Under Athletic Director Mike Alden, coaching transitions at the University of Missouri have been about as smooth as a sheet of 24-grit sandpaper.
After long-time and much-beloved coach Norm Stewart stepped down after 32 seasons in 1999, Alden hired Mike Krzyzewski protege Quin Snyder to take over the program. Strike one. Despite one nice run in the NCAA Tournament and some decent recruiting classes, a ragged playing style, chronic underachieving and character issues left the Snyder era to be remembered about as fondly as the explosion of the Hindenburg. Hey, sometimes these things don't work out. For awhile, Snyder was very popular and gained a short-lived reputation as one of college basketball's newest coaching golden boys. Alden had gambled on a guy with no previous head coaching experience--at any level--and lost.
Even so, Alden's miss on Snyder would probably have been forgiven if not for some extenuating circumstances. Missouri ended up on probation because of the wayward ways of one of Snyder's recruits, guard Ricky Clemons. The negative publicity stemming from Clemons' problems, ranging from domestic abuse to academic shenanigans to an eventual jail sentence, painted the Tiger program in a light that alumni and boosters would rather avoid.
Snyder probably could have survived the Clemons drama had he won games, but things on the court got progressively worse. Missouri fell to last place in the Big 12 during the 2005-06 season, losing their last six games under Snyder by double digits. Things were getting ugly and there didn't seem to be any hope for a turnaround.
Making things even worse: During the time Snyder fell from the penthouse to the outhouse, Bill Self had moved from Illinois to Kansas and, in doing so, maintained the lofty status quo Roy Williams had established in Lawrence. Self had some postseason disappointments, but he was landing top-ranked recruiting classes, coaching teams that played solid, exciting basketball and he brought in players of which Jayhawk fans could by and large be proud. The kicker for Alden: He passed over Self, who interviewed to replace Stewart, in order to bring in Snyder as the handpicked successor.
By February of 2006, Alden reached the same conclusion held by the consensus of the Missouri fan base: A change had to be made. There weren't many detractors when he decided to fire Snyder, but Alden badly botched the transition. According to the Kansas City Star, Alden informed Snyder of his dismissal via a go-between, Mizzou announcer Gary Link, setting off a firestorm of criticism directed at the AD's office. Assistant Melvin Watkins coached the rest of the 2005-06 season and by the time Alden set out to find a permanent replacement, the chorus was calling for his head as well.
That replacement turned out to be Mike Anderson, who topped a list of candidates that included names like Greg McDermott, Rick Majerus and Tom Crean. When the school's Board of Curators met to approve Anderson's contract, it also voted on whether to sever ties with Alden. He survived.
The hire of Anderson turned out to be well-timed. After years of an on-court philosophy under Snyder that could have been termed as anything from inexplicable to non-existent, Anderson brought with him some very firm ideas on how the game should be played. Like his mentor, Nolan Richardson, Anderson coached a balls-out style of pressure defense and transition offense. He favored a deep rotation and ball-sharing in offensive halfcourt sets. Instead of Snyder's unwieldy motion offense system that resulted in selfish play and unsightly assist-to-turnover ratios, the Tigers played solid team basketball and put up some of the best turnover differentials in the country. Even more important, Anderson ran a program that was on the up-and-up, getting players the right way (with a boost from personal and familial ties) who were expected to be true student-athletes.
It was a team Tiger fans could be proud of. For many, that was the sum total of what was expected of Anderson. Count me as being firmly in this category. I had let go of my long-held aspirations of reaching the level of the hated Jayhawks. I simply wanted to root for a program that deserved my admiration. If high-level winning meant putting up with the unseemly aspects of the Snyder regime, then perhaps winning wasn't all it was cracked up to be. The only thing was that Anderson won. His teams overachieved, played with admirable effort and reached the final game of the 2009 West Regional, where Missouri lost a tight game against Connecticut. The success of the basketball program coupled with the unprecedented success of the Mizzou football program put Alden on solid ground, but also firmly where you'd want him to be--in the background.
There's a funny thing about winning. The more you get, the more you want. After the run in 2009, Missouri soared in preseason rankings and Anderson's 2010 recruiting class was ranked No. 6 nationally by Rivals.com. With the added recognition came the inevitable boost in expectation. Anderson appeared to be on the verge of turning a nice, little story into an epic turnaround. For followers of a program that has never reached the Final Four, it was hard not to salivate over the possibilities. For a brief period of time, it felt like we could finally go toe-to-toe with the Jayhawks.
Alas, in the grand tradition of the stab-and-twist nature of MU athletics, the 2010-11 season sputtered to a disappointing finish. The young squad had plenty of talent but, as a group, proved to be a poor fit for Anderson's system, especially on the defensive end. The quality opponents on Missouri's schedule had little trouble with the Tigers' pressure and found wide-open shots both at the rim and from the three-point line. The offense, lacking a focal point, was inconsistent at best and sometimes downright bad, with no consistent paint presence to help the team through droughts on the perimeter. After an early-season ranking in the top ten of voter polls, Missouri gradually and steadily slid. The Tigers were unranked by the time they finished an 8-8 Big 12 season that left them in a fifth-place tie in the conference standings. Missouri squeezed into the NCAA Tournament as an 11-seed and I'll be honest. At no time this season did I feel Missouri looked like a legit tourney team. In fact, I took their inclusion as evidence that there are too many teams in the Big Dance. Missouri was dispatched in the first round by Cincinnati.
Soon thereafter, the Anderson-to-Arkansas rumors surfaced. Anderson told all and sundry that he planned to retire as a Tiger, words that only the most naive bought into. Alden opened up the vault and offered Anderson a reported $2.2 million contract that would have placed him ahead of a number of coaches that have been around longer and accomplished more. The lure of home, or at least one of Anderson's homes, proved to be too strong, as likely did the highly-rated recruiting class put together by deposed Arkansas coach John Pelphrey. Anderson left and Alden was back on the scene, looking for a new coach.
The search first led to Purdue's Matt Painter. This struck me as a fool's errand for a lot of reasons, all of them obvious. Painter has built a strong program in West Lafayette in a conference that is at least on par with the Big 12, if not better. He's a Purdue grad and cut his teeth under former Boilermaker coach Gene Keady. His compensation was fine, though he reportedly had some issues with the money his assistants were getting. Why would he leave? The result was easy to predict. Painter milked Missouri's interest to the limit, with a few unsourced reports even declaring him Columbia-bound, before landing a new deal with Purdue. It was nothing new. Painter leveraged Missouri exactly in the same way Jamie Dixon did before landing a new deal with Pittsburgh back Alden when was searching for Synder's replacement. It was frustrating for Missouri fans because the overture seemed so hopeless and the process seemed so public.
If the leaks about the Painter flirtation were plentiful, the process behind Plan B remained a tightly-guarded secret. Pundits bandied about names like Shaka Smart, Brad Stevens, Cuonzo Martin and Greg Marshall. At some point, the Tigers reportedly batted their eyelashes at Minnesota's Tubby Smith. But then Alden blindsided the Mizzouverse by latching onto Miami's Frank Haith. The typical response was simply, "Who?"
I have to admit that I was guilty as anyone with my kneejerk reaction. When I read that Missouri was hiring Haith, I took to Facebook and Twitter to vent, saying things like, "Hello NIT!" I'd heard of Frank Haith. I remembered when he was hired at Miami on the basis of being Rick Barnes' star recruiter at Texas. That made me snicker because I can't stand coaches that exist at the NCAA level because they are plugged into the AAU circuit and are effective at peddling their wares. Talent procurement is very important in college basketball, but when it comes to actually being a head coach, it's only about half of the puzzle. When I've seen Miami play over the years, I've seen up-tempo disorganization, not unlike the dreaded style favored by Snyder. The 'Canes jacked a copious amount of threes--as underdogs are wont to do--but didn't rebound, defend or take care of the ball. It's a method that ensures that a team is going to get the least from the most. That is, even if the talent on hand qualifies as "most". Haith's program didn't improve during his time in south Florida, and his players didn't seem to blossom under his tutelage.
I set out to find more. What I found was frightening. The profile that emerged on Haith goes like this: Poor tactician. Poor game manager. Doesn't develop players. Nice guy. Solid recruiter. Needs to hire and Xs and Os assistant. (Which reportedly will turn out to be former Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel.)
Here is a brief Pomeroyian capsule of Haith's time at Miami:
MIAMI'S KENPOM.COM RANKS
UNDER FRANK HAITH
YEAR RANK ORTG DRTG MU
04-05 54 41 88 72
05-06 53 41 86 160
06-07 85 52 153 59
07-08 39 40 62 44
08-09 40 48 47 6
09-10 46 30 74 19
10-11 58 36 99 44
I included Missouri's national kenpom ranking in the right column as a point of reference. It's not hard to identify the point at which Anderson took over for Snyder, is it? At the same time, you might look at the Tigers' rankings and conclude that this year's finish was really a return to form for Anderson and the two previous seasons were simply a brief bobbing up. We can't say that for sure based on the disappointing finish of this year's young roster, and now that Anderson has packed off for Fayetteville, we'll never know.
Yes there are plenty of challenges when it comes to building a program in south Florida. But aren't there challenges to building a contender as, say, the second-most popular team in Richmond, Va., or at a smallish school in Indianapolis competing in a state with three other schools that have been to the Final Four and that plays in a decrepit arena known primarily as the setting for a 25-year-old movie depicting 60-year-old events? If Haith were the recruit magnet that he is purported to be, his performance record wouldn't look like that. To be fair, those rankings, which cover the entire history of Miami in the ACC, are actually an improvement from what they were when the Hurricanes made the move from the Big East. However, I defy you to find an upward arc.
These are the numbers that I first went to when I heard the news about Haith. However, the numbers that stuck in the craw with most Tiger fans were these: 43-69. That is the aggregate conference record posted by Haith in his seven seasons in the ACC. Is the ACC tough? Absolutely. So is the Big 12, and with weak sisters Colorado and Nebraska moving to other leagues, it's only going to get tougher.
Here's another scary number: One. That's how many times Haith took the Hurricanes to the 65+ team extravaganza known at the NCAA Tournament. I can guarantee you that 1-for-7 is not going to cut it in Columbia.
Perhaps most telling was the reaction in Miami to Haith's departure. It could be summarized as falling somewhere between utter glee and unfettered relief. If Haith had not taken the Missouri job, there was a good chance that he was going to be fired, if not this year, then next. One columnist's insta-reaction was that Haith did the 'Canes a big favor by leaving before he was ordered to go. You almost get the feeling that Haith fled campus before he was physically ejected. The school's administration didn't even ask Haith to pay a buyout fee for walking away from his contract.
As far as the recruiting goes, Haith never placed a class in the Rivals.com rankings. Well, his first class was ranked 24th, according to the archives I could find, but that group featured Denis Clemente, the streak-shooting lefty who ultimately played his college ball for Kansas State after Haith dismissed him for violating team rules. Haith is connected with several NBA-quality recruits, like Travis Ford, LaMarcus Aldridge and Daniel Gibson. Those players of course all played for Barnes at Texas; Haith wasn't nearly as adept at convincing prep players to go to Miami as he was directing them towards Austin. But again, getting quality players is just half the battle anyway. Developing players and team chemistry is at least as important, and Haith gets poor marks on all counts. Really, the main thing I've read in Haith's favor from the countless articles I've found is that he's a nice guy. Good luck with that, Leo Durocher might say.
If not Haith, then who? It's a fair question. However, Shaka Smart was still available at the time Haith was hired. I've gone on record with my opinion of Smart and, I'll admit, as soon rumors emerged that Anderson might bolt, I imagined Smart stalking the sidelines at Mizzou Arena. And the thought made me very, very happy. From what I've read, Smart was not seriously considered by Alden because of his lack of experience in recruiting the Midwest. That's true, but Smart does have Midwestern ties--he's spent a lot of time in Chicago and is a big Cubs fan. It's not like it's another planet. No matter what the background of the respective coaches might be, it's impossible for me to believe that any recruit would rally around Haith that would not have done the same for Smart.
Alden's head is on the line. The Board of Curators approved Haith's hiring last Monday, but also had some wary questions and acknowledged the general uproar over the move. Alden even went so far as to agree with a reporter's suggestion that his own fate is directly tied to that of his new basketball coach. We pride ourselves at Basketball Prospectus in looking past conclusions cast by the emotions and using as much dispassionate evidence as can be gleaned from objective criteria. This is a case when even casual fans are aware of two indisputable bits of evidence: 43-69, and one.
Missouri fans will root for Haith. After all, what is done is done, and he's now a Tiger. At the same, fair or not, he's not going to get the benefit of the doubt. Few believe he is the guy for the job. That's not the fault of Frank Haith. The responsibility lies squarely at the feet of Mike Alden. If it doesn't work, the Mizzou program will get the fresh start many desire, but it'll set be back three or four years in the process. For everyone's sake, Haith had better turn out to be more Anderson than Snyder. There was a time when Missouri's fan base would have been more than willing to adopt a wait-and-see attitude about Haith. With so much baggage attached to Alden's tenure in Columbia, that time is long past.
While all of this was going on, I had a peculiar encounter with one of the shadowy characters in the background of this narrative: Quin Snyder. Now one of Doug Collins' assistants with the Philadelphia 76ers, I literally ran into Snyder as I was going into the Philly locker room to stick a digital recorder in the face of Andre Iguodala. What was odd is that Snyder seemed to recognize me, which isn't possible being that we'd never met. A habit that you fall into when practicing journalism is that you exploit familiarity whenever possible.
"Hey Quin, how you been?"
"Great. So you going back to Missouri?"
"Uh, no. Who are they going after, do you know?"
I didn't know, but I regaled Snyder with my fondness for Shaka Smart, and that was the end of the brief meeting. When Haith was hired, I let my emotions get the better of me, and I went onto Facebook, where I am linked up with a lot of other Mizzou types, and wrote that I would have been less irritated had Alden re-hired Snyder. Here's the scary part: Several days later, with my emotions calm and my reason firing on all cylinders, I still believe the same thing.
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The 2010-11 College Basketball Prospectus is available in paperback form on Amazon.com. For sample chapters and more information, see our book page.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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