Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — When Mack Rhoades was introduced Tuesday as the University of Missouri’s 16th director of athletics, he did not shy away from setting lofty goals.
“I know there’s great institutions in the SEC, but why can’t the University of Missouri be the best?” Rhoades said from a podium in the middle of the Missouri Student Center. “… I want MU athletics to be considered if not the best, one of the best in the entire country.”
But for Rhoades, who takes over for current AD Mike Alden in late April, succeeding at Missouri is less an issue of righting the ship than it is keeping it on course.
“Has everybody watched the show on HGTV, the show Fixer Upper?” Rhoades asked. “If you haven’t, great show. This is not a fixer upper.”
During Alden’s 17 years at Missouri, the department of athletics saw drastic improvements in budget size, on-field success and national recognition. Unlike Rhoades’ tenures as AD at Akron and Houston, where he has worked since 2009, the 49-year-old won’t have to start from scratch at Missouri.
“My challenge here is going to be to come in and, really, candidly, not just touch everything, because I’m used to going in and touching everything,” he said. Instead, he will be “really taking the time to say, ‘OK, we really do this well. Now, maybe there’s a way for us to do it a little better.’ And if we can, guess what? We’re going to do that, because we’re not going to change just to change. We’ll change if we can make it better.”
Rhoades said he could not single out one pressing matter that he hopes to come in and improve. Instead, he said his first few months will consist of “a lot of listening and a lot of learning.”
“I told the staff (Tuesday) I’m going to meet with every staff member individually,” he said. “I want to get to know them. I want to know, do they like what they’re doing? Do they feel like their strengths (are) aligned correctly? I’m going to meet with all of our head coaches. What do you need? What do you need to take your program to the next level? And if it’s at the highest level, then how do we continue to stay at that level?”
Though Rhoades did not frame it as a problem in need of improvement, one aspect of Alden’s tenure the Arizona graduate hopes not to repeat is incurring NCAA sanctions.
“The one thing we will never compromise is integrity and compliance,” Rhoades said. “It’s hard to win. I said that earlier, but we’re going to win, and we’re going to do it the right way. We certainly won’t cut corners. There’s a right way to do things and a wrong way, and we’re going to choose to do the right way not just some of the time but every time.”
Missouri’s basketball program dealt with NCAA punishments during the Quin Snyder and Frank Haith eras — though Haith’s suspension was punishment for his actions at Miami. Both Snyder and Haith were hired by Alden. The football program has faced criticism for its various incidents related to sexual assault Title IX violations, and an independent study found Missouri didn’t properly handle all aspects surrounding the alleged rape and subsequent suicide of swimmer Sasha Menu Courey.
Rhoades made a controversial hire at Houston by bringing in basketball coach Kelvin Sampson, who was punished by the NCAA for misdeeds at Indiana.
Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, who headed the search for Alden’s replacement, said he and Rhoades discussed the Sampson hire at length.
“He did his due diligence,” Loftin said of Rhoades. “He actually looked carefully and talked to all the right people and to the coach himself about expectations. I mean, this man made mistakes, obviously, in the past. He was sanctioned for that very heavily by the NCAA. That’s no longer the case.”
Loftin iterated he wanted an AD who fit four characteristics: someone with a level of integrity, who puts student-athletes first, who will gain the respect of the coaching staffs and who has fundraising experience.
Rhoades demonstrated his proficiency at the latter by raising a reported $100 million at Houston and overseeing the development of $160 million-worth in facilities.
The five-week coaching search began when Alden announced Jan. 29 his intention to step down. Loftin hired search firm Korn Ferry to head the operation.
“I’ve learned the last time I did this that to get the very best people to consider the position, it must be highly confidential,” said Loftin, who hired an AD at Texas A&M in 2012. “That means you hire a search firm that’s well known by the AD community, trusted by them, never had a breach of confidence ever, and then you do it by yourself, because they then know that they can trust you.”
Loftin said the search began with dozens of candidates and Rhoades was “on that list from the very beginning.” He and Rhoades wouldn’t discuss specific dates but said Rhoades was intervewed a couple weeks ago.
Alden will step down Aug. 31, though there will be overlap as Rhoades expects to start at Missouri between April 21-27. Rhoades plans to visit Missouri a couple times before then to meet with staff.
Loftin said Alden will vacate his office once Rhoades comes to town, but Alden won’t be going far. Starting in September, he will begin work as an instructor in the Missouri College of Education.
“He’s been one of the best and is one of the best athletic directors in the country,” Rhoades said of Alden. “Why wouldn’t I want to lean on him and learn from him and move forward and have him here? I have great respect for Mike, and I’m excited that he will be around.”
Notes: Alden displayed a sense of patience with coaches during his tenure, giving Gary Pinkel time to develop a program and being rewarded with five division titles. Though Rhoades seemed to have a short leash at Houston, he said it is important to factor in where a program was when a coach takes over. Basketball coach Kim Anderson just struggled through a 9-22 regular season in his first year at Missouri. … The specifics of Rhoades’ contract have not yet been released and Loftin said there are still details the board of curators must approve. … Rhoades called the Missouri gig a “destination job,” which Loftin was happy to hear. “I don’t want to do this again,” the chancellor said. “I’m 65 years old, guys.”