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5 thoughts on Mack Rhoades’ Missouri departure

Rhoades’ departure for Baylor might not help calm the seas at Mizzou, but it might not hurt either.

University of Missouri President Resigns As Protests Grow over Racism Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images
1. This probably isn’t the worst time for a change.

It feels almost dissonant to say that, considering how many other leadership positions are up in the air at the University of Missouri right now, but it’s been clear over the last few months that divisions had grown within the university regarding Mack Rhoades’ performance as athletic director.

Part of this was unfair. I thought Rhoades was catching flack for a lot of things he couldn’t control. No matter what he did during the November protests, for instance, he was guaranteed to alienate half the fan base. And by design, the athletic department isn’t supposed to have much control over a Title IX investigation, so the flack he caught for the length of the current Ehren Earleywine investigation was a little bit misplaced.

That said, Rhoades was frequently unable to stray from what seemed like robotic AD speak to more clearly address certain issues. He speaks in vague assurances. That rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.

We obviously don’t know who will be replacing Rhoades yet, and maybe the replacement will be exactly the same in terms of AD speak. (Most are.) But it had become very difficult to evaluate Rhoades; he was dealt an impossible hand over the last year but didn’t seem to be doing himself many favors either.

A fresh start for both Rhoades and the university might not end up being the worst thing in the world. And if you’ve got to find a replacement AD, the middle of the summer, when there are no sports going on (softball investigation aside), might be the best time to do so.

2. Rhoades strikes me as a good peacetime consigliere.

To break out the Godfather lingo (and one of my go-to expressions*), Rhoades seems like the perfect AD for good times. He does have the AD lingo mastered — you could tell that from his very first press conference; he didn’t leave a single good-old-boy cliché unspoken — and when the job is going as it is supposed to (i.e. when you’re dealing mostly with coaching hires and fundraising and glad-handing), then that’s fine. Preferable, even.

The last year, however, was one giant “straying from the script” experience. And that’s when generic talk and cliches can fall flat.

Nobody thought Rhoades was a long-term fit at Mizzou, and he did very little in his 15 months on the job to endear himself to the university or its sports fans.

He earned a reputation as a poor communicator, both internally and externally, which limited his ability to solve or at times even identify problems. He was hired as a fundraising savant, but while alumni pride can be seen with the academic side setting an annual donations record, Rhoades has frustrated many by essentially stalling the renovation project at the south end of Faurot Field.

Looking back on what we know about the Earleywine investigation, I think he clearly erred in his early communication to the softball players. It seemed they were led to believe the matter would be handled quickly (vague assurances), and there was almost no chance of that. And while he couldn’t control the Title IX portion of the process, he seemed to be putting off communicating with them as much as possible. (In Sam Mellinger’s piece above, he also suggests that a lot of people within the athletic department were as frustrated with his communication ability as the softball players were.)

That wasn’t a fireable offense to me, but it was a misstep. And it clearly did him no favors with the people who were already perhaps a little bit perturbed with him.

Rhoades’ actual moves — hiring Barry Odom for football, keeping Kim Anderson (after supposedly testing the water on a couple of names) for basketball, hiring Steve Bieser for baseball -- have been somewhere between defensible and strong. I was hoping Odom would get the job from Day 1; I don’t have a problem with giving Anderson a third year to maybe restore some damage (though, honestly, I wouldn’t have minded moving on from him either); and while I like former Mizzou assistant Tony Vitello a lot and would have been thrilled if he had gotten the baseball job, Bieser impresses me quite a bit.

Long-term, Bieser and especially Odom are going to be his legacy, and maybe we’ll look back more fondly on him because of that.

But yeah, he could have probably saved himself some headaches this year if he had handled communication issues better.

* Indeed, I said the same “peacetime consigliere” thing about Mike Alden, which, if nothing else, tells us that ADs are bred for the good times. Finding a wartime consigliere, if one even exists, might be difficult.

3. Expect to hear Jon Sundvold’s name a lot in the coming days/weeks.

I’m really curious how this coming AD search unfolds and what names emerge. Former AD Mike Alden obviously has an extensive tree of former Mizzou underlings who have gone on to do good things elsewhere — Whit Babcock (Virginia Tech AD), Ross Bjork (Ole Miss AD), Mario Moccia (NMSU AD), Doug Gillin (Appalachian State AD), Brian Wickstrom (UL-Monroe AD), Mark Alnutt (former SEMO AD, now a deputy AD at Memphis). While Babcock is probably untouchable at this point (they love him at VT), and Bjork might be, guys like Gillin and Moccia in particular might get a long look. (Or, hell, Alden himself might get a look. He’s still around.)

At least, they might get a look if Alden is still held in high regard by those making the decisions. It feels like Alden’s reputation has taken a bit of a post-retirement hit with the basketball program hitting the skids the way it has. The Frank Haith hire was a risk that continues to blow up in his face, and while Kim Anderson inherited a ridiculously tough job in replacing Haith, he has also struggled mightily at it. If the higher-ups running this search aren’t fans of Alden, they might not be fans of anyone on the Alden tree.

You know who they probably will be fans of, though? Jon Sundvold. His name was on the tip of the tongue of every single person screaming “Fire Alden!” from 1999 to 2015*.

I think it’s natural, when your university is in such a time of trial and transition, to bunker down and look for a savior from within, someone who you think knows the university well enough and knows specifically what it needs. Someone who will stay.

But that’s insecure, short-term thinking. To pivot from trying to hire the person who will do the best job to trying to find a person who won’t leave is to completely lose perspective. If Sundvold ends up getting the job, I hope it’s because he proved himself the most qualified in the interview process and not simply because he won’t leave.

Nobody knew Mike Alden wouldn’t leave after a year when he was hired. You hire someone who you think will do an awesome job, you give them as many tools as possible to help them succeed, and you keep a list of candidates in your (figurative) desk just in case.

Anybody feeling the urge to bunker down is probably going to adore the thought of Sundvold taking the reins. Of course, that could get awkward since Sundvold happens to be a curator at the moment.

* I grew so tired of the “Fire Alden! Hire Sundvold!” faction of the fan base back in the mid-2000s, just as I grew tired of the “Fire Quin/Anderson/Haith! Hire Kim Anderson!” faction. I will try not to hold that against him personally, since he probably didn’t ask those fans/boosters to do that, but it might be difficult.

4. Missouri is a bloody mess right now.

We have no specific idea why Mack Rhoades left. Maybe he missed Texas, where he has spent half his career. Maybe Baylor offered him a lot of money. (You’ll notice he added “Vice President” to his title there. I’m betting he got a healthy raise.) Maybe, in the wake of the crises he had to deal with, he felt betrayed by the reaction of those he felt he was trying to protect or help (student-athletes, fans, donors, whoever). It doesn’t really matter — he’s gone regardless — but it would be great to know.

You can drive yourself crazy worrying too much about optics and perceptions. But while Rhoades’ departure might not be a bad thing, that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. Or at least, it doesn’t make Missouri any less of a mess. Last year’s brief player protest (and the race-related issues that led to it) split apart a fan base already predisposed to hating itself. And it prompted a Missouri legislature, already predisposed to taking snipes at the state’s flagship university, to get even more bold with its demands and threatened funding cuts.

This is the exact opposite of a healthy environment. And parts of it aren’t going to change any time soon.

5. Missouri will be alright.

This has been a really dumb year; we thought most of it had passed (softball aside), and apparently we were wrong. But in effect, since Rhoades was an R. Bowen Loftin hire, this brings to an end to the Bowtie chapter in Missouri’s history.

Granted, it does nothing to affect state funding, and it doesn’t wrap duct tape around any of the divides within the alumni or fan base. But Loftin’s tenure as chancellor was a disaster in too many ways to count. And while it’s nerve-wracking to think about a bunch of interims and a less-than-complete board of curators making an important hire, this still brings some odd closure.

For all we know, the next year might include a basketball and softball coaching search. The next AD might not get much more of a breaking-in period than Rhoades did. But the mid-2000s were a down time for Mizzou as well — Quin Snyder’s issues, Gary Pinkel struggling, curators meeting to decide whether or not to fire Mike Alden while Alden was hiring Mike Anderson, Athenagate -- and that time passed.

As hopeless as things seemed in about 2005, Mizzou was No. 1 in the country in football by 2007, and basketball was in the Elite Eight by 2009.

This year felt like it came out of nowhere, and the turnaround might as well. No matter who the athletic director is.

(And yes, I’m reminding myself of this as much as anybody else. It’s been a long year.)