Yesterday Jim Sterk, the Missouri Athletic Director, made the decision to fire his football coach Barry Odom after the Tigers disappointing 6-6 finish to a season which started out with so much promise.
Sterk was hired late in the summer of 2016, months after Barry Odom was named the head coach. Athletic Directors who are hired after football coaches often have tenuous relationships with the previously anointed head man for the major cash cow of the University. For most schools, that’s the football coach. There is no allegiance since they weren’t the decision maker, so the success or failure of said coach never falls on the Athletic Director.
But the thing about college sports is there’s almost always someone to pass the buck to. Mike Alden gets a lot of credit for his time as AD, and most of it comes from his hire of Gary Pinkel. Alden was never able to get the basketball program straightened out, striking out on hires of Quin Snyder, Frank Haith, and Kim Anderson. But he got the football hire right. Which is what counts for most people.
The current AD at Kansas is Jeff Long, who was run out of Arkansas after failing to get the football program fixed. Long took the job at Arkansas and quickly hired Bobby Petrino, which started off pretty well before turning sour in a hurry. He then replaced Petrino with John L. Smith. The Hogs were a preseason top 10 team and finished 4-8, prompting Long to spend a boatload of money to bring successful Wisconsin head coach Brett Bielema to Fayetteville. Long stuck with Bielema as he struggled to right the ship at Arkansas, and the leadership fired Long before removing Bielema.
Then there’s what happened in Tennessee, where John Currie was hired to fix the football program, fired coach Butch Jones, and was run out of town after offering the job to Greg Schiano. Curie’s tenure in Knoxville lasted around eight months.
The examples are countless, administrators move in and move on from a coach who had mild success to put their own stamp and bring in their own guy.
Now it’s Jim Sterk’s time.
Sterk has already put his stamp on the Missouri Basketball program, and most seem pleased with him bringing Cuonzo Martin back to the midwest. The progress under Martin has been notable, but certainly not accelerated. But in Martin, Sterk believes he has the long term fix in place to be able to sustain success at a top 25 level. The margin for error in basketball is larger, however. As long as your team has a run of making the NCAA tournament, you’re pretty safe as a coach. And these days it’s easier and easier for a Power Conference team to live in the soft middle.
But College Football leave programs like Missouri a razor thin margin of error, with successful seasons like 2013 preceded by injury riddled failures of 2012. Missouri followed up their 2013 season with another good one in 2014, only to fall right back in 2015. Missouri isn’t alone either; the SEC is riddled with teams who have most of what they need to succeed but rely on luck to complete the rest.
South Carolina won 9 games two years ago, and they won four games this year— one of them against Georgia, the SEC East Champions. Florida is just two seasons away from winning four games, and Tennessee — with all its resources and fan support — has won double digit games once in the last 15 years.
Nailing your coaching hire can catapult your program into the top 10 in a few years; look at Penn State and Minnesota, or Matt Rhule at Baylor. All these programs have hired coaches in recent years who have built consistent winners in short order. Missing can send it into the abyss.
So by firing Barry Odom after a disappointing year — one which could easily be explained or excused through injury and inconsistency — and just one season removed for an eight win regular season, Sterk is taking full ownership of the program. The next hire is on him.
If - in five or 10 years - we’re looking back on the next few weeks as a major turning point when Missouri took its first steps towards being a regular national contender, then Jim Sterk will have cemented his legacy as Mizzou’s Athletic Director, and be the one who solved the riddle by hiring the right guy at the right time. Or, maybe we’ll be here again in three to five years, deriding a hire gone wrong, setting the program back yet again. Maybe by then Barry Odom will have figured out his flaws after a few more years as a Defensive Coordinator and will be successful in his next head coaching stop.
There’s a world of black, white, and every shade of gray for which things will play out over the next few weeks and into the next several years. But regardless of how it all shakes out, the man responsible for it all will be Jim Sterk, either hailed as hero or the goat.