Missouri’s Haith recruits fans, students

Taking over a successful college basketball program as the new

guy is never easy. Competing with live coverage of the NFL draft

when your new school has two top 10 picks? More like downright

unfair.

That’s the scenario new Missouri basketball coach Frank Haith

found himself in during a recent visit with Tiger boosters at the

Mizzou Caravan’s annual pork-chop dinner and Chariton County

whistlestop of Mendon, population 208.

His brief remarks were cut short by raucous cheers from the

TV-watching crowd when the Jacksonville Jaguars selected former

Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert. That was moments after the San

Francisco 49ers selected Aldon Smith, Gabbert’s former

teammate.

Haith didn’t seem to mind. The former Miami coach – whose hiring

was greeted with disappointment by Missouri diehards hoping for a

bigger name – realizes that he has plenty to prove after seven

seasons in Coral Gables with just one NCAA Tournament berth and a

losing Atlantic Coast Conference record.

”People want to know who you are, how you are going to do

things and what’s in your character,” Haith said in an Associated

Press interview. ”That’s the passion I felt … I got the message

– they want to win big.”

Haith has spent most of the past month on the road, from New

York and Massachusetts to Washington, D.C. and North Carolina,

hustling to fill three available scholarships for next season and

gain verbal commitments for 2012, when six roster spots will be

open.

He’s also focused on recruiting a fan base, with recent trips to

alumni and fan clubs to places as disparate as Chicago and

Mendon.

His life story is one that resonates among Missouri fans who

still revere Norm Stewart, the Shelbyville native who coached

Missouri for 32 years after starring for the school’s baseball and

basketball teams.

Haith, 45, was born in New York City, one of 10 children, but

raised by his grandmother in Burlington, N.C., beginning at age 5.

His mother died when Haith was 12, and his father remained distant.

Three younger siblings later joined Haith and older sister Patricia

in North Carolina.

Encouraged by a Pop Warner coach who was also the school’s

athletic director, Haith remained in Burlington to attend Elon

College, at the time an NAIA school. An injury during the summer of

his freshman year derailed his plans to play football.

He instead found an identity in the coaching fraternity, filled

with the father figures he lacked. Haith became a student assistant

at Elon, living in a gym janitor’s closet when his scholarship

couldn’t cover more traditional student housing.

”As I look back on it, I learned and grew from that

experience,” he said. ”It’s a big part of who I am.”

He soon followed the peripatetic life of a college assistant

coach, relocating every few years while learning from more

established basketball minds, from Dave Odom at Wake Forest to Rick

Barnes at Texas. Two other former bosses are now top NBA

executives: Tony Barone Sr. (Texas A&M), player personnel

director for the Memphis Grizzlies; and Kevin Eastman (North

Carolina-Wilmington), a Boston Celtics assistant.

Haith’s humility won over the Mendon crowd of Missouri farmers,

teachers and small-town bankers.

”I’m thrilled,” said Paul Steele, a former University of

Missouri curator and Chillicothe farmer. ”I really believe he has

the integrity that we in Missouri expect in our coaches.”

Haith replaced Mike Anderson, who left Missouri for Arkansas

after five seasons, three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances

and 77 wins over the past three years.

Haith went 129-101 in seven seasons at Miami, his first head

coaching job, including 21-15 in his final stint with the ACC

school. The Hurricanes went 43-69 in the conference under Haith,

whose best ACC mark was 8-8.

Missouri had hoped to lure Purdue coach Matt Painter, who

instead signed a contract extension and received a sizable raise

from the Big Ten school.

Gary Link, who played for Stewart and helped Missouri athletic

director Mike Alden with the coaching search, said that Roy

Williams at North Carolina, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Gary

Williams of Maryland each highly recommended Haith.

Link said Haith will quickly win over skeptical and uncertain

Tiger fans once they get to know him better. Trips to far-flung

places like Mendon certainly don’t hurt.

”We’re the University of Missouri,” he said, emphasizing the

second word in the school’s name. ”We play better to all the

outstate areas than we do even in Kansas City or St. Louis. Mendon.

Brookfield, Marceline. The university is of Missouri. Out here,

we’re the only show in town.”

One potential recruit was expected on campus Wednesday. Isaiah

Philmore, a 6-foot-7 forward who averaged 15.3 points and seven

rebounds as a sophomore for Towson, will make an official visit,

his Delaware-based AAU coach said.

Missouri could also be in the running for Rodney Purvis, a

6-foot-4 guard from Raleigh, N.C. The high school junior verbally

committed to Louisville but changed his mind after Haith hired

assistant Tim Fuller, Purvis’ primary recruiter.

Haith said he doesn’t expect to lose any current Missouri

players, including junior forwards Kim English and Laurence Bowers,

who declared for the NBA draft but can return to school since they

didn’t sign with agents; and freshman point guard Phil Pressey,

whose father was Anderson’s college teammate and lifelong

friend.

”Phil is a guy that obviously got hurt, who’s been close to

wanting to leave,” Haith said. ”We’ve talked about it. I feel

comfortable that he’s coming back.”

On Wednesday, Haith will take another brief break from the

recruiting trail to visit with Missouri students for the first time

at the school’s student union.

The only expected distraction this time: final exams.