Slightly more than 610 days have passed since Desiree Reed-Francois was hired to replace Jim Sterk as the Athletic Director at the University of Missouri. Here’s a short list of things that have happened in that time:
- The Tokyo Summer Olympics were played in the late summer of 2021. Remember that? I don’t!
- COVID-19 was fixed and then not fixed and then fixed again, but then Omicron happened and now it’s still not fixed but we’re all OK with it? I don’t know, epidemiology news is tough to track.
- Will Smith hit Chris Rock in the face on live television, and Chris Rock responded in a very non-Chris-Rock way by being completely silent for the better portion of a year.
The point of listing those out is not to imply DRF is somehow responsible for these global events — though can we ever truly prove we’re not all indirectly responsible for anything? — rather to point out the passing of time and how quickly things seem to be moving. Reed-Francois has been with Mizzou for less than two years, but it feels much longer than that.
Maybe it’s because, in her short tenure, DRF has already proven to be an adept culture maker. While the transition hasn’t always been smooth, Mizzou Athletics under DRF has taken a noticeable upturn. Or, at the very least, we’ve all become more aware that maybe things aren’t always so bad.
The top-of-mind issue is, obviously, the revival of Mizzou Basketball, which can be directly traced to Reed-Francois’s work. After moving on from Cuonzo Martin, DRF led the hiring process of Dennis Gates, a move that was met with a collective shrug by large portions of the fanbase. I don’t need to remind you how it’s being talked about now. That one factor alone would’ve been enough to secure her recent contract extension.
But it sort of feels like the overall vibe feels a little rosier, right? Non-revenue sports are humming along: Wrestling continues to be a national powerhouse and All-American factory; gymnastics just wrapped up its second consecutive trip deep into the postseason and brings in a Top 10 recruiting class for 2024; men’s swim and dive finished tied for 16th in the NCAA’s and was ranked No. 23 in the country at season’s end; hell, even the cheer squads and disc golf teams are out here winning nattys!
Not all of this can be directly attributed to DRF and her mission to elevate Mizzou Athletics. But it also doesn’t feel like a coincidence that success has become something of a standard for the athletic department. That’s a far cry from the final years of Jim Sterk’s tenure, fundraising guru that he was. Reed-Francois has been a charismatic, energetic leader for Mizzou, a far cry from the bureaucratic stuffiness that defined the prior decade.
But with fatter paychecks come higher stakes. As Reed-Francois enters her third year at the helm in Columbia, being charismatic won’t be enough. And while elevating non-revenue success and rejuvenating basketball is as good a place to start as any, tougher tasks are looming.
Look no further than the start of the 2023-2024 academic year, when Eli Drinkwitz will lead Mizzou Football onto the field for his fourth season. Drinkwitz, a revenue sport hire that Reed-Francois inherited, has produced a decidedly mixed bag in his time as the Tigers’ head ball coach. The recruiting? Stellar. The energy? Pretty good! The results? I mean... they’re not awful? Mizzou has had its share of moments, but inconsistency and a lack of postseason success has led some to wonder if 2023-2024 might be the make-or-break year for Drink.
Yes, Drinkwitz was extended by Reed-Francois last fall, but the extension came with stipulations that he would move outside his comfort zone and hire an offensive coordinator and (potentially) someone to share the play-calling duties. If you squint hard enough, you could even decipher a world where the extension was mostly for recruiting purposes. After all, no one — not even Drinkwitz — can convince five-star recruits to come play for Missouri if the coach isn’t locked down for the long haul. Will Drinkwitz be around after 2023? Maybe. But DRF will have a call to make if he once again fails to deliver anything beyond a stop-and-start .500 record and another busted bowl performance. A decisive decision could allow her to put her stamp on the program in the same way she did Mizzou Hoops.
The diamond sports have also come under the microscope, and not necessarily for the right reasons. Steve Bieser may have his best team since he arrived at Missouri, but the Tigers are still flirting with the possibility of missing yet another postseason despite their current top-20 RPI. Mizzou isn’t exactly a baseball powerhouse, but there’s enough tradition — and enough famous alumni with deep pockets — that another disappointing finish could give Reed-Francois the capital she needs to move. The SEC’s baseball status is too lofty not to at least put forward a public effort toward improvement.
Would, dare I say it, Larissa Anderson also be under some scrutiny? Softball expectations at Mizzou are sky-high, and Anderson’s team has disappointed thus far in 2023. There’s still plenty of time to turn things around (their schedule lightens up a bit as early as this weekend), and it’s highly unlikely that missing the postseason would be enough to give Anderson walking orders, especially after bringing in former OK State hitting coach Jeff Cottrell. But the Tigers have fielded talented teams for several consecutive years now and have only one super regional and two regional appearances to show for it. The days of knocking on a WCWS feel like a long time ago, even if they are only two years removed.
None of this is even addressing the very public jockeying over Robin Pingeton’s position. Pingeton, who is responsible for bringing in the greatest Mizzou women’s basketball player of all time and having a tremendous amount of success with said player, has failed to deliver anything satisfactory outside of her years with Sophie Cunningham. Not only that, her teams have shown a disturbing penchant for folding under the pressure of February and March. She’ll be back in 2023-2024, but the department’s directives are clear: make the tournament or hit the road. Pingeton offers a lot to a program like Missouri — recruiting chops, blue-collar charisma, a deep connection to local talent — but it’s clearly not enough if she’s also not winning in the postseason.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned about DRF during her short time at Mizzou, it’s how high her standards can be. We were regaled with countless anecdotes about her close personal relationship with Cuonzo Martin, yet it didn’t stop her from paying his steep buyout one calendar year after an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Reed-Francois could have similar decisions coming on the horizon. She’s passed all of her tests thus far. Continuing to do so will undoubtedly be her biggest challenge to date.