Tim Fuller spent the last four seasons working for Missouri’s basketball staff. He was a witness to and a participant in the entire Frank Haith era, and he spent the first year of Kim Anderson’s tenure on the bench next to Anderson. Three years ago he was ranked as the No. 3 top assistant under 40 years old. In March, Mizzou and Coach Fuller parted ways.
Shortly after the news leaked out that Fuller wasn’t going to return to Missouri next season, I reached out to him to see if he was interested in telling his story of his time at Mizzou. He accepted the invitation.
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Sam Snelling: Four years ago, you were in a really good position working on a Hall of Fame coaches staff in Rick Pitino at Louisville. When you decided to take the job at Missouri to join Frank Haith, what went into that? You were leaving a place that was very well established and was likely to remain established to move on to Mizzou.
Tim Fuller: That time was a difficult period because I had left a career at Nike, where I was on the rise within pro basketball. Nike had been very supportive of my growth and they had given me a great opportunity and platform to develop my brand. When Rick Pitino called, I had just gotten back from China with one of our pro athletes, and he had gotten my name and number from Ed Cooley. He he wanted an experienced high-level recruiter. My first thought was "Why are you calling me?" I talked to Ed, and we talked about what he told Pitino I was capable of. It was just an honor to get a call from someone like Rick Pitino.
At the time I was married with three children, and Coach Pitino was offering me a pretty steep income increase over what I was making at Nike. So when I made that decision to go to Louisville, most of it was because of what I thought I could do for my family.
When I got there, Coach Pitino exposed me to basketball at an entirely different level -- the energy, the attention to detail, and the passion with which he drives a team. It really showed me what it was to maximize the potential in each and every player that you have on your team, from the top player to the thirteenth man. And it revitalized all the reasons why I wanted to coach, because I had the opportunity to maximize people.
So fast forward, at the end of the season I get a call from Frank Haith. He’s at the Final Four, and he’s meeting with Missouri. He's talking to them about their head coaching job. At the time I was just thinking, for my friend, good for you. I know things hadn’t been as good as he’d hoped at Miami. But the platform that Mizzou had with a big time spotlight and the Big 12, I thought he should be able to do some great things. That was pretty much to extent of the conversation. I went on recruiting for Louisville, solidifying some of the recruits that we had on deck and retaining some guys that were thinking about transferring, and just going about my day. Frank gets the Mizzou job, I watched the press conference and I sent him a congratulations text.
Then at the time we had a senior who had another year or eligibility from Kansas City [George Goode], so I said hey this is a kid who could help your program why don’t you come take a look, so Frank came down to Louisville, they got the release and they met with the kid, and he ended up committing and then later decommitting to Missouri. Frank mentioned to me that he was looking to fill out his staff. He asked who I thought would be a good assistant, and I threw out some names to him, but I was focused on Louisville. As he went through the process I learned that Missouri told him he couldn’t bring his former staff with him, which gave me a little bit of concern because I knew he had been working with those guys for a long time, particularly Jorge Fernandez, who is a really good friend of mine.
What was he going to do? And I remember vividly, I was coming back from a recruiting trip and I came into the kitchen, and his wife was on the phone with my now ex-wife, she was talking about how Frank had talked to Missouri during the interview process about Tim Fuller and how he would be able to hire a high level assistant coach. So I said, let me talk to Frank, see what’s going on. I called him, and he said, "I know you have things going at Louisville, but I want you to come be a part of my staff."
I told him, "I just got here to Louisville, I’m working with Rick Pitino, we had just signed a couple of McDonald’s All Americans, we’re going to be really good. But you know that you’re my guy, you’ve always been a mentor to me from the time I was 19 years old, so if there’s anything I can do to help you, then I’ll do it."
I hung up the phone, sat back for a while and thought about it. I prayed for a bit, but it came down to loyalty. I know I got criticized at Louisville for leaving, and people were saying that I wasn’t loyal. But I felt like I owed Frank Haith because he had given me a jump start on my career. When I went to coach at Elon University, he was the guy who helped me get that job, and every step of the way he had been a mentor to me in this profession.
So I kind of realized that he was in a dangerous place -- not having any assistants, having to fill out a roster -- so I just jumped all in. Without even coming to visit the place, without talking to anybody there, I just said to Frank, "You need me? I’m going to be there for you."
So it was more about trust in a friend?
Absolutely, it wasn’t necessarily the best basketball opportunity, and it probably wasn’t the best coaching opportunity for me. I mean, obviously, staying at Louisville, with Final Fours and national championships they’ve had a chance to experience, and the kids whose parents I had to convince to trust me. That was the situation that was probably best for me. But I decided to do what was best for Frank Haith, regardless of Missouri. If Frank would have been coaching at Baptist Hallway, I still would have made the decision to join him because he was a friend who was in need.
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When you and Coach Haith had a chance to take a look at the roster, you obviously saw it was very top heavy with some great senior leadership and only a couple underclassmen sprinkled in. What was the plan to go about sustaining the level of play? What did you guys see as the best path forward?
The first thing we had to do was assure the current players and current personnel that we were going to play a style that they could flourish in. We had several guys that were on the verge of defecting, either leaving for the NBA Draft or transferring.
That’s right, both Kim [English] and Laurence [Bowers] had submitted their names to the NBA Draft advisory committee.
Right, so we had to talk to them through that process, and we had Phil Pressey and Ricky Kreklow, who weren’t sure if they wanted to remain here. Kreklow felt that there was some bad chemistry before, and Phil Pressey says, "Hey, once these six or seven seniors leave, I’m going to be left with Mike Dixon and Kadeem Green. Why would I stay here and play this year and jeopardize not having a good team to play with my junior and senior year? I could go somewhere and sit out and then have a good junior year at another place."
That’s what led us to trying to get transfers right away. Because the class was so top-heavy, Frank wanted to balance things out and find as many guys as we could that were high quality, so we could demonstrate to Phil Pressey, "Hey, listen, these are guys we’re bringing in. So you see them, you’ll know you’ll have a couple guys to play with, and then you’ll have to trust us in the recruiting." Keion Bell and Earnest Ross were two guys who were leaving their other situations, and we brought them in for visits right away, so Phil could see we’re out here working. "We’re going to put some guys in front of you, but we’re also going to have some highly talented wings in the backcourt."
So you get Mike Dixon, Phil Pressey, Keion Bell and Earnest Ross and that gives you a solid core to kind of move forward off of. And Phil bought into that, and the rest of the guys bought into the fact that Frank Haith was going to play up-tempo with a spread, ball-screen offense. Something everybody would get a chance to work off of. A pro-style offense. That’s what our mindset was when we first sat down here at Missouri.
So then you have a chance to bring in Jabari Brown.
So as we went through the year, and we’re obviously doing well, we’re winning game after game. Jabari Brown decides to leave Oregon. With a lot of Nike connections, I was able to get to his contacts back in Oakland, which led me to his parents. They decided they would come in a take a look at the opportunity we had available.
I was able to sit down and show Jabari Brown exactly how Marcus Denmon was flourishing in our system and how it could make sense for him. And they were pretty much, if not identical, very similar type players. Both 6-4, rangy athletes that could really score the ball. So that’s what kind of locked him in with that.
What was your relationship like with Jabari?
It’s funny because he visited us, and he was just a disgruntled individual. Jabari had these, I don’t know if they were dreads, or braids or whatever they were, but they would hang down over his face and he was kind of mad all the time and he wore hoods. I told him, "Man, you gotta lighten up. You’ve got a nice smile..." and he just didn’t want any part of it. "I just wanna play basketball. I just wanna play basketball and go to the league."
So he visited us and committed to us, and I wanna say it was like January 5th, and we had a blizzard. I mean it was just snow for days.
And he’s from Oakland, too, not used to that.
Yeah, and he’s never seen this stuff before. He says to me, "Man, I’m out of here." He literally went to Coach Haith and said, "I made a mistake, I don’t want this, I’m not going to be here." I think I might have missed three or four practices just sitting with Jabari up in his dorm room, just talking to him.
Did you get any indication what wasn’t working for him at Oregon?
He just said the playing style wasn’t something he felt was going to put him in position to be a pro. And he had that destination all over his heart -- he wanted to be a pro. He and Dana Altman just weren’t seeing eye to eye, and the guy that he went there for was the assistant, Tony Stubblefield, and the first month [Brown] got there, he was gone the whole month of September recruiting. And he just felt like he didn’t have anybody to relate to or bond with or things like that.
He was struggling big-time, to the point where Coach Haith was like, let him go back home and find somebody else. I was thinking, I can’t let this kid leave here, in this state, because he’s hurting right now. He just needs somebody who is going to care about him as a person. So we spent a lot of time just talking about life, and I think one of the things that helped him over the hump was that we put him with Dr. [Rick] McGuire, our sports psychologist.
Dr. McGuire said, "Tim, you get out here with these players, and you’re used to dealing with them, and they’re these physical specimens, and they’re elite level athletes, so that’s how you view them. Right now, you need to view him as just this 18-year old kid who is unsure of himself. He needs somebody to put their arm around him." And when I started thinking about Jabari like that, I think I became way more sensitive to his situation. I started speaking to him way differently. Dr. McGuire made it so we could understand where Jabari was coming from and have some sensitivity towards him and some of the things that he needed.
Also, if Jabari leaves Mizzou, there is going to be a stigma about him that’s he’s transferred twice now. It’s maybe easier to take a guy once, but it gets a lot tougher to take a guy twice.
Yeah, I think he had some people back on the West Coast that were pulling at him. I think there were a couple schools back there that were like "Whoa, wait a minute, don’t do that Mizzou thing yet." He looked at us, Georgia Tech, and I think UConn and pulled the trigger on us. I think it was more people were clouding his mind and his judgment. If you asked him today if he were happy with the decision, I think he’d say he wished he came here out of high school.
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An obviously successful first year finished with a bit of a bitter finish. Care to comment on the Norfolk State game?
What I would say is… Kim English, I don’t know if he’ll admit this, but he’s the one who shared it with me. He came out of that Big 12 tournament as the most outstanding player. On the bench during that Norfolk State game we’re looking as coaches like, "Guys, snap out of it. Where are you at? Come back, where are you at? Let’s go!" We had some inner turmoil on the bench during that game where we didn’t necessarily show Norfolk State the respect that we should have as a program. And guys kind of went out and said, "I’m gonna get mine." We weren’t the team that was sharing the ball, we weren’t the team that was committed to defending. Our guys, as a team, weren’t committed to boxing out and rebounding. You know, doing the little things that we did all year long. Until it got late, then Norfolk State has confidence and it was just like, what are you going to do? And we had no idea until we got to the locker room that some of that stuff was going on during the game!
I vividly remember Kim on the bench during the game saying, "Guys, come on, let’s get back to doing it how we got here. Move the ball, they can’t guard us if we move the ball." And if you go back and look at that game, there were several times where we were forcing shots and doing things that were out of character for our team. And I attribute that to why that game happened the way it did.
After the 2012 season wrapped up, you had a chance to bring in another transfer in Alex Oriakhi.
With Alex, once UConn went through their APR issues, we were able to lean on the relationship that Phil Pressey had with Oriakhi from their days from playing with the BABC & EYBL team. That pulled in Alex Oriakhi. And that class, you know, with Laurence Bowers coming back from the knee injury, that class gave us what many have said was the best class of transfers ever assembled. And it took a lot of work. It took a lot of creativity, but that was the mindset for us with how we could sustain and continue to get to NCAA tournaments. That was our goal.
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Heading into 2013, what about the freshman recruiting class from that year: Ryan Rosburg, Negus Webster-Chan, Stefan Jankovic and Dominique Bull?
Given the circumstances of when we first took the job, you know, we had our eyes on guys like the Ishmail Wainwrights of the world, the Rodney Purvises of the world. Those were top-50 players.
When Nevin Shapiro’s accusations came out, it totally sent everything spinning out for myself and Isaac Chew. We had spent four months building relationships with guys that wouldn’t even take our calls anymore. So we went scrambling come September to pull the best bodies we could pull. And had I known that we were going to pull in a Jabari Brown that December, then I probably wouldn’t have taken another shooting guard.
Literally, I’m looking at a team with Phil Pressey and Mike Dixon as our only two guys [because Ricky Kreklow had transferred, and Kadeem Green was soon to follow] … and this is when I’m making decisions about who we’re going to recruit. Those are the only two guys who can really play. So now you’re going to get Keion Bell, you add to that Earnest Ross. So with those four, we were going to be pretty solid at our one, two, and three, rotating them 25 minutes a game. The four and five? I had no answer for them.
So you get a Dominique Bull as a freshman, and a Stefan Jankovic who is 6’11 and can shoot the cover off the ball, and you figure, alright, Dominique Bull is a tough, hard-nosed kid who was great friends with Phil Pressey. This is going to make Phil feel good if we bring one of his guys in, and then Stefan, who is very good friends with Negus, and now this cements Negus’ situation. And we go from there.
Do I think those guys were capable of playing at this level? Yes … but down the line. Negus would have been a good player for us as a sophomore and junior. He showed signs early that he was capable and ready, and he got into that Illinois game in St. Louis, and the pressure and intensity of that environment just kind of shook him all up. He got his confidence rattled, and he wasn’t the same player. Stefan Jankovic? I begged Frank to redshirt him. I begged him because I knew he wasn’t going to see a lot of minutes, when you’re dealing with Laurence Bowers at the four, and we were also playing Earnest Ross at the four. So I begged him throughout the course of the preseason. But then he had a great exhibition game, I think he might have scored like 17 points or something like that, and then everybody was raving. I said that he’s not going to be able to do that every single night until he gets stronger. Because I knew the kid.
So by the time we got to his sophomore year, and Negus had already left, it was only a matter of time before he left.
So it worked, year one, and you guys kind of had a bit of an up-and-down second year. Do you think the role of the transfer -- maybe the difficulty of not having continuity and not having high school players -- had an effect?
No, I think that one of the things that was a challenge to us was that we were a team that had gotten accustomed to the Big 12 style of play, the physicality of the league and how everything went in the Big 12. We went to the SEC, which was a way more athletic league and different atmospheres, environments and officials. I felt like that contributed as much to the up-and-down as anything else. It wasn’t as much as the transfers, it was the adjustment that we as coaches were making to the league and different styles of play.
The SEC, at least from my standpoint, does seem to play quite a bit more physical style of defense than what Mizzou was used to in the Big 12.
Yes, and it’s way more athletic and pressurized. And the teams that aren’t as good, or aren’t as talented, can really impact the game in a variety of ways that we weren’t prepared for because we just had one point guard.
No one talks about the fact that we lost Mike Dixon in September or October, right? So a lot of the ups and downs was Phil Pressey playing 38 minutes a night, and not having a legitimate backup point guard because we didn’t recruit one. We had the sixth man of the year in the Big 12 the year before coming in and a preseason All-American as as our point guards.
So if you go back and look at that year, Jabari Brown had good numbers when he played, Keion Bell was a double-figure scorer, Earnest Ross was a double-figure scorer, Alex Oriakhi double-figure scorer. Laurence Bowers dinged his knee up and had to sit five or six games, and during those five or six games there was a bit of an uphill battle for us. But the single biggest thing we were missing was, we didn’t have a backup point guard. You didn’t have somebody else who could come in and spell Phil and keep him at his optimum level.
I would attribute half of our losses to us not having that dynamic duo that we depended on so much the year before.
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And another disappointing finish to the season, particularly in the NCAA tournament.
Man, against Colorado State, I would just say that Larry Eustachy did a phenomenal job of having his team ready to play. He had an experienced roster, and he did a phenomenal job of having his team ready to expose all of our weaknesses. We weren’t sound defensively, we gambled a ton, everything we did offensively started with a ball screen, and they took all of that away from us. And then he had a big man inside that just dominated the game, and his guards were just playing with fire under them.
I think we kind of fell into the NCAA tournament, and where they were like leaping into the NCAA tournament. And we just got outcoached and outplayed. There’s nothing more to it than that.
At that point, a bit of a disappointing finish with the early exit, then losing Phil Pressey, losing the seniors -- Bell, Bowers, Oriakhi. But you’re also losing a highly touted freshman in Negus Webster-Chan, and then you really only have two reliable guys off the bench. How was the struggle to piece together a roster when you do supplement with transfers and you see the freshmen you were recruiting either transferring or not panning out?
Again, when Nevin Shapiro made his allegations against Frank Haith that August, our first year here, all recruiting went to… heck. Literally, like the guys we were recruiting, the McDonald’s All-Americans that we were involved with, that had already been to campus and we were scheduled to be in their homes right away, they all bailed. A lot of it had to do with the things the media wrote, about how there’s no way Frank Haith can survive this, he’s going to get fired and this, that and the other. We just had to put our heads down and say, well, you know what? We gotta bring some guys in because we can’t rely on just the couple transfers that we’ve brought in.
Negus was already somebody that I had recruited at Louisville, I had a good relationship with him, and at one point he was a top-100 player nationally, and he came from a very good program in Huntington Prep. The rest of those guys were all backups once we couldn’t get the key guys we wanted.
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The 2013 season, you guys obviously lose Phil Pressey and probably didn’t have the depth that you wanted, particularly at the point guard position. Two future pros on the roster in Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown, but with a team that didn’t have the depth or a post presence, you had to really rely on Johnathan Williams III and Ryan Rosburg, who did what they could. But you’re talking about a freshman and a sophomore and maybe a couple guys that just weren’t ready for the amount of minutes that they were going to be forced to play.
Do you think that not having a post presence was one of the main reasons that caused the team to sort of flatline late in the season?
Obviously we were fortunate that we inherited Ricardo Ratliffe, carried over Laurence Bowers, and brought in Alex Oriakhi, and even Steve Moore, we were used to having a significant presence down there on the block. I would say that Johnathan Williams III’s inexperience, combined with Ryan Rosburg, who is a guy I feel would have been great in the Big 12, but he struggles in the SEC with the athleticism and length. We definitely were challenged in that area, but the thing that hurt us the most was the exit of Phil Pressey.
I mean, there aren’t a lot of programs that can recover from guys leaving early to the draft, especially with a guy who was so much of our offensive attack. We covered that up early. It was Jordan Clarkson’s first year playing point guard. We were counting on him being a wing the majority of the time, to score. And then being able to slide right over and play some backup minutes at the point. That was our original plan of attack. But I think he did a good job, as best as he could at that role of a full time point guard.
We were just like five or six possessions away from getting to the NCAA tournament that year. We were bubble, bubble, bubble, bubble, you know, last-four-in the whole year until going to to Tennessee in the last game of the season and just getting blown out. It really just took the wind out of our sails
And we didn’t really talk about it publicly, but we had two kids whose parents were dealing with terminal illnesses. One was in the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, the other was bedridden in his home in Oakland. We, literally, were just trying to keep those two young men from emotionally falling apart. And they’re giving their heart and soul to Missouri basketball and they’re on the verge of losing the most important male figures in their lives. It was a challenging moment for us all.
Not going to the NCAA tournament wasn’t as big of a deal to me that year because when I learned that they had gotten all the cancer out of, or the tumor out of the spine of Jordan Clarkson’s father [it was of far greater significance].
And then, you know, you lose both of them to the NBA, and you lose Earnest Ross? I knew that coming back the next year was going to be a challenge, for sure. Anytime you’re at a school like Missouri where you don’t have pros coming in, but you’ve got good players you’ve gotta develop? When you lose guys early to the NBA, especially in back to back years, man, it’s hard to replace.
Jordan Clarkson is somebody else I think you have a pretty close relationship with. What went into the situation of Jordan coming to Mizzou?
Jordan is amazing. When the news came that he was coming, or the news that Doug Wojcik was leaving Tulsa and Danny Manning was coming in. I think it was us, Arizona and Illinois for Jordan Clarkson, and to have the opportunity to recruit a guy away from a Jayhawk and beat out Arizona and Illinois for an elite level guy was great [laughs], but I didn’t know Jordan was going to be as special as he was.
He was more of a two than he was a one. He came into a situation where we couldn’t really see him and work with him and things like that, so just watching film on him we never got the feel for the level at which he could explode up and the pop he had, and his feel for the game, his handle, his IQ ... you couldn’t see all that stuff. But the moment he got into team workouts when we got back in June, I started watching him go head-on with Phil Pressey. I thought, "Holy Cow, this dude right here … man, we got us one."
I remember going out to speak in Warrenton at a golf outing, and I said to these guys there, "This is going to be a good team, we’re going to fight this year, we’re going to play hard. We’ve got Jabari Brown, Mike Dixon, Alex Oriakhi, but our best player is one that you’ll have to wait a year to see. Jordan Clarkson, he’s special." And everybody looked at me and said, "How are you going to talk about this kid and he’s a year away?" And I said "I’m telling you, he possesses things that I’ve haven’t seen since I was around Chris Paul."
It’s just that killer instinct, that go-hard-or-go-home mentality, and you get on the court with him and there’s nothing you can throw at him that he can’t do. You can say, "Jordan, I want you to go between the legs, step back, hesitate, one dribble, two steps, take off and power dunk." "Which hand do you want me to do it with, coach?" That’s his response. And he would go and do every bit of it. Everything you could throw out there he could do.
That’s why I knew, when he went in the second round, that the Lakers were getting a steal. I think he’s the next best thing to Russell Westbrook. And I think he’s starting to show people that now.
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Coming down the stretch this year he’s played about as well as any rookie.
And we knew that, and I would take the blame as coaches -- we didn’t put him in position enough to turn him loose in our system. Jordan Clarkson is a guy that didn’t need a ball screen to go make a play. We went with our spread ball-screen system, which is the same thing that we did with Phil Pressey. But Phil needed that ball screen to get the separation to get down the lane and stuff. Jordan Clarkson, there was not one player in the SEC who could stay in front of him. You saw it night in and night out, when we went against the other top teams in the league, their backcourt had no answer for our backcourt. Our backcourt that year was the best backcourt in the SEC, hands down. We just didn’t have a frontcourt to go along with them. And it was special now that you’re able to see those two guys playing on the Lakers because of what they were doing here at Mizzou.
Even Jordan and Jabari, as good as they were couldn’t save you from another disappointing finish to the season.
You know last year, I literally can go back and count the possessions on one hand that cost us an NCAA Tournament berth. And once we went to the NIT, you know, Jabari and Jordan were dealing with all the stuff with their fathers, they were ready for the season to be over. We got them a little revved up to play when Davidson came in, but then Southern Miss rolls in with 2,000 people in the building, and they were like, "we’re out of here." Wes Clark and Shane Rector got suspended. So, that was tough.
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Last offseason obviously was a roller coaster. Let’s start with the movement of Coach Haith, in taking the job at Tulsa, taking the whole staff with him except for you. When he told you that he was taking that job, what were your initial feelings in reacting to that?
Initially I was excited for him because of what we had been through. When they hired him, he was second to Painter at Purdue, people were expecting Painter and they got Haith and they weren’t all that excited about it. Then he won the 30 games in year one, and people got more excited, but we lost to Norfolk State, so it’s like the jury’s still out -- was this the right move to make or not? Then you had another Shapiro accusation that took all the winds out of the sails.
I think he was looking for stability. He had mentioned to me, "We’ve gotta be good through year three. Get us through year three and recruiting, then we’ll be able to get an extension and be here long term." After year three was over, the extension wasn’t being offered. When he got back from a recruitment trip in Australia, he called me and said "My attorney has been talking to some people out there, Tulsa might be interested in me." He wanted to know my thoughts. I knew Jordan Clarkson came from there, but I didn’t know much about it. But if they were going to give him something long-term, and some stability, then it was the move to make. There was not that much stability here.
At that point, I was still under a two-year contract with University of Missouri that, in order to get a release from it, I had to have the chancellor, the AD, and the head coach sign off on it. At the time, he was over pursuing the Tulsa job, I was in deep talks with Florida A&M. If things were going to stay the same, then I was going to go to Florida A&M because I knew I’d get my release from Frank, and I was going on to be a head coach.
I had a four-year deal on the table, and I was going to take it. When he left, the day after the banquet, we were in a meeting with the team. The guys all looked at me and said "Coach, you’re the one that brought us here, are you leaving us, too?" I looked at the players on the team -- Johnathan Williams, Wes Clark, Deuce Bello. As I looked at those guys, I felt a heart tug. How would I feel if I were in their shoes, and all the people that brought me here just up and left? I know that happens in college basketball, but I’m just four years back in to the high majors, so I’m not used to that. I went back and talked to my agent about things. He said, "With Frank leaving, if the AD doesn’t release you from your contract, you have to pay the university whatever is left remaining." I had close to $50-60K I was going to have to pay. I didn’t want to do that.
I talked to Kellen Winslow down at Florida A&M and told him what I had going on. He said, "I’ll hold off as long as I can, but I gotta move forward if I’m not sure I’m getting you." Because we had already talked press conference date and everything. I told him to give me a week to sort through this.
By the time that things were being finalized for Kim Anderson, the same opportunity wasn’t available for me at Florida A&M. My deal was to try and keep all the kids together and give the new coach a platform to build off of. In doing so, I had forfeited a head coaching opportunity. My agent advised I just stick there at Missouri and make it the best I can. So that’s what I decided to do: stay here, try to link in with everybody, and help the transition to make it something that’s hopefully good for all parties.
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Some of the main reasons for you to stick around, then, were players, and some circumstances maybe beyond your control…
It was first and foremost the players. Every kid we recruited, until the Miami situation was resolved, other coaches in the industry told them, "Don’t go there, the coaches are going to get fired." So there was an unbelievable amount of trust built with all the kids who signed up until the ruling came out before we started that season.
So even Jakeenan Gant’s class, with Namon Wright, there were schools telling them, "Don’t go there, the coaches aren’t going to be there, they’re going to get fired." So we built up this trust and this commitment that, no, we promise you we’re going to be here for you. And parents are counting on us to be mentors to their sons. So it wasn’t your normal recruiting because in order to come to Missouri, each one of those kids took a huge leap of faith in us, that we were going to be there.
I felt a certain heart tug to not abandon them. And even in the midst of feeling that heart tug, I wanted to at least help them through the transition period and land in a good spot and be around the program when the new person came in, even if I was going to continue on to the head coaching opportunity after that. I probably could have paid the $60,000 or whatever. I didn’t really want to, but beyond that, I didn’t want the kids to be hurt.
I’d like to ask you a little about Zach Price, since that was a big point of contention during that offseason as well. Did you recruit Zach to Louisville?
I assisted with bringing Zach into Louisville. After looking at our team and losing the guys we were losing inside [at Mizzou], I thought that we better go get a rim protector. Because we’re not going to have anybody that can really score for us offensively. Just from a playing standpoint we had to have some bodies that could compete every single night. At 6’11, a proven shot-blocker, he had been a part of a winning program, so we took a chance on Price. And we always say that if you’re going to make a mistake, make a mistake on a big. And I’m not saying that Zach Price was a mistake on the court, there were the domestic issues that went on with he and Earnest Ross that, if I had the chance to do it again, I would have handled way differently.
Were there any signs that he was struggling to adapt to life off the court?
Zach stayed to himself, he was self-sufficient. He cooked his own meals, you know, he did everything that you would ask a transfer to do. It was one collision that between him and a teammate that got escalated and got a little blown out of proportion.
He and Earnest Ross were reportedly really close off the court.
They were to the point where they became roommates. They got into a 72-hour heated argument, and it exploded into that. Given those circumstances at the time, I’ll know how to handle it now moving forward. You just have to learn from it.
How familiar were you with Kim Anderson?
Well I remember in year one, when Frank was kind of going through the turmoil, there were rumblings that "Kim Anderson should be the coach, not Frank Haith." I remember certain fans were saying stuff like that, right? I really didn’t know much about that, I didn’t know much about Central Missouri. When we play a Division II team, an exhibition game is an exhibition game… we don’t really do any scouting or research or anything like that. I had never seen Kim Anderson coach a game or ever seen a Kim Anderson Central Missouri team playing other Division II teams. And I had no familiarity with his style of play.
The initial meeting was me telling him what we had, what we had coming in, and what some of the challenges there would be. And him getting a chance to get to know them. We didn’t talk about he and I until about four or five days later. I more or less wanted to help him make the transition and help these guys. Again, my initial mindset was to help them meet their new dad, and then I would slide on out. So I didn’t betray the players, they had a chance and I stuck with them, but once they’re settled, let me go do what’s best for me.
So him coming in, and his interaction with them, I knew he was somebody they were going to have to respect, just his presence and his overall height, the authority in his voice and everything. He commands a certain level of respect. And I knew he was going to be very different for these guys than Frank Haith. And I didn’t know if different was going to be good or bad, because these kids had committed to play for Frank Haith. I felt relieved that they hired somebody, that the kids had somebody to look towards for leadership, and I could be ready to slide out the side door.
Then the decision to stay on board?
It was really something that I think the administration had probably talked to Kim about. It was one of those things where by the time it came around to Kim being hired, and by the time it came to talking about me, it was almost my only option.
For me at the time, I was going to make the best of it. I wasn’t sure if it was going to work or not because [Anderson] didn’t know me, I didn’t know him and I didn’t know anybody that they did know. The one thing that I did know is that it was going to be very different from where he came from to where he was coming to. And some of those differences, other guys who have been a high-major assistant or even another Division I head coach already know those things. So there isn’t a huge learning curve. But I knew it was going to be something that was going to take some time. And I think that by the end of the year that he saw a lot of the things that were different that what he encountered at Central Missouri.
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You mentioned talking to him about the challenges you felt the team would face. Coach Haith is on record as saying he felt they had the pieces to win 20 games this year, obviously they fell well short of that. The roster would have been much different had Frank Haith been the head coach, but what was the mindset for building this roster knowing those challenges?
To speak to Coach Haith’s thinking, you had Kevin Punter coming in from junior college, you had Cameron Biedscheid, a transfer from Notre Dame who was Missouri state player of the year, and you had Torren Jones, who had pretty much shown that he could be our starting center. He showed he could rebound down the stretch, he was learning to guard the post, and we were developing his offense. So that’s where Coach Haith would get the mindset.
Now, was it going to be 20? I can’t say 20. But 16 to 17 was what I thought we would be able to do with that roster. So Kim coming in … we don’t have an inside presence. J3 is one of the most talented rebounders I’ve ever coached or seen as a young player in college basketball. But back-to-the-basket-wise, he’s still developing. And we don’t have a guy that we can really count on throwing the ball down into the paint. So we've got to figure out a way to play that will camouflage that. However it is that you do that, have that in your mind. Because we’re not going to be able to score buckets in the paint, at least on a consistent basis against high-level teams. So that was one of the challenges.
The other challenge was that we had a player in Wes Clark who had multiple issues, with suspensions and all that. We were counting on him to be a key cog at the point guard position. So from a leadership standpoint, was he going to have credibility amongst his teammates? There were adjustments he had to make within his lifestyle in order for those things to happen. And he was going to have to have a special relationship with Kim in order to make those adjustments.
So in formulating the roster, Kim focused on bringing in more young players and high school players.
And at the time there are not many high school players left. You’re talking about D’Angelo Allen; I think it was us and Oklahoma for him. And Tramaine Isabell decommitted from Washington State; he had Providence listed as his other school. But there was not another top-100 type high school player available. And by the time we figured out what to go and get, we went all the way into July still recruiting the 2014 class. You know Montaque Gill-Caesar joined us in August. So we went all the way through trying to recruit what we thought was the best available.
When Coach Anderson got the job, there was not a recruiting period available. So everybody we took, excluding Montaque Gill-Caesar, was going to be sight unseen on top of that. So, I showed him game film, he watched footage of D’Angelo Allen and Tramaine, but legally there was no avenue for him to go out and see anybody because the evaluation period was over by the time he got the job. There was no way for him to see anybody. You take a guy, or you don’t take a guy. But again, I don’t know who else was out there to go get.
Your relationship with Rob Fulford ... pretty important to get him on board here at Missouri?
When you’re in this profession, it’s hard to find people that you can trust. Frank Haith had given me a huge part in deciding the guys that we were going to bring in on staff once I was on his staff. So we bring in Isaac Chew, and he bolts after a year. We bring in Ryan Miller, and he bolts after three months. We bring in Rick Carter, and he’s gone after a year. So we bring in Mark Phelps, he’s gone after a year, right?
So people got here, and they saw how hard the job was at Mizzou, and they were not sticking around. And I can honestly say that once I helped hire them, they weren’t great guys to work with. Rob was unbelievable to work with. He believed in us when everybody was telling him that we were going to get fired. You know, he signed off on both Negus and Stefan coming here. And I had just built up a great relationship with him.
He’s respected out there as a recruiter, he’s a really good coach, and he has the temperament to be around high level athletes. Because when you’re coaching high-level guys that have been coddled and told how good they are all their lives, there’s a different way you have to approach them to get the most out of them. They’re not guys you can beat down, they’re not guys you can yell at and scream at, not without having a relationship with them. And Rob understood that. So I really felt it was important to have somebody like that on the staff, somebody that had that type of feel for dealing with elite level players.
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How important was you being at Mizzou to Rob even coming to Mizzou?
There was a lot of pushback at first. Coach Anderson didn’t know who Rob Fulford was, and our administration had a lot of trepidation about hiring a prep school coach, and how it was going to be perceived, and "Oh, the media is going to kill us," and things of that nature. And I had the outline for them I said listen…
Meanwhile, other schools are just hiring parents.
Right. So I said, "Listen, guys, this trend that you think is taboo, Tom Crean did it at Indiana when he hired Kenny Johnson from Paul the VI. Rick Pitino brought in Kevin Keatts from a prep school and hired Johnson from Indiana. Todd Simon from Findlay Prep is at UNLV. You want a guy who has relationships out there. These guys have relationships with kids, parents, teachers and coaches that we can’t have as Division I assistant coaches. So you can go get a D-1 assistant from somewhere, but he’s not going to have the same amount of relationships that Rob Fulford has."
And Rob immediately delivered. He got Montaque Gill-Caesar. We go through a summer of Kim Anderson getting to know him and building a relationship with him, and it works for him, then Teki comes in, next thing you know there’s a McDonalds All-American in Thomas Bryant who visits campus and Mizzou is still a contender for him. [Bryant eventually committed to Indiana in late March.] It worked! Rob Fulford helped with that. And Mizzou nation was raving about Montaque Gill-Caesar before his back injury kind of delayed all that. But Rob is incredible, he’s a great relationships guy, and he’s an extremely bright basketball mind. He sees things during the game, he and I sat next to each other with him on my left or on my right for every game. And the things he would say during the game, he’s just an exceptional coach.
So you knew this season was going to be a rough one. Did you know it was going to be as rough as it was?
No. You know, as the summer went on and guys were getting in trouble and we were having these issues, I kind of felt that the guys weren’t necessarily focused on preparing to win and they were just kind of going through a transition. I don’t think I did a very good job of reaching them and explaining to them the level at which they were going to have to be counted on to compete.
A guy like Wes Clark had Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross doing all the heavy lifting. Mizzou had won, and naturally they thought "we’re going to win like we’ve won in the past." Well there’s no more Jordan, there’s no more Jabari, there’s no more Earnest. So if you’re going to win, it’s going to be on your shoulders. So you’ve got to make the right decisions, you've got to be in the weight room, you've got to be getting extra shots up, you've got to be doing all the stuff that they did, making all those little investments so you can make the withdrawal on game night. And we just didn’t have that type of environment. We had guys showing up right before they were supposed to work out and leaving as soon as the workout was over. There was no extra commitment to things and going beyond. And I take a huge chunk of responsibility in that area because I’ve always been the guy that stresses player development. And every player that has transferred or sat out, during that season I was the one working with them, the only coach that spent time working with them. So that’s something that I’ve always prided myself on, and I didn’t do that this summer. I was more focused on the recruiting and trying to get more players than I was getting the current players we had better.
There were many problems with this past team. What was one of the main causes to the awful record?
Well, I went back and I made some notes. We talked about possessions before. Where I get that whole possession thing from is Skip Prosser, rest his soul. When I worked for him, he used to say to our team: "Guys, you get me to the last TV timeout with a timeout left and within two possessions, and I’m going to win you the game. I will figure out how to win you the game." Because at this level when you’re [of] equal talent? It comes down to possessions. You have to know how to steal some, and you have to know how to make adjustments to oppose what the other team is doing.
That’s where the film and game plan and all that comes in. If you look at our team this year, there were seven games that we lost by a total of 14 possessions. So you’re talking about two or three possessions in a game. You had…
UMKC: a three-possession loss.
Illinois: one possession.
Auburn: two possessions.
Tennessee: three possessions.
Arkansas: one possession.
South Carolina: two possessions.
Mississippi State at home: one possession.
And in the conference games in the games that we won, a total of 8 possessions. Everybody was criticizing our talent, everybody was criticizing what we didn’t have. But if we didn’t have the talent, then every game would have been like what we faced at Kentucky. Just get them on out. But when you’re within two or three possessions, that’s our job to get them over the hump. Having them prepared, making the critical gutsy timeout call, adjusting an out of bounds play, changing defenses. That’s our job. So this team should grow and be better from the things they didn’t do this past year, if they do next year they’re already at 16-17 wins. Just make the adjustments.
So you stayed because of your loyalty to the players, and now you’re on your way out. How do you feel about leaving at such a tough time for Mizzou basketball?
Well, one of the things about me is that … I’m no quitter. And this year had just a ton of adversity. And if I was to leave, I would want it to be on a high note, where guys had reached their full potential, like after year one! After year one would have been a great time for me to go and pursue a head coaching position. I felt like I gave everything I could to the program, I was the lead scout on 18 of the 30 wins, the only loss that I accrued that year was the game at Kansas. And we all know how that went, we’re up almost 20 in the second half…
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With some … questionable calls down the stretch.
Right! So I had given so much to the program, and that would have been a good time to leave. But seeing the guys not make it this year -- you know, Wes getting hurt -- and yet down the stretch I thought he made a great leap. J3 progressing but still has so much room, to still grow and develop, and then some of the babies we had there Montaque Gill-Caesar and Namon Wright and Jakeenan Gant and D’Angelo Allen, you know i would really be motivated to help them. That’s all I’ve done since I’ve been here: help these kids to develop and grow and help them get to a place where they will be a dominant force in the SEC. There’s a redemptive quality to that, but ultimately I’m in this profession to help enhance and maximize the lives of young men through the game of basketball. And we didn’t have a chance to do that this year.
I was looking forward to an offseason of development and strength and conditioning, and we can motivate them because we’re going to work 10 times harder so we can get 10 times the wins. You guys just had 9 wins your first year, lets get 90 wins your next 3 years. And kind of spin it. But, you know, it wasn’t in the cards for that.
There have been some noted off-the-court issues. We talked about Zach Price, but even the guys who are on the roster now -- Jakeenan Gant and D’Angelo Allen getting in trouble last year. How much is your role as an assistant coach in a developmental role on the court as well as off the court?
There’s no question, that’s what we’re here for. We’re here to be mentors, we’re here to be developers of people, and it was disheartening to see guys I had brought in and trusted and built relationships with … and these are guys that I would leave in the gym with my children! I had no idea some of the things that occurred would occur.
And if you look at it, I think that was a big part of my contract not being renewed is that I had so many guys in a short period of time get arrested. And I have no defense for that. Truly, during the vetting process, me visiting in their homes, me spending time with their parents, and getting to know them in the recruiting process, I had no inclination of a player having troubles.
We walked away from situations where guys had been in trouble. When I first arrived here, I had Tony Woods, who was already committed to us at Louisville and he wanted to come along to Missouri. Looking at his circumstances, he had a domestic case against him, I had to tell him it wasn’t a good fit. There were kids who went to transfer in who had gotten in trouble in the past, and we had to say, "Hey, sorry. It’s not a good fit for you." There’s no way I would knowingly bring a, not necessarily a problem child, but a troubled person into the Mizzou community and into my own family. Which is basically what they became a part of.
To see those things happen to those guys, it heightened my awareness of the fact that when I do bring them in, and they come in, I need to spend more time helping them make the adjustment to life in Boone County and Mizzou. That’s the thing I didn’t do, and that’s what I regret. I didn’t sit down with Jakeenan or D’Angelo and have a conversation that was like, "Hey, there’s a lot of bars, there’s a lot of fun college life for you, but alcohol intensifies every atmosphere. So if you’re in a situation and somebody approaches you and they’ve been drinking? You have to walk away." I didn’t have that conversation with them. I didn’t talk to Wes Clark about being careful about who he chose to get rides from. And if he was around marijuana or different types of alcohol or drugs, that he would be lumped in with that. I didn’t get into Zach Price’s emotional state when he came here, and some of the things that he needed help in. I just brought him in and talked to him on a daily basis, but I really didn’t nail down to be a big brother to him.
That’s a thing I regret. I would want somebody to do that for my children, and I would do it for my own sons. You know, "Before you go to college, let me explain to you about college life." And I guess I took it for granted that they had people doing that for them when that wasn’t necessarily the case.
So is that something that you’ll be taking forward as a learning experience as your time wraps up at Mizzou?
Absolutely. One of the things is, I’m big on mentoring and developing young men, particularly from single-parent homes because I was a child from a single-parent home. Kim Anderson implemented something after we had a little trouble and it was about character development. It basically brought us into an arena with the young men to discuss why they came to Missouri, what some of their goals were, what some of the challenges are. It totally got us to a place where we were getting to know them not just as a recruit or player, but as a person. I learned a lot from Kim this year, and it’s something I’m definitely going to take moving forward. Because I do see being a head coach in my future, and the character development piece is something to work on and have as a part of the rookie transition.
So looking back now, on your four years in Columbia what would you say would be your biggest mistakes?
I don’t know how I’d rank them, but a huge mistake was probably staying too long. Every year I’ve been here, I’ve had offers from people that were willing to commit to helping me and advancing my career, and were really big Tim Fuller fans. I just felt an undying loyalty to Frank Haith, and while everybody else was leaving I just felt like it wouldn’t be right to leave him in the midst of his down time. A lot of people would say that you’ve got to look out for yourself, and I probably wouldn’t be in this situation. I would say that would be a mistake.
I would also say that there were a couple players that I recruited out of desperation, just to try to fill roster space because we were lacking in certain areas.
Maybe just guys that weren’t at that level they needed to be?
Yeah, or guys that didn’t produce at where they were and then came over.
I really don’t think that there are any of those guys in this freshman class that aren’t capable of contributing to Missouri being successful. Now, would I have still recruited better? Yeah, I’ve recruited better, but this freshman class, compared to when we got them? They’re the best that was out there.
All five guys at one point or another have shown the ability…
...to help impact the game. But they have to learn how to work hard. That’s what they don’t know yet. That’s something that I think I’ve always been able to teach guys, and like I said before, I did a poor job this year of teaching those young guys on how to work hard.
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What would you say are the things that you’re most proud of?
I would say that I’m most proud of sticking through the adversity. I think that has built a lot of character within me. To still have the success despite all the things that we dealt with, with the Miami scandal, and challenges from the athletic department and all those things, to still putting a winning product out there on the floor and being one of the better teams in our league.
Then, having Alex Oriakhi drafted, Marcus Denmon drafted, Kim English drafted, Jordan Clarkson drafted, and Phil Pressey and Jabari Brown making it to being players in the NBA. In four years, we had six guys who were either drafted or are playing at the next level … that is a pretty good accomplishment. If you go back to years past at Missouri, how frequently has that happened? Where you have a three-year period and you have six guys that go on to be drafted or playing in the NBA?
Is there anything that you want Mizzou fans and basketball fans to know about Tim Fuller and the time you spent at Missouri?
The foremost thing I would want them to know is that I’m thankful. Mizzou and its fans made me feel so special. I felt I was embraced by the community. The alumni, you would be surprised to the tune of over 100 direct messages on twitter from fans saying "sad to you see you go," "good luck to you," "appreciate everything you’ve done." I gave the fabric of who I am, my heart and soul to Mizzou basketball. Because ultimately, I felt like, after leaving Rick Pitino, Mizzou basketball was going to be the only story that I had to tell out there. Eventually I want to be a head coach. So I gave it everything I had.