A few weeks ago, University of Missouri men’s basketball coach Kim Anderson walked into the friendly lair of a Tiger Club of Kansas City luncheon at the Westport Flea Market.
Surrounded by these most sincere and stalwart of Mizzou fans, Anderson was welcomed with not merely polite claps but a spirited standing ovation.
Cue Anderson’s deadpan, self-deprecating sense of humor, which has served him always but maybe even more so since his first two MU teams went 19-44.
“Y’all obviously didn’t go to a lot of games last year,” he joked, before playfully wondering about the range of the SEC Network. “Apparently, you don’t get it over here.”
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And therein you have the crux of the matter as Anderson enters a plainly pivotal third season since taking over a program left in disarray in the wake of Frank Haith’s departure for Tulsa.
Belief vs. results, and hope vs. resignation.
No doubt, it’s been an unsightly overhaul, so much so that it’s hard to blame anyone for assuming the program isn’t going anywhere.
Then there are those of us who believe it would be inspiring and right and good on so many levels to see this come to fruition with Anderson, the native son of Sedalia and former MU star and winner-all-his-life and man of principle and humility that no right-minded person doesn’t like.
So we rely on the sort of conviction that MU grad and longtime college football coach Gary Barnett invoked as he was conducting one of the great turnarounds in the history of college football, whisking downtrodden Northwestern to the 1996 Rose Bowl.
“Belief without evidence,” he would convince his team before results could affirm it, “equals faith.”
Along those lines, Anderson evidently enjoys just that from new Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk.
Rather than dither on Anderson’s status as incoming authorities tend to do, Sterk has opted to publicly embrace Anderson and the reality of what he inherited.
“From my standpoint, this is kind of his first year starting out,” Sterk said to applause at a separate Tiger Club meeting on Thursday. “Because the other two, he had two arms tied behind his back.”
Naturally, Anderson also knows he has the ongoing unquestioned endorsement of his mentor, legendary Missouri coach Norm Stewart.
All the more so because of circumstances since Anderson accepted his dream job:
Stewart alluded to the fact that Anderson was not told about an existing NCAA investigation when he took over and noted that Anderson had to rush in his first set of recruits without knowing them well. And that’s to say nothing of how the Academic Progress Rate issues that Anderson was handed had hindered what might be called “roster management” along the way.
“In true Kim Anderson fashion, he hasn’t whined or said anything; he’s just toughed it out, and now he’s got it to where he is starting on his terms,” Stewart said at the Coaches vs. Cancer Tipoff Reception on Thursday at Bartle Hall.
Added Stewart: “This is kind of like his first year, as far as I’m concerned. He’ll be an outstanding coach; this year is going to just be the start of it. … I don’t worry about Kim.”
In fact, Stewart doesn’t seem to flinch at Anderson’s challenge any more than he did his own when he took over at his alma mater 49 years ago. He ultimately converted a program that had gone 6-43 the previous two seasons into a perennial power.
If he ever had doubts of his own along the way, which didn’t include a winning conference record until his fourth season, Stewart ultimately just plowed through them.
“My last name is Stewart,” he said, smiling, “and in that tribe you’re just hardheaded and competitive.”
Even if Stewart reckons Anderson will do the same, there is no question Anderson has bled emotionally the last two years — and that he will continue to feel the heaviness of trying to rejuvenate MU basketball.
But he also has a new sense of traction based on his perception that this faith stuff is taking where it matters most: in the players.
Anderson still needs better ones, yes, but he believes the gritty nucleus of last year’s freshman class — “kind of a special group of guys,” he says — has helped create something he hasn’t enjoyed yet at MU: absolute buy-in from a team made up of recruits he got to know and who got to know him in ways his first groups didn’t, and couldn’t.
That’s why a few weeks ago, with a nudge from new strength and conditioning coach Nick Michael, Anderson could have the team up at 4:15 a.m. for Navy ROTC workouts.
Complete with T-shirts bearing on their backs the words, “IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU,” they poured themselves into the grueling 5 a.m. outing the same way they have in all their preseason conditioning.
“I couldn’t have done that a year ago,” Anderson said matter of factly, later adding, “I think we’re in a position now to get better; I couldn’t really say that the first couple years. We were just trying to put a program together and get the pieces in place.”
So while there has been enormous turnover even during Anderson’s time, including some guys the coach surely would’ve preferred to keep, that’s been part of the painstaking process of changing a culture that comes down to one thing:
“They have to fit into our program, and we have to fit into what their expectations are, and you’ve got to get to know each other,” Anderson said. “I’m really not that hard to play for.”
To laughter, he added, “I know a guy who was way harder to play for than me.”
So as the Tigers prepare for the opener (Nov. 13 against Alabama A&M at Mizzou Arena) of a season in which there must be demonstrable improvement, Anderson can know only one thing for certain.
“I have a group of guys now that want to be coached, and they want to get better,” he said, translating to how much more he feels he can drive them. “This group I think can take it. I think they want it.
“As a coach, that’s all you can ask for.”
As a fan, you surely would like to ask for more by now.
Who’s to say it’s wrong to feel that way?
Then again, it’s part of the nature of faith, religious or otherwise, that we might see what we want to see.
Which for some is reason to believe.
That’s why Stewart speaks of an acquaintance who’s been watching some MU workouts and reports being told “when he walked in the building, the air was different. Kim has his players, and he’s coaching them now, and it’s just different.”
“So that’s there now,” Stewart said. “I think this will be a fresh start.”
It’s also true that faith is a deeply personal question, one we can only explore and feel for ourselves.
No one knows what the future holds. But like Stewart and those MU fans at the Tiger Club, I’d sure rather root for something or someone I believe in and have it not work out than not be hopeful and be proven right.