Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian: Kim Anderson’s downfall — Careful what you wish for

In a more just and forgiving world, good things would always happen to good people.

Now, that notion has applications much more poignant than the fate of a college basketball coach losing his job while presumably still to be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars he’s contractually due.

But that doesn’t make Kim Anderson’s demise at the University of Missouri any less of a sad reminder that life is unfair.

There is much money can’t buy, after all, and no doubt Anderson would trade every penny to not know this crushing feeling:

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Careful what you wish for …

What began for the Mizzou “True Son” three years ago as a lifetime dream deferred on Sunday came down to what had spiraled into an inevitable termination:

Athletic director Jim Sterk announced via news release that Anderson had been “asked … to step down from his position,” likely a key distinction in terminology given Anderson’s unyielding nature.

Symmetrically encapsulating the flux that Anderson stepped into, some of it hidden from him before he took the job that he could never have refused, the dismissal was announced by the sixth A.D. (including three interim ones) to whom Anderson reported.

Not that Sterk had any sensible alternative by the end for Anderson, who simply could not lure to Mizzou enough of the caliber of players he needed.

Anderson’s MU teams went 26-67 overall, 8-46 in the Southeastern Conference, never won a road game and suffered home losses this season to North Carolina Central and Eastern Illinois and Lipscomb — losses for which the Tigers never could atone and that became part of an intensifying apathy that kept fans away in droves.

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“This decision has been very difficult for me personally because of the tremendous respect I have for Kim,” Sterk said in a statement. “I know how hard he and his staff have worked to turn the program around over the last three years, however, the lack of on-court success has resulted in a significant drop in interest surrounding our program, and we could not afford for that to continue another year.”

Even for those of us who’d like to know a way to make the case, by midway through the SEC season it was impossible to argue otherwise.

Before the season, I wrote yet another column advocating hope for the Anderson regime.

Because, well, the Sedalia native and former MU star who coached Central Missouri to the 2014 Division II national title is a man of integrity who knows his basketball and his state.

And … who shouldn’t want this to work out?

“Belief without evidence equals faith” was part of the theme.

Alas, the opposite of faith, it turns out, is “not doubt, but certainty,” as author Anne Lamott put it.

For one reason or another, certainty finally prevailed.

With no discernible traction on the court beyond the fact that no one could ever say his teams quit, Anderson’s future was untenable.

The change had to be made, and soon it will be time to enjoy the excitement of what’s next … if Sterk can make his first major hire at Missouri one that reverberates.

But to exult in Anderson’s downfall seems about like killing a mockingbird — especially when you consider the mess he inherited that shackled his efforts in the crucial early going on the job.

Some of that could be anticipated by the roster Anderson was handed by Frank Haith, who surely wouldn’t have left for Tulsa if he didn’t believe he was vulnerable at MU as his quick-fix recruiting approach began backfiring … and an NCAA investigation was being launched.

It speaks to a longtime dysfunction in Missouri athletics that Anderson was not made aware of that investigation before he arrived in Columbia — and that he was forced to retain on his staff Tim Fuller, who was a poor fit with Anderson and lost his job a year later as MU was reconciling its NCAA matters.

Those were just slivers of what he was contending with behind the scenes.

The issues ranged from being handcuffed in roster management by severe Academic Progress Rate deficiencies to becoming at loggerheads with the compliance department on a variety of matters of interpretation.

It also showed in the disciplining and departures of players either inherited or not vetted adequately in the weeks after Anderson was hired in late April 2014.

Thirteen players would either be dismissed or leave the program after Anderson took over, a number that certainly reflects poorly on some of Anderson’s own judgments and decisions but also speaks to the culture he was trying to rectify:

Even into his second season, Anderson still had players on the team who either wouldn’t participate in school or came to practice stoned or otherwise disruptive despite repeated disciplinary actions against them.

For most of his first two seasons, Anderson said in his office in November, he felt as if he were spending most of his time trying to put out fires.

Regardless of whether he knew all the specifics, Sterk understood all of this well enough to offer an endorsement before the season.

“From my standpoint, this is kind of his first year starting out,” he said, after only weeks on the job, at a Tiger Club meeting at the Westport Flea Market. “Because the other two, he had two arms tied behind his back.”

Still, as he contemplated the season ahead, Anderson was cognizant of the urgency.

“I think Missouri people are loyal; I think they have passion for the university,” he said. “But it is the Show-Me State. So I think that’s part of our makeup as Missouri people.

“I tell the guys that: ‘This is the Show-Me State, guys. We need to start showing.’ ”

With the sophomore nucleus of his first true recruiting class seemingly a stabilizing force, Anderson was sincerely excited even if he didn’t know how many wins could be expected.

“I have a group of guys now that want to be coached, and they want to get better,” he said, noting he knew he could drive them much harder. “This group I think can take it. I think they want it.

“As a coach, that’s all you can ask for.”

After an early-season practice, sophomore Terrence Phillips felt that vibe, too.

“It’s just an entirely different team this year; the energy is great from the start to the end of practice,” said the charismatic Phillips, who had just been chosen chairman of the SEC Men’s Basketball Leadership Council. “These are guys who want to be here.”

Now the guy who wanted to be here more than anyone will be out of his job after the SEC Tournament later this week.

In his wake will be left a raw, unsightly record that reveals nothing about the pride and sweat that went into this and that speaks not at all to having done some thankless clean-up his successor can be grateful won’t fall to him.

“I’m not used to this, and so I feel bad: Every day. Every minute of every day,” he said in a corridor, eyes welling up, a tremor in his voice, even after a rare victory, over Arkansas, on Feb. 4. “But I don’t let (the players) see me feel bad.

“Just keep coming to work and doing your job and trying to make them better.”

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So life isn’t always fair … and Anderson knows real perspective on that can be seen in the ordeal of assistant coach Brad Loos and his family as they contend with cancer treatments for 6-year-old daughter Rhyan.

But even if this isn’t the way this was supposed to go, there’s something in that, too.

Anderson honored the job and set a meaningful example for his players with what he stressed to them and with a steadfast and dignified approach through one of the most painful times in his life.

It wasn’t meant to be. But it wasn’t in vain.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian



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