March 17th, 2011.
It was the end of a 23-11 season that saw a team go 14-1 in non-conference play, win the Cancun Challenge, and make the NCAA Tournament as an 11 seed. The rumors were in full swing once that buzzer sounded at Verizon Center in Washington D.C. that evening, following a 15-point loss to Cincinnati.
It's hard to look back on that season and know we were 22-6, 8-5 in Big XII play, but lost five of six to end the season. There was a lot of unhappiness following the completion of the season, both from players and coaches. The year was a success in that we made the tournament, and won 23 games. Did we have the potential to win a few more, and maybe advance farther? Sure. Every team that gets knocked out of the NCAA tournament can look at the what-ifs of their season. What if we were able to close out wins at Kansas State and at Nebraska (who always had our number), or avoid the crushing OT loss at Sprint Center vs. Georgetown (in a game that combined for 213 points)?
As we took off from Dulles International the next morning, I can honestly tell you that I thought we were going to have Mike Anderson as our head coach my senior year. There wasn't a doubt in my mind, even though I knew that John Pelphrey had been fired from Arkansas. I knew Coach A had a history in Fayetteville with his mentor Nolan Richardson, where he was an assistant for 17 years. When we landed in Columbia that afternoon, I caught the first sniff of what was, at that point, speculation. I received a text, saw a tweet, and my heart sank a bit. Coach Anderson was my guy, he gave me my opportunity, I respected the staff in how loyal they were to one another, and truly loved being a part of the family, as he called it. I did feel a part of a family, and felt that's why Coach brought us all together. We enjoyed one another, we enjoyed the coaches and their families, and we were all very close.
As we pulled up to Mizzou Arena, and met for a few minutes in the locker room as a team, I still didn't feel worried. I did think that Mike Anderson would be atop the list of candidates at Arkansas, but I knew that Coach understood that he had finally built his program to where he wanted it at Missouri. He did not have a verbal commitment with Otto Porter, but we all believed Porter was coming to Mizzou to play for Coach Anderson. He had put Missouri in the tournament for the third consecutive year, had talent in the state considering the "Fastest 40", and had what would be four 1,000-point scorers on his team returning. Mike Anderson was respected, and loved, by many in Columbia. He won 111 games in five years, and never had a losing season at Missouri (he's one of just nine coaches to have 10+ years of experience with no losing seasons).
Now comes the hard part, the part that took a while to move on from. I can only speak for myself, but hearing Coach Anderson say the words to the team "I'm leaving" was a hard pill to swallow. It was surreal, I really didn't think it was happening, and it felt like a father figure was leaving us behind. It wasn't just Coach Anderson either, it was his entire staff and their families. For three years, no coach left. Melvin Watkins, TJ Cleveland, Matt Zimmerman, Jeff Daniels, David Deets, Will Bartlett, and Chris Sartorius. We knew these guys were going with Coach Anderson. That dug the knife deeper.
These guys were a huge part of our success for three years. They were family, and their loved ones were a part of us too. To see their emotion when leaving, and to feel it myself, was one of the harder days of my four years at Missouri. Do I have any hard feelings towards Mike Anderson for leaving? No way. He did what he had to do for his family, for his staff, and he was going home. It's the reality of the business. There is no book out there for a coach that says, "This is how you leave a school." For Coach, I'm sure he was trying to make this as painless as possible on us. It was like a break up. He knew some of us would be hurt, but he knew that he had to make the break and go. It wasn't going to be pretty, and he knew he had to make his decision and move forward.
"Reconcile by winning"
Then came the "reconcile by winning" press conference, a memorable one, because it set the tone of the future. I'm glad Marcus, Kim, and Laurence were able to be a part of it with Mike Alden. Those three made it very clear that we were ready to move on, we were ready to focus on the next year, and we wanted to start immediately. We had something to prove. We wanted to go out on a great note our last year as a class, and this was going to be about us fighting together as a team. It wasn't going to be about anything else. We wanted to win, we wanted to buy into a coach, and we felt we had the weapons to be a great team.
What transpired afterwards I'll never forget. It was a few weeks of uncertainty, of worry, and the unknown of what our senior year would be. The greatest thing that took place was in the locker room a few minutes after Mike Anderson left. Mike Alden stepped in, along with Gary Link, who told us what next steps would be. They consoled us and described to us what their timeline was. Marcus Denmon set the tone right after Alden spoke with us. He said, "no matter what coach we get, we all have to stick together." Several players echoed the same sentiment, including Phil Pressey, who I thought might consider leaving at the time.
I commend Mike Alden and Gary Pinkel for the job they did during the transition. Coach Pinkel invited us to workout with the football strength coaches so we could start our off-season training program. I remember him coming to our workout and shaking our hands, asking how we were doing. That meant a lot, to all of us. Mike Alden kept us in the loop on the coaching search on where they were at in the weeks that followed. To not have a leader, to not have a coach, and to only just have you and your teammates was different. We didn't have to be at a workout, we didn't have a team meeting, and we didn't have to check in at the office. No one was there, or the move out of their offices was taking place.
April 4th, 2011.
The Frank Haith era began. The night of April 3rd was when we were notified, and I remember a lot of us wondering what this would bring to our program we had built. How would a new coach fit in with all of us? Would we get a long with the new staff? Were players considering leaving following the hire?
Coach Haith entered our locker room, only having conversations with Kim English and Justin Safford, who he recruited back in the day. Coach Haith won us over that first day. He was outgoing, he was personable, and he greeted each and every one of us. He said, "I'm about relationships." I think that hit with us. Each one of us developed a great relationship with Coach Haith in his first year, a majority of us in our last year.
It took a while to really feel comfortable. We started individual workouts, and our new staff was brought in. The weight sessions were where we started to feel comfortable. Todor Pandov, our Strength and Conditioning coach, was fantastic. All of us got better that off-season. We put on muscle, we got in great shape, we had great agility workouts on the floor, and we worked a lot with Coach Haith in slowly implementing his system.
It was a work in progress all spring, all summer, and all the way into fall practice. By the time our first game tipped, we were officially ready. We still didn't know what we'd be, we knew that our fans were keeping us at arms distance, and we knew that it was about us. We always said, "We all we got," and it couldn't have been more true. What was great about the 2011-12 season was from the beginning of the year, to the end of the year, we never wavered in one another. The entire country was behind us by the end of the season, including President Obama in his Barack-etology. It didn't matter, we still knew it was only about us.
Coaching changes are hard. They are not easy, on anyone. They are a part of the business, and they are a part of sports. The key is how you respond in the face of adversity, of challenge, and when your back is against the wall. We stuck together, and we prospered. It is what I hope our current Tigers will find in themselves. When you stick together, when you believe in each other, and when you work as hard as ever to prove to everyone who you are, you will then know what it feels like to win at a high level.