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Leadership Changes, Highs and Lows Define Mizzou Sports in 2016

A Mizzou helmet and an SEC helmet were on display at the announcement. Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011. Announcer Mike Kelly was unable to find the white helmet for the official presentation to Brady Deaton earlier in the press conference. Photo by KAREN MITCHELL
Karen Mitchell
University of Missouri
A Mizzou helmet and an SEC helmet were on display at the announcement. Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011. Announcer Mike Kelly was unable to find the white helmet for the official presentation to Brady Deaton earlier in the press conference. Photo by KAREN MITCHELL

In 2016, University of Missouri Athletics experienced a wide range of successes and failures. The year also featured instability, as five different people (Mack Rhoades, Wren Baker, Hank Foley, Sarah Reesman and Jim Sterk) served as the university’s athletic director.

Following the departure of long-time football head coach in 2015, and the football team’s role in the November 2015 protests on the MU campus, Missouri Tiger fans have not appeared to support the football program as much as years past.

“There are sections, total sections, at Memorial Stadium that are empty,” said Todd Donoho, who worked for the Tiger Radio Network. “And it’s not because the team was coming off a 5-7 record. Missouri has had losing seasons before and the fans still supported, but they still have a very bitter taste in their mouth as to what happened from the fall of 2015.”

The MU football team finished 4-8 in 2016 under first-year head coach Barry Odom, marking the first time the football team had back-to-back losing seasons since 2001-02. The average attendance for home games was 52,235, including a 50,234 showing for the October 29 matchup against Kentucky, the lowest attendance for a home conference game since 2005.

ABC 17 Sports Director Austin Kim said there is still a large gap between fans and the administration stemming from the 2015 boycott.

“They buried everything,” Kim said. “They thought everything would go away. They thought time would pass on the boycott and the protest and thought everything would be fine. Clearly it’s not, and when winning doesn’t happen, things start to get overblown and they start to linger a little bit more.”

It also did not help that the MU men’s basketball found little success on the court. As the program faced self-imposed sanctions resulting from an NCAA investigation into Frank Haith’s tenure as head coach, current head coach Kim Anderson’s team finished 10-21 and served a one-year postseason ban.

After the poor finishes from the football and men’s basketball teams in 2016, this is the first time in school history that both programs finished with back-to-back losing seasons in the same two years.

“The image of the athletic department and its popularity with University of Missouri alums and fans rests with the men’s football program and the men’s basketball program, and both of those programs right now are down,” Donoho said.

Rhoades’ departure

The image was affected once again on July 13 when then-Athletic Director Mack Rhoades announced he was leaving MU to take the athletic director position at Baylor University.

In addition to being in charge during the football boycott, Rhoades also hired replacements for two long-time head coaches: football coach Gary Pinkel (15 seasons) and baseball coach Tim Jamieson (21 seasons).

But after just 14 months as AD, Rhoades’ resignation left many around MU in shock.

“You just don’t expect somebody after 14 months to just up and leave,” said MissouriNet Sports Director Bill Pollock. “That’s really rare.”

Kim said people around MU felt cheated after Rhoades’ short tenure as AD yielded few positive achievements.

“It’s a poor reflection of Missouri because things were so bad, but it’s also a poor reflection of Mack Rhoades where he basically gave up,” Kim said. “A lot of people didn’t feel they knew Mack Rhoades a lot.”

From July 13-Aug. 31 the interim athletic director position changed hands three times. On Aug. 9, MU announced the hiring of former San Diego State University Athletic Director Jim Sterk, who took over at MU on Sept. 1.

Since Sterk’s hire, the athletic department has received over $20 million in donations toward a renovated south end zone facility at Faurot Field. He has not made many public statements other than his official introduction and the donation announcements.

“Everybody that I’ve talked to say Jim Sterk is not a knee-jerk reaction type of guy,” said Pollock. “He lets things play out.”

Kim said Sterk has mostly been silent during his first few months in Columbia.

“I think there is a little bit more of a connection with Jim Sterk than there was with Mack Rhoades, and I think that kind of tells you a little bit about Mack Rhoades,” Kim said.

Earleywine investigation

Rhoades left in the middle of an internal investigation involving head softball coach Ehren Earleywine. The nine-year head coach was investigated for months by the athletic department and Missouri’s Title IX office for alleged verbal abuse of players during practices.

A number of Earleywine’s players supported their coach by playing a regular season game on May 7 under protest of Rhoades and the athletic department for their handling of the situation.

“I think the fans were very much in support of Ehren Earleywine,” Donoho said. “He’s been a very popular coach because the women’s softball program has been one of the best, if not the best, most consistent program that Mizzou has.”

During the investigation, Earleywine said he saw a psychologist within the athletic department to go over his recent conduct.

“I think there were a lot of people that also felt that perhaps he needed to change his ways and the ways he gets his message across,” said Pollock.

With the many changes in the athletic director’s office, the investigation dragged into August, and eventually Earleywine was cleared of all wrongdoing and kept his job as softball coach.

Kim said the player protest was a real shock to the general public, but it also saved Earleywine’s job.

“Because it was so public, the Title IX investigation happens and it’s dragged out, Mack Rhoades says ‘peace,’ goes to Waco [Texas], Jim Sterk comes in, and that limbo saves that job,” Kim said. “I can’t tell you how close he was to being fired.”

On-field successes

Despite its off-field issues, the MU softball team was one of a few athletic programs that earned NCAA tournament berths in 2016. Their tournament run ended in the NCAA Super Regionals where they were eliminated by Michigan.

The MU volleyball team captured its second SEC title in four years after finishing 27-6 overall and 16-2 within the conference. Head coach Wayne Kreklow’s group fought to the “Sweet 16” round of the NCAA tournament before their tournament defeat at the hands of Minnesota.

While the MU men’s basketball team struggled, the women’s basketball program started to rise after many years of disappointment. Led by freshman guard Sophie Cunningham, the team earned its first NCAA tournament berth in 10 years and won its first NCAA tournament game since 2001 by upsetting the BYU Cougars in Austin, Texas.

Kim said many MU fans bought into the women’s basketball program because of its local talent.

“Sophie Cunningham is one of the first players in a very long time that Mizzou fans could really rally around,” Kim said. “They understood who she was and where she’s coming from because everyone saw her play at Rock Bridge [High School].”

Other athletes stood out from MU’s Olympic-sport programs in 2016. This was the first time in school history that the university claimed three different national championships in one year. Junior swimmer Fabian Schwingenschlogl claimed the 100-meter breaststroke national championship on May 6 and junior cross-country runner Karissa Schweizer won the 6,000-meter championship on November 19.

But junior wrestler J’den Cox stole most of the headlines with his 2016 performance. The Hickman High School graduate claimed his second-career NCAA championship in the 197-pound division on March 20. He then went on to earn a bronze medal for the United States at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“The one thing you can really sell on this university is J’den Cox,” said Kim. “There probably won’t be another wrestler like J’den Cox to come through that wrestling program. He handles success so much better than even most pro athletes do.”

The road ahead

While 2016 featured successes from some MU athletic teams and athletes, Pollock said the harsh truth is that the image of MU athletics will still be defined by its two most popular sports.

“You’re judged as a whole based on how you do as a football and men’s basketball program,” Pollock said.

With Sterk as the department’s new athletic director, Donoho said the focus in 2017 should be on making the football and men’s basketball teams viable on a national scale.

“I think most Missouri fans would like to see ‘true sons’ like Barry Odom and Kim Anderson succeed,” Donoho said. “But they have some uphill battles. They’re in a hole right now, and it’s a pretty sizable hole.”

“A 20-win season in basketball and a nine or 10-win season in football would cure a lot,” Donoho said.

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