(WARNING: This post is a bit long.)
Let’s start with something we can all agree on: Frank Haith was an underwhelming hire when announced in April 2011. His results at Miami were mixed at best, and some reports had him a year or so away from being on the hot seat. Regardless of what ultimately happened in Haith's tenure at Missouri, it was clear that athletic director Mike Alden was rejected several times by potential coaches and had to extend far down his list.
What’s unclear is why. I’ve heard some around MU say that Alden is considered "toxic" in basketball coaching circles and that he meddles excessively in day-to-day basketball affairs. Others have said he simply lacks the acumen to make a good hire.
Personally, I’m not sold on those.
If you look back to 1999 and 2006, Quin Snyder and Mike Anderson were two of the bigger names on the coaching market. Both were home run hires (at the time). In Anderson’s case, after UAB upset Kentucky two years prior, he became one of the hottest names on the market and ultimately proved to be an excellent hire. After pulling Mizzou’s program out of the toilet, Anderson’s Tigers won the Big 12 and advanced to the Elite Eight in just his third year. The following two seasons included 20+ wins and NCAA tournament berths, including an upset win as a 10 seed in 2010. Ultimately, his wandering eyes took a toll on recruiting and he eventually bolted for Arkansas, but it’s very obvious that on the whole, Anderson moved the Mizzou program forward.
So, five years later, I’m supposed to believe that Mike Alden didn't know how to make a hire and/or was considered toxic by coaches with other options? I don’t see it. To me, what’s more likely is that Mizzou had two distinct negative factors working against them in the spring 2011 search – factors that are no longer applicable today.
1.) The conference situation. Today, Mizzou has the ultimate cash cow in full SEC membership, and that advantage is only going to become even more pronounced with the launch of the SEC Network this fall. Back in early 2011, not only was there no SEC membership, but the perception was actually that Mizzou was in danger of falling to the Big East or MWC in a "league of rejects" along with the likes of kU, Kansas State, Iowa State, etc. I never personally believed that would happen, but that’s what the narrative became after Texas almost broke up the Big 12 in June 2010 and the Big Ten opted for Nebraska over Missouri. For a potential coach, that was a major red flag over the long-term money and exposure that could come from the program. And for the athletic department, that meant it was tough to offer the type of big-money deal ($2.5 million or higher per year) needed to attract a coach who is comfortable in his current job.
Today, Mizzou is in a league that coaches know will be elite over the long-haul due to the influx of money and exposure. Today, Mizzou can feel comfortable about the financial state of its athletic department and its ability to afford an expensive coaching contract. You couldn’t say those things in March 2011, and that put Alden behind the 8-ball.
2.) The roster situation. There were grave questions about the future of Missouri basketball when the job opened three years ago. Because Anderson’s wandering eyes took a toll on his recruiting, the roster essentially consisted of several seniors (Bowers, English, Denmon, Ratliffe, Matt Pressey, Moore), one impact junior (Dixon) with a history of off-court trouble, and a sophomore (Phil Pressey). That’s it. No recruits of any significance in the fold. No underclassmen of any promise besides Pressey. For the new coach, after the first year, it was almost like an expansion team. That’s a daunting task.
Today? There are four players already on the roster – Johnathan Williams, Wes Clark, Deuce Bello and Cam Biedscheid – that were four-star players or better and considered national recruits, all with at least two years of eligibility remaining. Frank Haith wasn’t the only coach interested in these kids. Major programs across the country saw them as elite talents. Two more – Jakeenan Gant and Namon Wright – are currently committed to Mizzou and will likely give the new coach every opportunity to retain them. That’s a minimum of four players, and as many as six, that were considered prominent national names and are now on the Mizzou roster for multiple years into the future. And that’s not even mentioning three-star players like Torren Jones and Ryan Rosburg that have at least shown some promise.
Will any of those be stars, the likes of which you can build a team around? I don’t know. But I’d bet the majority can at least become viable role players on a good team in the next few years, and that’s a starting point. Mizzou couldn’t offer that luxury in March 2011.
Because of those factors, I think Alden is selling a more attractive job than the one he did three years ago. It doesn’t guarantee a great hire, but I think comparing this process to the one that netted Haith is an apples-and-oranges comparison. Marquee names like Gregg Marshall, Ben Howland and Chris Mack could be in play this time.
The other misconception I've seen is of Haith himself. The frustrating thing about Haith's tenure was that it seemed fans were divided into one of two extremes: either he was an awful coach weighing Mizzou down, or he was a good coach who was unfairly judged and unappreciated. For me, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Let’s start with the bad: Haith is not a good defensive coach. He was a BCS-conference coach for 10 years, and in almost all of them, his team wasn’t in the top 100 defensively. Whether the lineup was small (2012) or big with the likes of Alex Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers (2013), it didn’t seem to matter, indicating it was about more than personnel.
Additionally, for two consecutive years, he struggled to have his coaching resonate with players. Each of his past two teams at MU, while flawed, clearly got worse as the season went along. This year’s team, even with its issues, was 12-1 in early January and ranked #21 in the country. They were an unlucky bounce vs. Illinois from being 13-0 and in the top 15. That does not suggest a roster that should then play .500 ball in the SEC and miss the 68-team NCAA Tournament before losing in the second round of the NIT.
Oh, and there’s also the matter of Haith bolting for a clearly lesser job at Tulsa. To put it simply, this is not a move Haith makes if he believes he could make Mizzou a contender over the near-term. Instead, this was a move of self-preservation and to allow him to exit on his own terms. It makes sense from a business and practical perspective, but it doesn’t inspire confidence in his ability to be an elite coach. If he doesn’t even believe that in himself, it’s hard to see things working out that way.
That said, Haith’s hire was not a failure, and he is not a bad coach. Let’s start with that great 2012 team. The same team that went 22-11 under Anderson, including blowout losses in the first round of the Big 12s and NCAAs, and then lost Bowers to a torn ACL in October… suddenly won 30 games and became a Big 12 champion under Haith. And as much as I love the likes of Kim English, Marcus Denmon, Mike Dixon and Ricardo Ratliffe, there’s a reason they were three-star prospects. The talent on that 2011-12 team was not overwhelming. What made them special was how they played together.
In short, Haith got through to them when Mike Anderson could not. There’s a good reason Bob Knight went out of his way to praise Haith for the coaching job he did with the same group of Mizzou players that largely disappointed a season earlier under Mike Anderson. There's a valid reason Haith was the National Coach of the Year.
Beyond 2012, fans should also remember that there’s more to the head coach of a college program than what happens on the floor that year. As mentioned, the roster was in shambles after 2011-12. Haith had two returning rotation players and zero recruits of any significance. But he successfully brought in good transfers like Oriakhi, Earnest Ross, Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson to bridge that gap and keep the team competitive in the interim. That’s not easy to do. Whatever you think of Haith the coach, Haith the recruiter clearly connects with a lot of kids and their families and sells them on himself as a leader. That’s a huge part of being a top-flight college coach. It’s what kept Mizzou competitive in the past two years, including an NCAA trip, and it’s what could have a very solid recruiting class on its way to Columbia this fall, including two four-star players.
Additionally, the wins speak for themselves. Haith won 30 games in 2011-12, 23 games in 2012-13 and 24 games in 2013-14. If someone told me in March 2011, given the roster issues and coaching turmoil, that Mizzou would win 77 games over the next three years, I’d have been ecstatic. Those aren’t numbers that come easily. Purdue’s Matt Painter, a guy most would have considered a "home-run hire" during the 2011 search, has won 16 and 15 games in the last two years, all at a school with comparable resources to Mizzou.
I do think there was a significant self-fulfilling prophecy at play among many Mizzou fans who decided in April 2011 that Haith would be a disaster, and they then constantly overemphasized any negatives to try and validate their initial judgments.
All that said, I don’t think Haith is an especially good coach. I think Mizzou can clearly upgrade their program with this hire, if done correctly. However, I don’t think he’s a particularly bad coach either. I think Haith did a lot of good things for MU's program over the past three years, and while I think the team can benefit from a change, it doesn’t mean that we should remember him in the same light as, say, the Snyder disaster.
Frank Haith was a solid coach at Mizzou, and I wish him the best of luck at Tulsa. I think he leaves the Missouri program in a slightly better position than what he inherited.
But I also believe Mizzou will be hiring a better coach very soon.