In a Critical First Step To Change the Trajectory of Mizzou Football, Mizzou AD Jim Sterk Refused To Settle For Mediocrity.

Five thoughts on Mizzou AD Jim Sterk’s decision to sack football coach Barry Odom after four seasons in the job:

1. I was surprised by the move. Not that firing Odom was unwarranted; there were an abundance of reasons for making the change. But after Missouri won at Arkansas on Friday, I wrongly assumed it would be enough to give the 6-6 Odom the benefit of the doubt … and another season.

I was surprised for several reasons including:

>>> It would have been easy and convenient for Sterk and the MU administration to keep Odom in place for at least another year. That may have caused angst among those of us who believe Mizzou can and should be better at college football. And that Mizzou should have higher standards; that’s why you joined the SEC, right? Not to merely exist and rake in SEC revenue — but to make a legitimate effort to compete with the best? And to be among the best?

This was absolutely the right call. But terminating Odom wasn’t an automatic call. Odom apologists are pretty good at whipping up a positive, if largely flimsy, list of reasons for staying with Odom. And the low-expectations crowd swallowed the spin.

>>> About those standards: I was among many Mizzou fans/critics that have squawked about Missouri being too accepting of mediocrity — and way too proud to be slightly above average in a given season. In this case, I was wrong. Sterk is adamant in his belief that Missouri should demand more from a coach with a 21-25 against FBS competition, and a shameful 4-23 mark against FBS teams with winning records, and a 1-10 score card vs. ranked opponents, and a 13-19 ledger in the SEC.

And Odom’s 13 SEC wins were attained by disposing opponents that collectively finished with a .250 winning percentage in conference games. Odom beat one team — Florida in 2018 — that had a winning SEC record at the end of the year. The other 12 wins were tackling-dummy knockdowns of awful teams that combined to lose 75 out of 96 games in SEC play … a .218 winning percentage.

If you truly care about Mizzou football, then you shouldn’t be satisfied — or even resigned — to having a bottom-feeder SEC program. But I was astonished by the amount of people who seemed just fine with Missouri’s increasingly obvious status as an SEC footwipe.

>>> As I said on my 101ESPN radio show last week, I believed Missouri would likely retain Odom for financial reasons. The athletic department has operated at a deficit for two consecutive years. The cost of cutting tied with Odom is a roughly $3 million contract buyout — and possibly another several million dollars on top of that to pay off assistant coaches. Missouri will also lose an estimated $9 million or $10 million in SEC bowl revenue as part of controversial NCAA sanctions. And that doesn’t even cover the anticipated cost of hiring a new head coach and assistants.

2. Speaking of money: given Missouri’s relatively shaky financial foundation, Sterk clearly has lined up support from influential donors and boosters to defray the coaching-staff buyouts as well as the expensive pursuit of Odom’s replacement. Sterk didn’t take a leap into the unknown here; he undoubtedly had a Brinks truck or two to land on. Metaphorically speaking, of course. But if Mizzou is serious about attracting a coach who can elevate MU football, the price won’t be cheap. Or moderate.

3. Sterk continues to do his best to change the ambition of Missouri athletics. This is overdue and welcome. I underestimated this aspect of Sterk’s leadership; perhaps I was too ingrained in expecting the same Ol’ Mizzou from the new Mizzou. Which is really silly because Sterk has been an aggressive agent for change. His view is focused: Coaches should be challenged, held accountable, and not allowed to settle into a mode of competitive, respectable blandness. If you enter the SEC, then you must have the stomach to compete at a prestigious level.

And while winning is the most important consideration, major college sports are a bountiful business and must be run accordingly. And a huge part of that is having a marketable coach, a coach with personality and presence, who can get out there sell the program and get the casual fans fired up. Odom was the exact opposite of that, and Sterk has to get more money flowing in to take advantage of the excellent $100 million south end-zone project.

I should have been smarter about realizing the extent of Sterk’s aggressiveness. He’s replaced popular coaches. And Sterk’s first significant hire — men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin — put Mizzou basketball back on the map after years of decline and irrelevance. Martin hasn’t been able to replicate his first-season success, but he’s early into his third season. That’s another topic for another time. The point is, the Martin hire pumped up the fan base and led to a dramatic increase of ticket sales, sponsorships and revenue.

4. Now that we know how Sterk really felt about Odom, I can only imagine how the AD must have bristled at the notion of Missouri being willing to settle for an OK — at best — football coach.

Or the perception (stated here) that Mizzou was happy just to lap up the SEC money and muddle along competitively.

And Sterk must have smirked — or cursed — over a media-driven narrative about Mizzou’s low appeal among potential coaching candidates. The incessant mewling about how it it’s hard to make a good hire because there are so many minuses at Missouri … good grief, it’s a damn SEC job, OK? There are 14 of these gigs in the world. Minuses? Sure. But this ain’t Rutgers. And there are plenty of plusses. More than we account for. You just have to want to go to the trouble of acknowledging them. And you have to find a football leader that will enhance what’s there, and push to attain what isn’t there.

This isn’t a dead-end job. It just needs to be filled by a man who sees the possibilities, and is excited to take it on. And the next head coach doesn’t have to be a giant name or celebrity. How many Mizzou fans and media knew the name “Gary Pinkel” before he emerged as the leading HC candidate before 2001? Even after the hiring, Pinkel was still a no-name guy, largely greeted with shrugs.

You can hire a relative no-name guy and have him grow into the right choice.

But you cannot hire a small-time guy — and there is a difference.

No-name guy: Pinkel.

Small-time guy: Odom.

Let’s just say that Sterk seems to understand one from the other.

And to his credit, Sterk wouldn’t succumb to the massive inferiority complex that’s been a factor in keeping this program down for way too long.

Missouri needed a leader who was excited about the Tigers’ potential to claw their way to more success and prominence in the jungle of SEC football.

It was a tough time to recruit a new head coach after Pinkel announced his retirement late in the 2015 season. Not because of the program being in shambles; my goodness the new coach could walk into a football situation that had a maturing foundation-piece quarterback in Drew Lock, good receivers, and enough talent to make a solid pivot from a 5-7 season. No, the Mizzou job was radioactive because of the racial strife on campus, and the football team threatening to boycott — all of which became a huge national story and put the MU coaching position at the center of a volatile, toxic controversy.

The former athletic director Mac Rhoades didn’t have the guts or the inclination to work hard and sell the longterm upside of the Mizzou job to potential coaches; the absolutely worthless Rhoades was too busy looking to parachute into his next career move.

Rhoades settled for Odom.

Sterk won’t settle for Odom.

This is a much better time to search for a coach.

5. We’re now being told that what comes next is all on Sterk.  That he’s on the spot, and all that. Um, well, yeah. Is this a revelation, or something? He’s making the hire, right? I didn’t realize that the dude in charge of campus building maintenance, or the head of the agriculture science department, was responsible for the critical coaching appointment that will chart the direction of Mizzou’s football future.

Of course this on Sterk.

And sure, he must make a terrific hire.

You know — the same mission for every  single  athletic director in college football history that’s fired a coach and hired a replacement.

I don’t think Sterk is trembling. I think he’s had a plan in place for quite some time, and is prepared to move quickly. And he will do this, knowing that he has the money people lined up. Good luck, Jim Sterk. Thanks for refusing to fall into MU mediocrity. And thanks for thinking big on behalf of Mizzou football. Someone had to do it. This was a critical first step.

Finally …

I don’t do coaching-search lists. But here’s one from a respected and well connected college football columnist, writer, Pete Thamel of YahooSports.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie