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Wren Baker and the draw of the short-term athletic director

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If Mack Rhoades and Mike Alden were peacetime consiglieres, what is a wartime AD?

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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.

* 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.

5 thoughts on Mack Rhoades’ Missouri departure

I do love a good “wartime/peacetime consigliere” reference, and I think it makes sense to use when it comes to talking about athletic directors. I came to realize the other day, however, that I don’t really know what makes a “wartime” athletic director.

When you get your new Athletic Director in the mail, it is programmed to raise money and glad-hand and decide when to fire the football coach. You are judged on your ability to do these things and little else, as evidenced by media reactions to Baylor hiring Rhoades.

As I said before, I wasn’t on the Fire Rhoades train; I wasn’t even on the platform. But I find it pretty revealing that he’s still considered an outstanding get for Baylor even though the only two things he had proven in the last year were a) he’ll stick to the AD script, even when it’s really awkward to do so, and b) when things get awkward, he will disappear for a while.

Then Rhoades receded from view, popping up occasionally to announce the hiring of Barry Odom and to reveal that the basketball team was under NCAA investigation, but mostly avoiding discussions of the big thing that just happened. That approach was sort of understandable, because the protests were polarizing to fans whose donations are the lifeblood of an athletic department. But I think a more galvanizing leader would have been out front, pointing out that Missouri could do better for its black students generally and black athletes specifically but also noting that it is no different than every other school in the nation in that regard.

MU became the flashpoint for athlete activism for several reasons ... but not because this university is more intolerant than the next. It would have been wise for Rhoades to push that reasonable narrative during the winter months as a counterpoint to the unpleasant dueling characterizations of MU as racist hellhole or leaderless asylum.

Still, he’s considered an excellent hire for Baylor because he’s still got a good track record on things that don’t involve race relations or player protests.

But who would be good at handling those things? Who would be good at going, as I mentioned a lot in Thursday’s 5 Thoughts piece, off-script? If Rhoades and Alden were good peacetime consiglieres, what is a wartime AD?

I’ve been struggling to answer that, but a text from a friend the other day offered a little bit of clarity. He mentioned two examples that I felt worked pretty well: Tom Osborne at Nebraska and Jim Hackett at Michigan. It might be that a wartime AD is simply someone who has no reason to worry about the long-term.

Osborne was hired as NU's interim athletic director in 2007 after Steve Pederson was fired. Pederson was run out of town with the football program seemingly spiraling out of control. The athletic department wasn't in miserable shape, but no one had confidence in Pederson, so they leaned on Osborne as simply a guiding hand.

Of course, in what turned out to be a five-year tenure, Osborne had to make a LOT of big decisions. He replaced the football, basketball, and baseball coaches, he played a big role in the city passing a huge arena bill, and he ended up making one of school's biggest decisions ever: joining the Big Ten.

Because he was Tom Osborne, the fan base and boosters gave him the slack to make these big decisions with minimal pushback.

So maybe a wartime consigliere is someone who can basically serve as a dictator for a short period of time? Someone who has the credibility to make these big decisions not because they're proven ADs but because they're beloved figures fans won't question?

That would suggest a Jon Sundvold type, someone who doesn't have the experience to serve in peace time, someone who didn't go to athletic director school, so to speak, but someone fans will listen to when it comes to big decisions.

Then there’s Hackett. In my estimation, he might be the most apt case study.

In October 2014, Michigan AD Dave Brandon resigned. The football program was again crumbling, and Brandon's policies regarding ticket prices and many other things had alienated large swaths of students and donors. He had run the Michigan athletic department like a large business and felt the single biggest part of his job was wringing out the most possible money from the most possible sources. And as gross as that was, he'd have probably been fine if Brady Hoke had been a better head coach.

Hackett, a former Michigan football player and former CEO of Grand Rapids-based Steelcase, was appointed as an interim and served barely 17 months on the job. His term ended this past March. But because he never intended to serve a long tenure, it became like a politician dedicated to serving only one term and not running for reelection: He didn't have to worry about keeping his job -- he just did his job.

By most accounts, he did it well, too. He hired Jim Harbaugh to run the football program, and he spent a lot of his first few months on the job mending fences with students.

Missouri interim AD Wren Baker isn't a former Mizzou football player; in fact, he didn't have any Mizzou ties whatsoever unless you count his two years as AD at Northwest Missouri State (and you probably shouldn't). But he still finds himself in position to have a Hackett-like influence. He can continue pushing forward the broader parts of whatever agenda Rhoades had begun to lay out. Meanwhile, he has clearly already begun to work on shoring up what was clearly Rhoades' biggest weakness: communication. Rhoades was a black box, and Baker has already given more interviews to local media than Rhoades had in months.

Baker can be the best of both worlds because he doesn't have to worry about the long-term. But he's also much, much younger than Hackett; if he does a good enough job in the short-term, he could eventually secure the full-time job.

This might eventually be the preferred option. But I would encourage Mizzou officials to go through a full, extended AD search. If this results in Baker serving as interim AD for a year or more, so be it; the more I think about it, the more I believe that the interim tag can provide cover in a lot of ways. The mail-order ADs are meant to provide long-term vision and buzzwords. Letting the short-term guy clean up the short-term problems first might be preferable.