Mizzou’s Alden went with sensible over sexy for his hoops hire — but will it stick?
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A family member picked up the old coach’s cell phone. Norm Stewart was in the hospital, battling dehydration, the voice on the other line explained.
It said that the old coach was fine, that he was expected to recover, that he’d be back on his feet and ornery again before you knew it.
"He’s a trouper," the voice said.
And then, completely unprompted, out of the clear blue sky, came this:
"Mizzou," the voice continued, very firmly, "needs to hire Kim Anderson."
That was a week ago.
Several days and a reported $42,500 in search-firm dollars later, Missouri athletic director Mike Alden did just that.
Kim Anderson meets with his Tigers. pic.twitter.com/s2SgkR0wXI
— Mizzou Basketball (@MizzouHoops) April 28, 2014
What’s old is new again at Mizzou, for better or worse. Anderson, 58, will make the 95-mile pilgrimage from Warrensburg, Mo., where he led Central Missouri’s Mules to a national title last month, to the bright lights and big stage of Columbia. The last time the Tigers hired a Division II coach to fix its men’s basketball program was 1967. Some four decades later, they wound up naming its basketball court after him.
Anderson is not Stewart, of course, and Mizzou in 2014 is not what it was when Sergeant Pepper first trotted out his Lonely Hearts Club Band. In Norm’s day, the Tigers were the geographic and political epicenter of the old Big Eight/Big 12. Today, they’re the odd northwestern outlier of a powerful southern political bloc, the Seattle of the SEC.
But if you’re Alden, assuming all other options were exhausted — and more on that in minute — you probably found yourself asking, arms in the air: Why the hell not? The Coach K Family Tree wilted (Quin Snyder). The hot mid-major name (Mike Anderson) didn’t stick, either. The Gene Keady Alumni Club (cough, Matt Painter, cough) blew up in their faces, and The Next Best Thing (Frank Haith) brought a station wagon full of NCAA baggage with him up from South Beach.
Snyder, Anderson and Haith were supposed to be sexy.
This time, Alden went with sensible.
On paper, at first blush, it’s not a home run. It’s a safe hire, a comfortable hire, like putting on an old, familiar shoe. Anderson was Big Eight Player of the Year under Stewart in 1977, then spent 11 seasons on Norm’s staff in two different stints (1982-85 and 1991-99). He did his undergraduate and graduate work in CoMo. He sent his son, Brett, there. It sets up a narrative of legacy and family, in the truest sense.
But what it does not do is immediately unite the fan base, the way plucking Gregg Marshall out of Wichita State or Jay Wright out of Villanova might have. There are questions, there are doubts, still, and fair ones. This is Anderson’s first gig as a Division I head coach at the age of 58, and a circle of fans will see an old dog who can’t handle the SEC’s new tricks, let alone recruit against the likes of John Calipari and Billy Donovan.
On the other hand, if you can coach, you can coach, period, end of story. After his first season at UCM in 2002-03, Anderson never won fewer than 18 games in Warrensburg. He posted a 274-94 record over 12 seasons and reached the Division II Final Four three times. His 2006-07 team went 31-4; last winter’s Mules went 30-5 en route to an NCAA crown.
Hey, Joe B. Hall once coached at Central Missouri. So did Gene Bartow. And Lynn Nance. Two more: Jim Woolridge. And one Forrest Clare "Phog" Allen.
Anderson has friends (and fans) in coaching, administration and the media. He’s paid his dues several times over, having been considered and passed up by Alden 15 years ago as Stewart’s replacement.
Goodwill won’t be a problem. For a program that’s kissing its best two players goodbye — and booted another off after allegedly trying to run a teammate off the road — Anderson, in the early going, will need all the goodwill he can get.
Romantics will embrace nostalgia from the Stewart Era, the 1967-99 epoch that became the golden age of Tigers hoops, the gold standard. Cynics will frame this as a biding-time hire for Alden, who’s no spring chicken himself, while the dollars from the new SEC television contracts start rolling in.
If it works, great. If it doesn’t, Alden can retire and let somebody else deal with the consequences.
Given either scenario, it seems unlikely Mizzou’s Grand Poobah is going to make hoops hire No. 5. If you’re an athletic director on your fourth basketball coaching search in 15 years, it’s not just the program, it’s not just the building and the weight room, not just the boosters and the fans. It’s you.
Maybe he could have pushed harder for Ben Howland, the ex-UCLA coach who was also linked to the opening. Or Wright. Or Marshall, although the latter was probably a pipe dream from the very beginning.
In Wichita, Marshall makes $1.75 million and has access to a private plane and all the perks reserved for the king of the castle. Haith left Mizzou three years into a six-year deal that reportedly paid him $1.6 million annually.
The Shockers drew 10,732 at Koch Arena this past season; Mizzou drew 9,215 in a building that seats 15,061. Wichita State hoops is the biggest game in town in the biggest town in its state, population-wise; Mizzou is the biggest state school in a state where the two largest alumni pockets — St. Louis and Kansas City – are each two hours away. Over the past two seasons, the Shox have averaged 10,522 in a building that seats 10,312; Mizzou has averaged half a person more — 10,522.5 — in an effort to fill a much larger house.
Mizzou is learning how to be a football school in a football conference. Wichita State basketball is the closest thing to football that Shockers fans have, and they turn out accordingly.
Wichita is what it is. It knows what it is, warts and all. Mizzou doesn’t.
— Mizzou Basketball (@MizzouHoops) April 28, 2014
For the Tigers, the identity crisis — or identity transition, if you like — continues unabated, with an already fractured fan base still trying to row in one direction, an SEC school with Big 12 roots and Big Eight sensibilities. Basketball and football are not on even footing in the SEC; not even close. Florida is better at the former, at the moment, but it’s the failures of the latter that drive the headlines, stir the debate and feed the fan base’s collective soul.
Florida, Mizzou ain’t. But given the financial commitments and infrastructure around Gary Pinkel, neither is it Vanderbilt.
Anderson is a living, breathing, walking reminder of decades of glory, decades in which Tigers basketball, in good times and bad, pulled the sled. But those days are gone now, even if Stewart’s name remains on the court.
The bar isn’t Kansas, and all that hubris and history. The bar is Arkansas, with all that Wal-Mart money and pig-calling.
You can mandate a rival, but you can’t manufacture hate.
Maybe Anderson will start refusing to gas up or eat in places such as Lexington or Fayetteville, and throw out a few metaphorical middle fingers down the road. But probably not. Those are long trips, after all, and kids gotta eat.
Different times. Different era. Different league. Different sensibilities. It took five years for Stewart to make Mizzou a perennial 20-game winner. Anderson may wear the diamond collar now, but the man figures to have a far shorter leash.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com.