Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA — On Nov. 18, 2000, Larry Smith was fired as Missouri’s head football coach after a 28-24 loss that day to Kansas State.
On Nov. 18, 2015, director of athletics Mack Rhoades met with media to discuss Missouri football’s first head-coaching search since then, brought on by the resignation of Smith’s successor Gary Pinkel, who just so happened to win more games than any coach in program history.
Although it’s been a while since Missouri football last had a head-coaching vacancy — current Tigers quarterback Drew Lock had just celebrated his 4th birthday when Smith was fired — Rhoades himself is in familiar territory.
As the A.D. at Houston, Rhoades hired head football coach Tom Herman in December, less than three months before Rhoades was named Missouri’s director of athletics.
Pinkel announced last week he would resign at the end of the season because of a blood-cancer diagnosis.
“Did I anticipate doing a head-coaching search six months into my tenure, particularly in football? No, I didn’t,” Rhoades said. “That’s what we have to do, unfortunately, and I say that, unfortunately, because of coach Pinkel’s circumstances. But it is a great opportunity for us, and we’re going to move forward and make the best hire we can.”
Herman is one of three coaches who have most frequently been named as possible replacements for Pinkel — in part because Rhoades has already hired Herman once, and in part because the former Ohio State offensive coordinator has gone 10-0 in his first season with the Cougars.
“I’m certainly partial to Tom Herman, since I hired him at my previous institution,” Rhoades said. “He’s a terrific coach. … But, I want to caution everybody. I’m not locked into any certain candidate whatsoever, because it’s about fit. With all due respect to Tom Herman, does he have that same success at another school? He was a great fit at the University of Houston.”
Another name tied to the Missouri opening is Justin Fuente, the coach at Memphis, which is currently 8-2 and listed at No. 21 in Tuesday’s College Football Playoff rankings. Missouri’s deputy director of athletics Wren Baker and senior associate athletic director Ryan Bradley were hired from Memphis by Rhoades. The Tigers also brought in defensive coordinator Barry Odom, who held the same position at Memphis.
“Justin Fuente is another terrific coach that has won a lot of games at a place where it’s hard to win,” Rhoades said. “… (Though) I’m not into the hottest names out there, and (Herman and Fuente) are certainly two of them. That doesn’t mean that they’ll automatically come here, be a great fit and win games here. I’m more about winning games, winning championships, and finding a coach that can really do that over the long haul.”
Odom is the third name that has thrown around as a potential replacement for Pinkel. Though he has no head-coaching experience, the former Missouri linebacker has made the Tigers a top-5 scoring defense in his first year as their defensive coordinator. He held various positions at Missouri, including safeties coach, from 2003-11.
Hiring from within would prolong some of the consistency Missouri’s staff has enjoyed during Pinkel’s tenure. It would also prevent another team from picking off Odom, who could become a hot commodity given the Tigers’ performance on D this year. Plus, promoting Odom would potentially give heralded defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski a shot at the defensive coordinator position. Despite being passed over for the job last offseason, Kuligowski chose to stay at Missouri instead of taking a coordinator gig at Illinois.
Rhoades, however, said consistency was not going to be his main concern in the search.
“We can sit here and talk about, ‘Well, if it’s the certain coach, it brings the most continuity,’” he said. “If that’s not the right person, it doesn’t matter, in terms of the future success. All I’m locked in is about the right person.”
He also said he wouldn’t “handcuff” Pinkel’s successor into keeping the current staff of assistants.
“Yeah, there’s some value in keeping one, two, three, four staff members,” he said. “I think it’s to be determined here. I will ask the head coach, that the new head coach will sit down with each and every staff member and visit with each one.”
Pinkel will not be directly involved in the search, though he said he would be available if Rhoades needed any guidance on certain candidates.
“They don’t want me dragging behind him,” Pinkel said. “He’s good at what he does.”
Rhoades said he wants to hire a coach with “an insatiable appetite for recruiting,” a history of winning, the ability to compile a good staff and characteristics of a CEO.
“Your head football coach isn’t necessarily coaching football, or on the field coaching,” he said. “The head football coach is really coaching your coaches and running a program.”
Missouri is not alone in its hunt for a Power 5 football coach. Southern California, Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Miami and Maryland are also searching for coaching.
“This is a very, very competitive year in terms of just the number of openings,” Rhoades said. “And again, I think we’re going to see plenty more openings, unfortunately, for those particular individuals. And so that candidate pool is probably not as large as it has been in the past.”
Rhoades believes he can sell the job, however, based on the success during Pinkel’s tenure — five divisional titles, 10 bowl appearances — the ability to recruit both the Midwest and Southeastern Conference territories, and the university’s commitment to improving athletic facilities.
“I really believe you can win a national championship at the University of Missouri,” he said.
Rhoades does not believe there will be less interest in the position because of the national headlines made last week when the team boycotted football activities in protest of system president Tim Wolfe’s handling of racist events on campus.
“Do I expect to have to answer (questions about the boycott)? Sure, I do,” he said. “I think it’s something that we’ll sit down with each candidate and certainly give as much specifics … as we can. But also, I really believe this, this is an opportunity for us to get better. We’ll spend a lot of time on how I think this makes us better as an institution, how I think this makes us better as an athletic department.”
Though he said the boycott did not change the importance he places on vetting a diverse field of candidates, Rhoades said there is “value” in interviewing minority candidates.
Receiver J’Mon Moore, the first Missouri player to get involved with the Concerned Student 1950 protest group the boycott supported, said he’d like to see diversity in the candidate pool, though that wasn’t his main concern.
“Coaches that actually care about you and the love of the game,” Moore said. “That makes everything much better. Definitely some diversity, but also people who are caring, just as the coaches that are here.”
Some more details Rhoades provided about the coaching search:
• He expects Missouri to be competitive in terms of salary offered: “It’s market driven,” he said, “and if it’s the right guy, we’ll pay what we need to pay.” Gary Pinkel’s contract of $4.02 million ranked fifth in the SEC when he received his extension this April.
• Rhoades does not have a preference between coaches with an offensive or defensive background.
• Age will not be a factor.
• Unlike his search at Houston, he expects most of the candidates to be current head coaches. Though he would be open to hiring an assistant, he said.
• He has not decided if he will use a search firm. Former Missouri A.D. Mike Alden used a search firm to hire basketball coach Kim Anderson in spring 2014. If Rhoades does use a search firm, he does not want it to be one that has been used by another school.
• He would not speculate when he expects the search to end.