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Interim Missouri athletic director Wren Baker: "I want us to keep moving forward"

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Wren Baker took over as interim athletic director at the request of Chancellor Hank Foley last week, after the news broke that Mack Rhoades was leaving his AD position with Missouri for the same position at Baylor. I asked Wren if he could spend a few minutes with me to answer a some questions about what we can expect over the next few weeks and months. Here is the full Q&A:

Sam Snelling: First of all, I’d like to know how you found out about Mack leaving for Baylor and how you’d be the pick to serve as interim?

Wren Baker: Mack [Rhoades] visited with me on Tuesday and let me know what the situation was, and we shared a few minutes talking about his decision and life and other things.

Then I believe he talked to [Foley] on Wednesday morning, and the Chancellor was still on the road. And a short time thereafter Chancellor Foley gave me a call and asked if I’d be willing to serve as the interim director of athletics and I told him I’d be honored. He said, "Are you okay if we announce that later in the day?" I said sure. That was kind of the sequence of events that led up to the announcement.

Sam: What expectations have the president and chancellor set out for you in the coming weeks and months?

Baker: I’ve had a brief conversation with the chancellor, and some texts and email communications, but I have not spoken with President Middleton.

What I hope is just to serve as the director of athletics for an interim period of time. I’m not a guy who likes to stay neutral or tread water or be the substitute teacher. I want us to keep moving forward and have conversations with our coaches and staff, and that’s also very important to them. We’ve made a lot of progress in the last few months on a variety of different initiatives on a lot of different fronts.

It's just too critical of a time with the athletic department for our programs to sit around and not do anything for a few months. We intend to continue to move the ball forward and keep things going in that way and once the determination is made on a permanent director they’re going to be able to come in and be ready to go and just be ready from the start.

Sam: So is it safe to say the expectations of the university and your expectations for the athletic department moving forward are one and the same: to keep pushing forward on the initiatives that you’ve already set forth?

Baker: I believe so. At some point I’m sure I’ll have a chance to visit in more detail with Chancellor Foley. He wasn’t anticipating all of this, so I think he’s had a pretty full schedule, but I’m going to do what we briefly discussed, and I believe that is the intention. And that’s good because that’s how I’m built.

I want us to continue to advance all the different things that we’ve had going and continue to get better. And then at the end of this tenure I'll feel really good, and I think the department will be in better shape.

Sam: I want to jump back a bit on a few things with you personally. You’ve been a part of athletic departments who have dealt with extreme turmoil, from your time at Oklahoma State right after the tragic plane crash (which took the lives of some members of the basketball program) to the events at Northwest Missouri State, when you had the unexpected death of a recently hired head football coach.

How did those experiences, in being a part of steering the ship, prepare you for what has gone on in recent months at Mizzou at what might lie ahead?

Baker: The thing with college athletics is no two days are alike. And so when you go to bed at night, you never know what is going to be waiting on you tomorrow. And that’s something that I actually really enjoy about the job. I like the different experiences and the different things that you learn and the different ways that you get to attack problems and come up with solutions.

At Oklahoma State, I really got to watch Coach Sutton. The plane crash happened in 2000, and I came in the next spring, in the spring of ’01. I got to watch Coach Sutton navigate through difficult circumstances, and I really watched how he pulled the team together, how he rallied everybody around that family feel and that family atmosphere that he liked to create. And we still functioned as a basketball program and won games, but life all of a sudden had a different meaning. It wasn’t just about the games anymore. Those guys had lost their friends, their teammates, their colleagues, and so I think it took on a different meaning. I certainly appreciated the opportunity to watch him lead during those times.

I went on from there to spend a year in the public schools as a principal, went on to Rodgers State where, we started the athletics program, then at Northwest Missouri State, I stepped into a program that had a lot of success.

When I took the job, maybe a week after I accepted it, Mel Tjeerdsma, who is Northwest Missouri’s Bear Bryant -- he had an unbelievable 16- or 17-year run and he retired. And when he called me, I’ll never forget, I said, "Coach, don’t do this to me, give me a year!" I’ve had all I can take, and he and I are still very close. We talk often. We’ve texted in the last couple of days. He came back when I left, to be the athletic director.

I hired the defensive coordinator, Scott Bostwick, who had been there alongside Tjeerdsma all that time, and that June, before he had ever coached a game, he had just turned 50. Scott passed away, he died of a heart attack and you know it was sudden, it was a shock, and you know you have to deal with so many things. You’re dealing with a hurting locker room, you’re dealing with, all of the sudden the coaching staff that had stayed intact for the better part of 17 years, now the two strongest personalities, biggest figures are gone. You had to deal with a succession-plan search in a time of the year when it wasn’t ideal. So you know it was a tough experience. But Northwest is a special place.

When you get in the midwest part of the state, midwest part of the country, in places like Columbia and Maryville and really Missouri as a whole, Midwest people bond together and they get through things together. And they really rallied around us, and we were like a family and we were able to get through it.

We hired Adam Dorel to be our head coach, and he’s won two national championships and about 85 or 90 percent of his games. And so I think that we emerged stronger. That’s what times of crisis do -- they bring you together, you have to get through it, you have to get better, you have to improve, you have to lean on each other, you have to grow together, and you emerge stronger. That’s what we did there, and I’m 100% confident that that’s what’s going to happen here. I’m anxious to get that started.

Sam: The perception around the country and among many Mizzou fans is that the university is a bit of a mess right now. What does the athletic department need to do in order to change that perception?

Baker: Yeah, I mean the first things I'd say is, I take a little bit of issue with that perception. Now, I would not be being honest if I said everything’s went just like everyone had planned last year. It hasn’t.

Once that spotlight gets on you from a media perspective, from a national perspective, all of a sudden every blemish, everything that doesn’t go the way you’d want it to go gets amplified, gets highlighted. There’s no question that has happened here. We’ve probably gotten our blemishes a little bit of unfair light shone on them. I think nothing has happened here that either hasn’t happened or doesn’t have the ability to happen in any city, on any campus in the country.

We just have to look at this as an opportunity to be leaders, national leaders. How you deal with having conversations about tough subject matter, to talk through what still exists in possible injustices and inequalities and our perceptions. We have to create meaningful, open, honest, respectful dialogue, and I think we are.

I think this has helped us get better, and we are going to pursue that to really shine a light on the institution, on the athletic department that paints us as the national leaders that we are.

Sam: And despite those perceptions, you recently announced a record setting year in fundraising.

Baker: Yeah, I mean we hit our goal in athletics fundraising. We’ll probably release that at some point soon. But that goal was set before anything happened in the fall, and campus set their goal back a year ago, and they exceeded their goal, set the all-time record.

Our fan base, our constituents, the people in Missouri, they’re resilient. Listen, not everyone is going to agree with every decision that’s made on this campus, by the students and by the employees of the campus. That’s just not possible.

The thing that we all have to do is remember that this university is a shining jewel, a bright spot for the state of Missouri. It's an economic stimulus, it's very important and provides a great education, one of the best public university educations in the country, to many Missourians and people in the region and far beyond. That’s important, the athletic program is important because it provides the stage and an opportunity to showcase those things.

That’s what we have to get back to. Back to showcasing what’s positive. We need to be in the paper and on the news for some good things, and I’m excited to begin the new year.

Sam: Before taking over as interim, you were the lead administrator for the men’s basketball program. Have you had any discussions with Kim Anderson since taking over the interim AD role to change the perceptions of the basketball program?

Baker: I’ve met with coach Anderson at least weekly, sometimes twice a week, since I’ve arrived here. We’ll talk every day, if not every other day, and so we have a lot of ongoing dialogue. Kim Anderson is a great person, he’s a proud Missourian, he’s a proud Missouri Tiger. He walked in to circumstances that certainly weren’t ideal, and he hasn’t sat around and griped or whined. He’s worked his tail off and tried to get things turned around. We all want him to be successful. My job is just to provide him everything we can so that he has all the tools in the tool belt and to help him be successful.

Sam: One of the things that has been kicked around and discussed is the upgrades to the football facilities. Are you guys close to solidifying plans, or do you hope to solidify those plans under your leadership?

Baker: Well I hope to at least continue the work that we’ve been doing. I'd say were about 80% of the way there. You know we’re down to just a couple of possibilities in terms of concept. I think we really like the current location, and I think the football operations center -- while much of it will be a self-contained unit, we like it being in the same complex and in the same general area with the rest of our student athletes. We think that’s important, that camaraderie and sense of family and team comes with student athletes being in close proximity as opposed to being in their own individual silos in different parts of campus.

We think that’s important, Coach Odom thinks that’s important, and we’ve talked to the players and they think that’s important. I think in general we’ve got a pretty good concept of what kind of program and where we want and what we want to be included in that kind of stuff. We just have to finalize the space, the number projections, and then see what we can get the donors to support. Once we get that done I think we’ll be ready to go.

I don’t know what the timeline is for that -- probably a few weeks, a month -- but whatever time that I’m here we’re going to keep progressing towards that, and if we get to a point where it's complete and we’ve got funding secured then we’re going to start building. That’s the plan, that’s one of the big things we are going to be working on. It's very critical, it's very important. We want to give Coach Odom every opportunity to continue building on that football tradition, and I know that we’ve got the right coach in place.

Sam: Do you have a timeline for when you expect to hear from the Title IX office on the investigation into the softball program?

Baker: We do not. I hope soon, I know that this has not been easy on anybody involved. It's best for the young women who represent the university as members of the softball program, it's best for Coach [Earleywine], it's best for us to get it resolved as quickly as we can while making sure that we conduct a fair and thorough process.

The university is still in the process of wrapping up things on their end, and once the gets that done it will be a high priority to bring some resolution to it so that we can move forward there.

Sam: If there was a need to begin the search for a head coach of a program while you still had the interim tag, would you feel comfortable leading that search? And do you feel prepared to have to make those decisions if necessary?

Baker: I would be comfortable. I was an athletic director for seven years at two different institutions, and yes they were at a different level. If you’re an AD at a high school, it’s the same pressure that you put on yourself and other people put on you. I don’t know of any level of athletics where winning is not important. Yeah there’s a different level of attention and focus and money and scrutiny that comes at this level, but really once you’ve led a coaching search, you’ve led one and there’s not that much difference.

I’ve led, as an athletic director, 14, and then been apart of another 10 or 15 as a deputy AD. So I’m very comfortable with leading that process. I feel confident in the hires I’ve made. Those 14 coaches I’ve hired have had an average of about a 70% winning percentage, so I’m very proud of my track record there. And I wouldn’t hesitate to do that, and I think we would be in good shape there if that arose.

Sam: How would you prefer the Mack Rhoades era be remembered by Missouri and its fans?

Baker: Oh I don’t know that it’s up to me to direct people on how they should remember Mack’s tenure. I think what I would say is inside the walls of the athletic department, I think our coaches and staff and many of our student athletes, and I know it’s not unanimous, but I think the vast majority of people appreciate that Mack gave through some difficult times.

There were several situations that come about where there were no perfect solutions, there was no solution that people would really think you’d have unanimous approval on. There were just difficult decisions where they all are going to have some sort of fall out.

I think he is an honest person, he’s an ethical person, I think he led with integrity, and I learned a lot from him. I know there will be people that question his decision and that don’t agree with him leaving after 14 months, and that don’t agree with every decision that he made. I understand that and I don’t get to determine how each person evaluates Mack’s tenure. That’s not for me to do, that’s for people to form their own opinions.

From my perspective, I appreciate the things he started and got going forward, in terms of things like our Mizzou Made curriculum, which I think is going to be the best student athlete development program in the country. The fact that we’re dreaming big on facilities -- we identified over $100 million in potential facility improvements. We restructured a lot of the department. I think our external unit has improved tremendously. When you look at where we were and where we are, you know, I could list a lot of things, but we’re better today than where we were 14 months ago. So I’m proud of that, and I wish Mack nothing but the best. I think he’ll be good for Baylor.

Sam: Do you think your time at Missouri has helped prepare you, not just for the role of interim, but to be the AD either at Missouri or another school at this level?

Baker: I do, I think every step of the way has prepared me. I go back to when I was the principal and director of athletics at Valiant High School in Oklahoma, which was my alma mater. I was 26 years old, and I was the youngest principal in the state of Oklahoma. I had to do teacher evaluations on teachers who taught me. My eighth grade algebra teacher is sitting there, and I’m critiquing her on how to teach algebra, and I’m 26 and I’ve never taught algebra.

I come from a small town, so everybody remembers you as the kid that left, and now you’re making decisions on their kids' curriculum, on their punishment, on who is going to coach them. So that was a great growing experience and growth opportunity.

Then I went to Rogers State to start their athletics program. There was nobody there. I hired everybody, built every facility. We had a great run, when I left we had won about 70% of our games. Then I went to Northwest Missouri State, a place with a strong tradition, and I learned a lot about a program with tradition. We had to go through a coaching search and tragedy when we lost Coach Bostwick. So each of those steps I’ve learned something and certainly learned a lot here. I’ve learned a lot from Mack, and from all the individuals I’ve worked with here. It’s been a good journey and I’ve appreciated it.

[Interview and transcription done by Sam Snelling and Tramel Raggs with editing by Oscar Gamble and Bill C.]