In the wake of Mack Rhoades’ abrupt departure for Baylor and the subsequent parade of three interim athletic directors at the University of Missouri, Jim Sterk a few weeks ago technically became the sixth MU A.D. in 16 months.
So the idea here is that maybe Sterk will stay put for a bit, particularly after a peculiar year of flux on campus that has left “interim” tags affixed to his bosses and ushered in a new head football coach.
He has infinity to tend to, so Sterk is starting with a template revolving around his “five areas of focus:” the student-athlete experience; personnel to support that; facilities; resources and what he calls “political dynamics.”
“I’m not bored,” Sterk said in an interview with a few reporters on Thursday at Mizzou Arena.
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But Sterk has another vital role to play in the aftermath of Rhoades, whose surprising retreat after just over a year on the job said more about him than it did about MU.
If Rhoades didn’t want to be there at a pivotal time of need with a chance to create a foundation for the next generation, Mizzou obviously was better off without him.
As Sterk spoke on Thursday about personnel decisions he’s made or will make since arriving in Columbia from San Diego State, he let mention that “part of what I needed to do was calm everyone down.”
Yes, he was speaking within the specific context of personnel.
But the mind-set also is something he needs to convey and inject into all who care about the program, including alumni and fans rightfully sick of insinuations that the unrest of last fall makes MU less than a destination location.
In fact, it’s a great place … with issues to solve, just like most campuses with their own distinct challenges.
Only time will tell, in more ways than one given the recent past, whether Sterk will stick and how he will fit and connect and lead.
Not unrelated, only time will tell, too, if we all get to know Sterk better than the fleeting Rhoades, who followed often-guarded predecessor Mike Alden after Alden’s 17 years on the job.
First impressions can be unreliable, particularly in an interview setting, but Sterk certainly projects the personable nature and sincerity that can be a key in this — and that he is known for.
He comes off as the sort of person you can easily speak with, someone who doesn’t mind telling you about himself some without dominating the conversation.
That was notably so when he described his upbringing on a dairy farm in rural Washington state and taking part in a high school play back in the day at Nooksack Valley High School.
Sterk, who is fond of singing and played the trumpet, had only a supporting role in the play “Flowers For Algernon.”
But he evidently took that seriously.
So much so that he rattled off one of his lines verbatim some 43 years later:
“ ‘Algernon’s brain had decreased in weight compared to a normal brain, and there was a general smoothing out of cerebral convulsions as well as deepening and broadening of brain fissures.’ ”
This recall brought the house of seven reporters down.
Yet there is a bit of a parallel in this recounting and in how some view Sterk: as someone who doesn’t seek the limelight and will be there for you to offer full support as best he can.
To wit, the other day MU basketball coach Kim Anderson said that’s the message he’s been receiving from Sterk despite two grimace-inducing seasons in the wake of the exploding cigar left by Frank Haith.
For his part, Sterk said he knows Anderson inherited a tough situation and that he will look at “with a fresh set of eyes of what’s happening this year” and evaluate from there — with hopes that Anderson enjoys a long and prosperous tenure.
But Sterk also offered candor when it came to the status of controversial softball coach Ehren Earleywine, who ultimately was retained after an investigation of alleged verbal abuse of players.
Earleywine, he said, does have a fresh start … but not a “clean slate.”
Personnel decisions, of course, are just a fraction of the work ahead for Sterk, a former high school quarterback, catcher and guard who is conditioned to a long slog from his roots on the 100-acre farm before going on to Western Washington University.
“Some of the work wasn’t very glamorous, I’ll tell you,” he said, smiling, as he spoke of feeding calves and cleaning stalls and bailing hay and “doing the dirty work.”
All of which may or may not have an application in this job, which Sterk apparently took because he relished the challenge of the Southeastern Conference and MU’s status as the state’s flagship institution and standing in the Association of American Universities.
“I thought,” he said, “I could come in and help.”
If he proves true to his reputations as a fundraiser and unifying presence with integrity, then the greatest variable in his success, and MU’s athletic fortunes, will be his motivation to stick around a while.