Vahe Gregorian

For Kim Anderson, the path back to MU wasn’t a straight line

When Missouri men’s basketball coach Frank Haith casually abandoned the job that Kim Anderson once dreamed of, then could dream of no more, Anderson had no inclination to hope again, even as the job still tantalized him.

You might have been able to fool him once or twice or three times before … but not indefinitely. Charlie Brown, somehow, finally had caught on to Lucy.

Besides, Anderson still was basking in the exhilaration of coaching Central Missouri to the Division II national championship last month and looking forward to the encore season.

So the day after Haith abruptly was introduced April 18 as Tulsa’s coach, there was nothing to see here for Anderson. He kept calm and carried on, doing what he loves to do when time allows:

He drove from Warrensburg for a solo bike ride on the Katy Trail. He started at Windsor, where “there’s that little caboose right there on the trail,” and he headed northeast toward Green Ridge, about 9 miles away.

Along about the time he’d gotten a few miles to Bryson, where Anderson reckons “all there is is a house,” his cell phone buzzed. He didn’t recognize the number.

“It didn’t say ‘search firm,’” he said, laughing.

Something still told him it was best he check it out right way.

Trouble was, he couldn’t get cellular reception. So back he pedaled on the trail to his car. Then he drove to the Windsor High parking lot for a clear signal to check on the call.

Search firm it was.

Mizzou beckoned.

He got off the phone and called his wife, Melissa, and said, “Maybe there’s a chance, you know?”

Nine complicated, isolated, and often-agonizing days later, that chance led to Anderson on Monday being hired as MU’s coach.

The decision not only closed the loop on a wacky week or so in his life but also bookended his departure from MU in 1999 after Norm Stewart retired and Quin Snyder was hired as head coach.

As Stewart’s top assistant, Anderson had been groomed for the job and dearly wanted it … though he allowed at his formal introduction Tuesday that in hindsight he wouldn’t have hired him then, either.

That didn’t mean the idea didn’t still course through him even as he tried to forget about it through two other snubs.

That was plain all along to those who know him, and even he knew it way inside.

That’s why his eyes already had misted up once as he stepped onto the podium Tuesday at the Reynolds Alumni Center, his first words after ascending the stage binding it all together.

“It took a long time to walk up those stairs,” he said, smiling. “It took 15 years.”

And finally, it took a harmonic convergence of Anderson’s Mules winning a national title and Haith’s abrupt and stunning departure. It took a sense of time and place that all at once screamed for a man of Anderson’s integrity, fundamental approach to the game and desire to be here forever.

Or as Anderson put it, “Maybe the stars lined up.”

Anderson’s sincerity oozed as he called himself “Mizzou through and through” and said there is “no place on Earth I would rather be than Columbia, Missouri.”

No one would mean that more, and in his case maybe it was all the more so because it was so improbable he’d ever be in this role.

But that all started to change for the Sedalia native when Haith’s departure demanded a different sort of cure for a suddenly vague and directionless program seeking its third coach in just over three years.

Yet just the last segment of the journey back was endless for Anderson, who called it “nerve-wracking” virtually up to the minute the official offer was made around 2:20 p.m. on Monday.

“I’m going to write a book on this deal, and I hope you guys will buy it, because it really is an interesting (story) …” Anderson told a small gathering of reporters after the news conference. “I kind of went into a bunker; I really haven’t been out in public much and just kind of went underground. But I understood the process.”

Even so, he was off-balance much of the time as he waited for MU to make its way through a process that athletic director Mike Alden called “exhaustive.”

Just when Anderson, 58, would think all signs pointed to him …

“Then another name slides in there. Or something happens,” he said. “Or a phone call you’re supposed to get comes an hour late. It’s an hour later, ‘I didn’t get that phone call, I must be done.’”

What Melissa Anderson called a “rollercoaster” period started optimistically enough.

Only two days after Anderson was contacted by the search committee on April 19, ESPN reported that he was considered one of a few finalists. Still undisclosed is what took place in the 48 hours in between for that to emerge.

Alden then arranged to meet with Anderson last Thursday at his home in Warrensburg.

Melissa Anderson prepared a homemade lunch of sandwiches, vegetables with dip, and cheese and crackers. She insisted Alden take the leftovers home, Alden said, playfully.

Then she took their dog, Lotto, out of the house as he’s “prone to” jumping all over people. She went out for several hours with Anderson’s sister, Kathy, a former Central Missouri All-America basketball player who now is an administrator there.

Because of the delicate situation, they mostly tried to find places to go “to not have to talk to anybody.”

It’s unclear exactly how long the meeting between Alden and Anderson lasted, but it evidently went extremely well even as MU was determining two other “finalists”: Louisiana Tech coach Mike White and Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, who was contacted last weekend despite the fact Missouri knew it had little chance to lure him.

Sources close to Marshall had indicated his price would have been a prohibitive $3 million annually in a long-term contract and that even then he might not be inclined to leave a program he took to the Final Four in 2013 and a No. 1 seed in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

Meanwhile, Anderson kept advancing through the rounds.

On Saturday, he “had an opportunity to visit with” MU chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. In a hint that the informal offer had come by then, Anderson said, “From that point on, it was just going through the rest of the channels.”

By Sunday, White had withdrawn from the search, Marshall never had really been engaged in the process and Anderson essentially had won the job.

Even though he allowed himself the jinx-inducing indulgence of packing for Columbia early Monday afternoon, Anderson still seemed to be feel nothing was over-over until the University of Missouri System’s Board of Curators approved his contract and he received a call from Alden telling him he had the job.

He called Melissa and family, including son Brett, an MU senior who was working out at the Mizzou Rec Center. All were overjoyed, of course.

“It was awesome, but I thought, ‘I’ve still got to finish my workout, I guess,’” Brett Anderson said, sounding much like his father’s son.

Anderson immediately convened his Central Missouri team, a meeting that made him choke with emotion to describe on Tuesday, then he got in his car and started the 90-mile drive to Columbia.

The first call he made was a mutually emotional one to Stewart, who taught him how to get up when he fell. That was perhaps moments before MU released the news at 3 p.m.

Then Anderson could feel his cell phone buzzing in his pocket with “like 57 text messages” in 10 minutes.

He didn’t check them because, well, “you’re not supposed to read them” while driving. So he gave sports talk radio a chance even as he wondered what the reaction was going to be.

He happened to catch two familiar voices talking about him, and he exhaled some, thinking “I’m OK, I’m OK.”

Truth be told, though, he was in a fog.

“I don’t remember a whole lot about the drive, to be honest with you,” he said.

But he’ll always remember the long trail to being welcomed “home,” as fans called out when he entered the room Tuesday.

Home to a job a lifetime in the forming, 15 years in the making … and nine days of pedaling and churning from the Katy Trail through the last lap.

Related stories from Kansas City Star