connections, and if he merely takes that simple step he will be ahead.

There’s a lot to like here. But winning the press conference is both easy and irrelevant. Sterk will succeed or fail based on whether he follows through with his promises to meet as many people as possible, to communicate, and to bring new ideas about how to push Mizzou forward. He’ll need help, too.

Because nobody does this job alone.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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