Haith escaping before posse arrives, leaving Mizzou a chance for a coup

Frank Haith (light pants) is set to leave behind a Mizzou program that's a bit of a mess -- but which could be a prime spot for someone else if the Tigers make the right hire.

Dale Zanine/Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As a general rule, it’s better for the posse to roll up to an empty office with a note that says "See ya, suckers," than for the buggers to break down the door and find you sitting in it.

Without his two best players in the fold, and after a season that included arrests and allegations of a bizarre intrasquad love triangle but no NCAA Tournament, Missouri men’s basketball coach Frank Haith reportedly is doing the best thing for Frank Haith: abandoning ship before somebody decides to throw him the hell off.

According to multiple reports late Thursday, the 48-year-old Haith is expected to be named the new coach at Tulsa this week. He’s earmarked to replace Danny Manning, who left the Golden Hurricane for Wake Forest.

Of course, the jokes about Mizzou fans rushing to help Haith pack flew fast and furious in social media late Thursday afternoon. Which is only appropriate, of course, given that the last 30 months of Haith’s tenure could be summed up in one word:

Baggage.

The man reported to be Tulsa’s newest hoops savior came into Columbia’s orbit as damaged goods, a man on the run, having been linked to the whole Nevin Shapiro mess at Miami, and apparently will leave three years later with a 76-28 record and largely the same profile.

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It wasn’t that Haith did a bad job in CoMo. It’s that he didn’t really offer up much of a good one. The big memories, the lasting images, are fairly sordid, a series of communal winces. Haith was to Big 12 and SEC basketball what a mediocre left tackle is to the NFL: About the only time you heard his name was when something awful was happening.

As the Frank Era goes, you’ll always have a Big 12 tourney title at the Sprint Center in 2012, and … and … and …

OK, ya got us.

The rest of the bullet points were mostly ugly ones. On the court, there was a frustrating early NCAA Tournament loss to Colorado State in 2013, which was preceded by an epic second-round meltdown at the hands of 15th-seeded Norfolk State in Omaha the March before that.

Off the court, things veered toward the absurd. Athletic director Mike Alden stuck by his man as storm after storm emerged. But when the NCAA admitted to botching the Shapiro/Miami investigation and Haith wound up getting slapped with a five-game suspension to open the 2013-14 campaign, it felt a bit like he’d escaped on a technicality.

There was former guard Michael Dixon being linked to two sexual assault claims. And the exploits of forward Zach Price, who managed this past season to pull the double whammy of:

a) being the subject of a restraining order by one of his own teammates, Earnest Ross, after allegedly trying to run the guy off the road;


b) getting arrested twice — twice! — in the same day, on four counts of suspicion of assault.

When the stories coming out of your program start sounding like a rerun of "Cops," the natives tend to get restless.

Especially when you follow that up by missing the Big Dance in Year 3. And follow that up by watching your two best players, juniors Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson, forgo their senior seasons to jump into the NBA Draft pool.

The friendly — and unfriendly in some corners — debate with Mizzou is where the ceiling actually is, or should be, basketball-wise. It’s an athletic department, and athletic culture, in transition, casting off a century’s worth of history in the Big Six/Big Eight/Big 12 and bloodlust against all things KU in favor of SEC glory, SEC money and SEC football.

Instead of resting in the rear-view mirror, the Jayhawks are sort of stuck in the blind spot, their hoops pedigree and their army of fans out of sight but not yet out of earshot. Kentucky and Florida are the bullies now, and Mizzou still is wandering through the exchange-student phase, too new at school to build up the same sort of history, the same sort of animosities, that Tigers fans had known and cherished for decades.

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It’ll come. Eventually. But this is a football league, forever and always, and football drives the conversation, the alliances, the rifts. That’s new. That’s different.

And yet this remains a very, very, very good gig, still perched at the high end of hoops’ second tier, behind maybe a half-dozen bluebloods. Mizzou Arena is state of the art. You’ve got fingers in St. Louis and Kansas City, although the SEC switch undoubtedly has affected the hold on the latter a bit.

The short list here sparkles, as it should. Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall is the first name that springs to mind, naturally. He’s not just a provincial stud; he’s also a name brand, among the elite in the profession right now. He’s lifted the Shockers to heights they haven’t seen in generations. He’s honest. He’s ornery. His teams are even more ornery. He knows the area, its people and its politics, and all their warts.

Plus — and this is the part Mizzou fans really love — he already knows how to tweak KU coach Bill Self. Marshall has been a burr in the backside of the Jayhawks faithful for years, especially when he told FOXSportsKansasCity.com last December that he wasn’t going to kowtow to big-brother KU just to make an in-state series work.

"I’m not going to go to Allen Fieldhouse," Marshall said, "for a check."

Now just imagine that you-know-what-and-vinegar at Mizzou, every day, wagging a finger in Self’s face. It’s the kind of stuff news directors dream of.

Marshall ticks nearly every box on the Mizzou side, but it remains to be seen if that feeling truly is reciprocated. The Shockers’ coach is in a small pond, relatively speaking, but he also is its undisputed great white shark, the fish at the top of the food chain. Only at Kentucky does an SEC school give a men’s basketball coach the same reverence, the same sense of space.

Which is not to say Gary Pinkel is the reason a front-line coach wouldn’t bite on a place such as Mizzou; it’s just to say that a rising football foundation — literally, given the construction going on at present — will give some a reason to pause, especially those currently toiling at hoops-first, gridiron-free outposts the way Marshall, VCU’s Shaka Smart and Xavier’s Chris Mack are now.

The sentimental choice, of course, is Kim Anderson, the longtime Norm Stewart assistant who’s done wonders at Central Missouri, leading the Mules to a Division II national championship late last month. To paraphrase an old lyric from "The Music Man," he knows the territory.

Regardless, Alden probably can’t afford to wait. Tennessee is on the hunt, too. This is a better job than the one in Knoxville, the archetypal SEC town where basketball sits fourth on the pecking order after football, spring football and football recruiting, especially after the locals made Cuonzo Martin feel so darn welcome for his efforts.

Martin is a fine coach. So is Haith, although with all the clouds and whatnot from the Shapiro stench dangling over his head, it’s been tough to really tell. For Tulsa, this move might actually turn into a something of a coup. But with the right hire, it could turn into an even bigger one for Mizzou.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.