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HOOVER, Ala. — I was in Mack Rhoades’ office at Missouri last October. He was happy and enthused. Life was good.
He was just half a year into his job as athletic director at the school. He was a popular hire and had the support of an entrenched administration. He had the most stable of football situations with Gary Pinkel, best football coach in school history, who led the Tigers to improbable Southeastern Conference Eastern Division championships in 2013 and ’14. Men’s basketball was underachieving, but that was survivable in the short term and fixable in the long term.
I dropped in again on Rhoades in April. He looked like he’d been hit by a truck.
The president and chancellor who hired him were gone, swept out in the tumultuous aftermath of the Concerned Student 1950 hunger strike and campus protests. Pinkel abruptly retired, having been diagnosed with lymphoma. The search to replace Pinkel was arduous, with rejections from multiple candidates. The basketball program ended a second straight terrible year with a self-imposed postseason ban for NCAA violations, and the investigation is ongoing. An internal investigation of the softball coach’s leadership style was proceeding behind the scenes. By June, the baseball coach had resigned.
Given the way everything shifted under his feet, the news Wednesday that Rhoades is leaving Missouri was not surprising.
But leaving for Baylor? That says even more about the state of Mizzou, and it’s not a flattering commentary.
Baylor is the biggest dumpster fire in college sports, having just swept out its president, athletic director and football coach after a succession of violent incidents that involved multiple football players. If an athletic director jumps at the chance to take on that mess, then the school he’s leaving is truly dysfunctional.
The Rhoades news inconveniently left new football coach Barry Odom holding the bag Wednesday at SEC media days. It broke about an hour before Odom took the podium in the ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Wynfrey, completely changing the tenor of that news conference. The first-time head coach’s introduction to the nation’s toughest football conference couldn’t have been any more awkward, but he handled a thankless situation with composure.
“Mack and I got together last night and had long discussions, and … he’s got an opportunity that he thought was best for him, and I know that I’m very, very excited about the University of Missouri,” Odom said. “I’m excited about what I’ve got in place from my staff from a football program standpoint.
“I absolutely know that we’ll get a great director of athletics in there and the things that we’ve done in the last eight months are going to set us up for the next 20 years. And University of Missouri’s been around since 1839, and it’s going to be around a long, long time.”
Without having coached a game, Odom might be the best thing the athletic department has going for itself right now. He wants to be at the school, waiting out a meandering coaching search before being named Pinkel’s successor. Being there means something profound to him, which is important right now because Mizzou’s popularity is at a low ebb.
Enrollment for the 2016-17 school year is expected to decline by about 2,600 students from 2015-16, a precipitous drop that will cost Missouri an estimated $36 million in lost revenue. Four dormitories will be closed for the upcoming year. The school is trying to convince prospective students that a campus rocked by the unrest and protests last fall is both safe and welcoming.
Rhoades faced a similar problem in December when he went shopping for a football coach. California’s Sonny Dykes met with Rhoades to discuss the Missouri job and said no thanks. Iowa State, of all non-powers, outflanked Mizzou to hire Matt Campbell from Toledo. The idea of recruiting African-Americans to a school that spent weeks making headlines for racial turmoil wasn’t an appealing one for job candidates.
Odom was the safety hire, elevated from defensive coordinator. His first task as head coach was dealing with a flurry of de-commitments from out-of-state recruits. Recruiting classes in transition years are routinely weak, but it took some late commitments in January and February just to get the Tigers’ 2016 signing class to 46th nationally, according to Rivals.com – 13th in the 14-team SEC.
And now Odom will be awaiting a new boss, hoping an interim chancellor and interim system president can make a quality hire at athletic director. It actually shouldn’t be difficult – the smart move would be to look down the hall from Rhoades’ office and promote deputy AD Wren Baker. He’s a young guy, still in his 30s, but a rising star in the profession.
With Baker and a football coach who sincerely buys what he’s selling about the school, Missouri may have a chance to dig out of the pit where it currently resides.
“University of Missouri changed my life in the late ’90s when I was a student-athlete there,” Odom said. “It gave me an opportunity and platform to change my life course history. And that’s something that every day, when I drive into work, I don’t forget. I know that I’ve got an opportunity now to lead an athletic program, to lead a football team and a university and the state.”
All those entities are in need of some new leadership. When your athletic director voluntarily dives into the Baylor dumpster fire, your school has some serious work to do.