Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A farewell to HCMA

"If you ever see me in a fight with a tiger or a bear, you better help that tiger or that bear out."
-Mike Anderson, when he was introduced as Missouri's head basketball coach on March 28, 2006... back when schools first formally announced such things with a press conference, not gaudy website banners.

My first thought? Good luck to coach Mike Anderson at Arkansas, his sort-of home. I'm excited about Missouri's future, and I hope he succeeds down there. That SEC West is a real bear. Except not at all. And besides, if he's in a fight with a bear or tiger, you better help the bear and tiger. Trouble is, he's got a lot of Tigers interested in fighting him after the way he handled his homecoming process.

My second thought? How could a brilliant agent, one as savvy as Anderson's Jimmy Sexton, make this such an ugly process? Maybe it had to be this way to get a coach with no Final Fours or "Power 6" conference titles more money than Roy Williams makes. Maybe his desire to keep it all under the radar backfired. Maybe he didn't trust his players, Twitter-crazed college kids, with any info. But make no mistake, this parting is ugly.

This afternoon, even this evening, "I know nothing" was a repeated quote from players. Media reports persist that the deal was done this afternoon, and the kids knew nothing. Had Anderson merely taken this, his dream job, had he formally went to Fayetteville for discussions in an up front manner, he would garner some sympathy here. But he hurt himself by wasting his time flirting with Oregon and Georgia last year. (Our football coach won't take calls from Michigan, college football's winningest program, but our basketball coach (apparently) entertained overtures from such luminaries of college basketball as Oregon and Georgia.)

So this thing felt like a tired routine from the get-go. Throw in his silence and the team's late-season collapse, and Anderson didn't have much goodwill left. And then throw in his comments just weeks ago about wanting to retire at Mizzou. Why even say something like that? Very risky thing for a coach to say. Recruits need to at least think you're believable. Lastly, the whole fiasco of "security" at the Columbia airport strong-arming reporters out of the way like this is Red China to keep them from lofting a "so, uh, what the hell is going on?" question at the coach.

But now it's done. I feel a lot like when Greinke pretty much engineered a trade out of Kansas City: a little upset, understanding of why pitcher/coach left, excited to move on. (To be fair, Greinke was the best pitcher in baseball in 2009, Anderson probably can't make that claim for any year yet.) But I don't really feel animosity in either case. Just regret that the Royals were so horrible Greinke couldn't take it any more, and regret that the Anderson situation became a situation, a circus, a saga. This is 2011; word gets out. Good grief.

I do appreciate what Anderson did. I know how bad thing were in 2005 and 2006, my freshman year at MU. The horrible blowout losses. The older guy in the student section with his "Clean House" sign who didn't want to leave and drew more attention than the sad sack game. The sea of empty seats. The 11th-place finish.

Anderson did turn things around. But I do wonder just a bit if the turnaround Anderson led is maybe, maybe just a bit overstated. He didn't take the team to the brink of a regular season conference title. The Elite Eight run was huge, arguably my most special moment as a Mizzou fan, but losing three of his last four NCAA Tournament games at Mizzou cooled some of the March enthusiasm. Still, he did get Mizzou back in the NCAA Tournament, consistently.

Anderson went 43-37 in Big 12 play, shockingly similar to Gary Pinkel's 42-38 mark in Big 12 games. Yes, he was starting from scratch, but so was half the league that season. Anderson was one of six new coaches introduced for the 2006-07 season, many taking over for coaches who had flamed out and drove off the fan base.

After the supernova 2008-09 season, MU got two games worse in league play each of the last two years. They couldn't even hang with Kansas State and Texas in the tier of teams chasing league bully KU. Missouri was second in the league in Norm's last season, and they still haven't finished that high in the post-Norm era. The 2009 win over Kansas was a classic, enduring memory for me, but it was Anderson's only win in 10 tries against the Jayhawks. It just didn't quite feel like he brought the program all the way back.

So yes, he took the program from a smoking crater to a good, respectable team. Greatness eluded him and appeared to fading further away, but he should be commended for a fine five-year tenure at Mizzou. Last but certainly not least, he always seemed to be a gracious, generous man. He was thoughtful, accommodating and professional when I covered a press conference of his.

Now, lastly, more important than whatever state Anderson leave the program is how Missouri does making its next hire. What keeps the Kansas basketball machine humming in recent decades? Great coaching hires. I've heard a lot of interesting names and it's pointless for me to speculate here, but it can't be overstated: this hire is crucial. With a big, suddenly extra-motivated senior class, the Tigers could win right away. Now it's Athletic Director Mike Alden's move. He made a fine hire last time the basketball job was open (possibly/likely after having Gary Link make the basketball job open (ah, memories)). Tiger fans hope he can land a great hire, one to knock on that Final Four door.

And, one more time, thanks and good luck, Coach Anderson. We had some great times: the win over Kansas, beating Blake Griffin and the Sooners on my Senior Day, the 2009 tourney run/road trip and the rousing ovation when he stood with his principles and a depleted roster in a crucial game against Nebraska. His words to Mizzou in the Arkansas statement announcing him as its new head basketball coach:

"I would like to thank Athletic Director Mike Alden, Chancellor Brady Deaton and Deputy Chancellor Michael Middleton for their support during my five years at the University of Missouri," Anderson said. "I am also grateful to the student-athletes, coaches, staff, students and the Tiger fans that were a part of helping us bring winning basketball back to the University of Missouri. Together, we enjoyed tremendous success. My family and I will always be thankful for the opportunity we had to be at the University of Missouri."

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