Immediately following the breaking news where Mizzou Athletic Director Jim Sterk would be stepping down from his post, the reactions were mostly of surprise. I tweeted gifs of shock from the Rock M Nation twitter account as well as my own. It wasn’t expected, but when you let the news simmer for a minute, it’s not all that surprising either.
Jim Sterk’s tenure at Missouri has been uneven. Following the rapid departure of Mack Rhoades in July of 2016, Sterk was lured from San Diego State to take over the choppy waters of a school with its two flagship programs in disarray. Mizzou Football, and the University, were dealing with the aftermath of the 2015 protests on top of the retirement of Gary Pinkel. Rhoades had tapped the team’s Defensive Coordinator Barry Odom to be the next head coach, the roster was weakened, and the image of the program had been dampened by a 5-7 season. Men’s Basketball was floundering after the second season of leadership under Kim Anderson. And on top of all that, the Softball program was dealing with the fallout of the Ehren Earlywine dismissal which seemed to span for a decade but really lasted for several seasons.
Sterk stepped into a department on fire, and did his job of putting the fire out, before lighting a few of his own. He got into a war of words with Dawn Staley, the South Carolina Women’s Basketball coach, which led to a defamation lawsuit and Sterk and the University settling out of court. The decision to start a media campaign aimed at the NCAA and their investigations surrounding a tutoring scandal went about as well as you’d expect. He reportedly battled his inherited head football coach off the field before firing him after a hugely disappointing, albeit bowl eligible, season.
The move was less than a year after Sterk had offered up a contract extension making the firing far more expensive. And while the move has worked out, it’s easy to forget that while Jim Sterk gets the credit for hiring Eli Drinkwitz, it wasn’t his hire.
I wrote about the fallout of Sterk's initial list in a piece that was both loved and hated, but I stand behind the sentiment. And the Board of Curators essentially telling Sterk to take his coaching choice or choices and to start over was the first sign something wasn’t right. The Board is there to basically approve contracts, and while the exact machinations can’t be known without being in the room, Sterk’s choices being outright rejected is nearly unheard of. It was a weird and ugly mess, and when they turned to Drinkwitz, he needed assurances from Sterk’s bosses. Which is also unheard of, but it was required in this case. Members of the board of curators were in the room to close the deal. That’s... not normal.
To be clear here, the early returns on Drinkwitz have been exciting. I’m sure Brandon Kiley can come up with more inspired word play on the program around Drink at the moment; at this point we know he’s having to rewrite his thesaurus to accurately apply as many adjectives as he’s had to use over the last year and a half. But how much credit does Sterk get for Drink?
I’m also probably known as being the biggest Cuonzo Martin apologist in Mizzou media, but at the time I don’t think you would have called the hire inspiring. Martin’s relatively pedestrian post-Missouri State head coaching career left a lot of people wondering, including many here, what his ceiling is. Sterk hired both coaches in the main revenue sports, he was rebuked by his bosses for his initial football choice, and the basketball move has so far failed to inspire.
It’s not all bad....
There were many positives in his time. Sterk oversaw record fundraising, something which is entirely necessary in college athletics these days. And as you may know, I think the hiring of Larissa Anderson has been a home run. He also helped Mizzou Wrestling get back to the Big 12, something which they’ve long desired to do. They started and completed the South End Zone project and are building a high level practice facility for football. He green-lit much needed improvements to Mizzou Arena in the form of revamped locker rooms and an souped-up players lounge.
Sterk has helped Drinkwitz grow the profile of Mizzou Football and has given him the budget adjustments needed to make bigger moves, like hiring experienced and expensive assistant coaches with NFL backgrounds.
It easy to see Sterk was an improvement over Mack Rhoades, who mostly seemed like he wanted on the first train out of Columbia. But I want to point to this tweet I wrote earlier:
With OU and Texas joining the league, things are about to get real for Mizzou Athletics if they want to compete with 8-9 other programs who are serious about winning National Championships. Was anyone convinced Jim Sterk was the guy to lead that charge?— Sam Snelling (@SamTSnelling) July 26, 2021
Sterk was fine at MU. He really was. I’m sure he’d have continued to make progress in helping the Athletics Department improve within the SEC. However things are about to get VERY sticky. Texas and Oklahoma pump serious money into their athletics, and they win... a lot. We like to dunk on Texas being a mostly mediocre College Football Team but you know who ended Stanford’s 25 year run of winning the NACDA Directors Cup?
Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia all finished in the top 10. Since 2000, 14 NCAA College Football Championships will have been from teams in the SEC Conference when OU and Texas becomes official.
Mizzou made the right decision by aligning themselves with the SEC in 2011, but things are about to be all that more challenging for an Athletics Department who has always been asked to do more with less when there are six College Football teams in your own conference who have won a National Title since 2000.
I don’t know if Sterk was the right guy for the job moving forward, but he certainly had not convinced me he was. Now Missouri has a real opportunity to land the kind of AD who can energize the Department the same was Eli Drinkwitz has energized the football side of things. One that can keep the donation trajectory moving upward, but also make sure that each and every coach in charge of each and every program has every thing they could possibly need to win at a high level at their disposal.
As Drink has said multiple times, we need everyone pulling all in the same direction.