If we’ve learned anything about University of Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk in his year-plus on the job, it’s that he’s a congenial man and not prone to rash or reckless actions or comments.
That’s why, for instance, he dropped by football coach Barry Odom’s office the morning after the repulsive 35-3 loss in September to Purdue to offer support and encouragement.
But you’d be wrong to mistake his nurturing inclinations and amiability for ambivalence or being a pushover.
That firm side surfaced in a hectic week at MU that included the indefinite suspension of basketball player Terrence Phillips amid a Title IX investigation made up of complaints from at least four women, the seemingly abrupt firing Jan. 26 of controversial softball coach Ehren Earleywine and an ugly scene surrounding the Mizzou women’s game at South Carolina on Sunday.
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Sterk on Friday declined comment on these matters.
He was legally bound in the Phillips case. And he was surely wisdom-guided otherwise, since there was no reason to stoke more back-and-forth with Earleywine (who on Saturday issued a statement pleading ignorance as to why he was fired), and South Carolina, which had denounced recent comments by Sterk, who on radio station KTGR alleged that fans at South Carolina had slurred and spit on MU players. Sterk also said coach South Carolina Dawn Staley had “promoted that kind of atmosphere.”
Even if Sterk might have done well to clarify his point about Staley, one of the nation’s great coaches, and it would be great to hear the specifics about the Earleywine decision, his actions stand for themselves about what we should want in sports — especially at the collegiate level.
First of all, no matter what Earleywine says, no matter how much you enjoyed the tenacity and success and color he brought to his work, it’s impossible to think that his removal was purely whimsical — just before the start of the season — as he would have you believe.
Earleywine, who was investigated for alleged verbal abuse of players in the past, in his statement acknowledged that he thinks “this all boiled down to a philosophical coaching difference between MU and myself.”
He should have stopped there.
Instead, he makes it seem like he was fired just because he was too fiery — and as if his way made him the only Mizzou coach who cares enough. The school, he said, has a “love affair with soft coaching.”
Try telling the demanding likes of Odom or men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin or women’s basketball coach Robin Pingeton or wrestling coach Brian Smith and other MU coaches that they’re soft.
Then there’s the matter of South Carolina, the defending national champion in women’s college basketball, which has had something bubbling with Missouri since at least Mizzou’s 83-74 victory over the No. 4 Gamecocks on Jan. 7 and evidently going back to MU’s 62-60 win at home last year.
Staley was ejected from the Jan. 7 game after receiving two technicals.
Then she implied the officiating somehow was rigged when she let it be known that she had texted the Southeastern Conference officiating coordinator before the game to complain about the referee assignment.
Why? Because two of the three officials had worked the game at MU the year before, which she apparently saw as disqualifying.
“I’m not saying they’re the reason why (we lost),” she said after the game, “but you’ve got to do better when you’re coordinating officials.”
If this seems like the stuff of a reprimand or fine from the SEC, especially since she was questioning not merely a call but either the competence or the integrity of the officiating, none was forthcoming — at least publicly.
All of which fed into the sequel last Sunday in Columbia, S.C.
Two days after Staley basically called MU dirty (there were some things in the previous meeting “that weren’t basketball,” she said) the school summoned extra security and handed out plastic hard hats to some students for a game the school’s women’s basketball Twitter account promoted by saying “bring your battle armor Sunday. We are duking it out with Missouri at 6 pm!”
And so the teams did in a 64-54 MU loss, lowlighted by an eye-of-the-beholder moment in a loose-ball scuffle — one a South Carolina fan would say was notable for Sophie Cunningham shoving away a South Carolina player and an MU fan would see as Cunningham protecting a teammate on the ground.
Disturbing stuff for which both schools bear responsibility.
As for whatever was happening in the stands, Sterk should have chosen his words more carefully about Staley herself, making it clear he wasn’t saying she maliciously incited fans.
The fairly obvious presumed point needed to be clear: As one of the most prominent coaches in the nation, Staley has a responsibility not just for her own team but to the game itself — and that her words can carry great sway in how their fans might respond.
But if you don’t think it was appropriate for Sterk to speak out at all, a broader point of the need can be found in South Carolina’s reaction to the accusations of slurs and spit by South Carolina fans.
Nothing to see here.
South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner conducted an investigation and found no evidence of the allegations and now is seeking a retraction from Sterk.
“The accusations are serious and false,” Staley said earlier this week.
It’s possible that they are, or that words heard were misunderstood, and there’s no way to know without tangible proof.
It’s also entirely possible that some jerk or jerks in a crowd of 13,433 did say or do things that were as rotten as alleged.
And that should have been accounted for in Tanner and Staley’s responses.
As simple as, ‘We know of no evidence of the accusations, but if they’re true we condemn the behavior.’
Or otherwise along the lines of Pingeton’s response when she was told someone in the crowd at Mizzou had called South Carolina players thugs, calling it “ignorant” and disappointing if true.
The absence of that is why Sterk needed to make those points, because if true they can’t be tolerated at the risk of emboldening more and worse in an increasingly volatile climate in sports and beyond.
And the response from South Carolina is why Sterk is smart now to table this until an opportunity to meet with Tanner and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey that likely will take place at next week’s SEC meetings.
Not because Sterk was somehow uncharacteristically reckless, but because he had to stand up for and protect his program.