We’re one week out from Jim Sterk starting his job as the University of Missouri Athletic Director. It’s been a wild month since Rhoades cut and run, and an even wilder year. As Sterk packs his bags and sets his sights on the heart of America, students are preparing to move back to campus and football is just around the corner.
With the 2016-2017 season set to begin and Sterk set to take the helm of Missouri athletics, let’s run down some of the programs Sterk will and won’t have to worry about.
#TigerStyle is in arguably the best position of every Missouri program headed into Sterk’s first year, and Sterk shouldn’t have to do a whole lot to make give a boost in popularity. In the wrestling program, Sterk has the picture of stability in Brian Smith, one of the most successful coaches in Missouri athletics history, a 5-time reigning conference coach of the year, and an 18-year veteran of the university. He also has the star power of J’den Cox, a two-time National Champion and Olympian. Missouri is consistently a powerhouse school in Division I wrestling.
With the growing popularity of Cox – which can only amplify depending on how he fares this week in Rio – Sterk has the opportunity to really start cashing in on one of the school’s best programs, athletically or otherwise.
Another bastion of stability for Sterk is Missouri’s volleyball program, spear-headed by Wayne Kreklow heading into his 16th season. And this year’s team is poised for another 2013-esque run. The Tigers are bringing back 9 upperclassmen, including Carly Kan, a two-time All-SEC team member. It’d be unfair to expect another Top 5 national ranking and undefeated regular season, but a deep run in the NCAA Tournament shouldn’t be out of the question. Should that happen, Sterk will have another successful program in his pocket.
Here is one of Sterk’s trickier challenges as he begins his time at Missouri. Because of the state of men’s basketball, it’s already hard to get people out to Mizzou Arena. But it’s not as if good basketball isn’t being played in Columbia. Robin Pingeton has silently built an electric team that’s easy to get behind.
The team won 22 games last season and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The roster is a deft balance of senior leadership – Lindsey Cunningham, Jordan Frericks, Sierra Michaelis, etc. – and young star power – Cierra Porter and Sophie Cunningham. It’s a team led by local names that Columbia residents should be able to follow with relative ease. And based on last year’s success, it’s easy to see the Tigers taking steps up in the next 2-3 years.
It’ll be up to Pingeton to continue recruiting well and maintaining that success down the road. But Sterk will play a major role by making sure the program gets the support it needs to make Mizzou a destination for young players.
It’s not a big-name sport, but women’s tennis is in a time of transition at a rather inopportune time. With Sasha Schmid leaving in June, the team is currently led by an interim head coach in Colt Gaston. Missouri has some talent. Bea Machado Santos made the NCAA Singles Tournament last season while landing on the All-SEC Second Team. Mackenzy Middlebrooks and Tate Schroeder were talented high school players and valued recruits. The building blocks are there, and Sterk needs to find a coach who can use them to take an under-the-radar program to the next level. Softball-pending, it’s Sterk’s first hiring challenge.
There isn’t a whole lot to say about baseball at this point. Steve Bieser is the new head coach, and he’s got a roster with some next-level talent. Tanner Houck is a consensus First Round pick in next year’s MLB Draft. All Sterk can really do with a new coach he didn’t hire is sit back and wait. If anything, Bieser might have a slightly shorter leash if he can’t have success in the first few years. But that doesn’t seem to be Sterk’s modus operandi based on his track record. This one’s a toss up.
This is like the baseball situation, only magnified. Missouri football has a proud tradition, especially after the final few years of Gary Pinkel’s tenure. Barry Odom is now in place, a popular choice with players and fans alike. Easy enough, right? No problems here for Jim Sterk.
To think that way would be naïve because of the stubbornness of Missouri alumni. Yes, the dust seems to have settled after last fall. But what if it takes a year or two for Odom to really settle in and lead the team to an 8-10 win season that Gary Pinkel seemed to pull out pretty consistently? Will alumni be quick to jump on November 2015 as the downfall of Missouri football? I can hear you laughing and scrolling to click another article. But think about it. Football is transitioning from its winningest coach in program history ending his career in about the most disastrous way possible (for a 5-7 team.) To many, last season was an overwhelming embarrassment. And the easiest way to fix a program’s reputation is to win and win quickly.
Barry Odom has emphasized the #ShowMe brand as a major part of his vision for the program. He’s putting himself on the spot and betting he can get the job done, and done well. It’s a bold approach, but one that could backfire if boosters and fans don’t see the results they expect, fair or unfair.
This is without-a-doubt the biggest question mark headed into Sterk’s time as athletic director. The variety of outcomes is enormous, with each of the two choices – fire Ehren Earleywine/don’t – opening up another world of possibilities. If Earleywine is fired or leaves (unlikely), one of the school’s most successful programs of the past decade, is suddenly in disarray. EE has built a perennial contender, a team that consistently competes for a spot in the WCWS and brings in top level talent. Lose him, and there’s no telling what happens next, though it’d be a stretch at best to expect the same level of success for some time.
If Earleywine does stay, however, does that set a precedent of Sterk’s patience for troublesome figures? It depends on how you view EE’s misdeeds. Is a coach within his or her bounds to be verbally rough on players, sometimes crossing lines that he or she doesn’t want to cross? Is an apology enough?
Are recruits going to be put off by the last few months? Will they see the transfers of Paige Lowary and Tori Finucane and think EE is a risk or will they hear the support of big-name alumni like Chelsea Thomas and Sami Fagan and be up to the challenge of a coach that pushes them?
All of these questions and more can’t be addressed until we know whether or not Earleywine is officially coming back, though the word is he will. Still…
There is far too much to cover, say and consider when it comes to men’s basketball and how Jim Sterk will look to pull this sunken ship from the depths of irrelevance. And many writers on this site could do a far better job of saying it than I. So I’ll keep this brief. Outside of an unexpected season from this team, Kim Anderson is gone after 2016-2017. That can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. But only one person’s opinion really matters: Jim Sterk. He hasn’t been here to see Anderson building to this third year, he only sees the results and the team on the floor. Sterk has been patient with coaches in his past stops, but Missouri basketball can only spin its wheels in a ditch for so long before Sterk has to call in a tow truck. This won’t be Sterk’s hardest task, but’s far from his easiest either. And no one knows how he’ll react to year three of Kim Anderson’s tenure. Again, we have to wait and see.