For Anderson, the Tigers' past struggles make this season sweet

Friday, March 20, 2009 | 12:00 a.m. CDT
Missouri senior Leo Lyons listens to coach Mike Anderson make a point during a practice March 10 at the Big 12 Conference Tournament in Oklahoma City. Before coming to MU, Anderson had been a consistent winner.

BOISE, Idaho — Over and over, Missouri men's basketball coach Mike Anderson faced the same question in different forms during the past two weeks.

Reporters started asking after the senior-night upset of Oklahoma and kept asking at the Big 12 Tournament.


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Essentially, everyone wanted to know how meaningful this season's accomplishments are to the coach because of the difficulties of the two past seasons.

At first, Anderson deflected questions. He doesn't like to brag about his role in the program's turnaround. Plus, even while enjoying this resurgent season, thinking about the past two years brought back some painful memories. But as time passed and the question came up again and again, Anderson slowly opened up.

Whether it was completing the season undefeated at home or winning the Big 12 Tournament, each passing accomplishment seemed to ease Anderson's discomfort when speaking about his first two troubled years in Columbia.

Eventually, he explained how challenging it was to deal with losing. But he also explained that those two years were a necessary step in establishing his brand at Missouri.

"The second year was probably one I would like to forget. But, you know what, I won't say that because sometimes you got to go through some things. Sometimes you learn from your failures," Anderson said Monday, when the question came up once again.

Before coming to Missouri, Anderson didn't have much experience with failure.

Anderson's teams won 20 games in each of the four seasons he spent as head coach at Alabama-Birmingham. As an assistant to Nolan Richardson for 20 years at Tulsa and Arkansas, Anderson had a winning percentage better than 70 and helped coach three teams to the Final Four.

Anderson was even a winner as a player. He scored 12 points per game in two seasons playing for Richardson at Tulsa, winning the championship of the National Invitational Tournament in 1981 and advancing to the NCAA Tournament the next year.

But during the 2007-2008 season when Missouri finished 16-16 and 6-10 in conference, there was something more important on the line than wins and losses. The lives of young men were at stake.

"I'm not necessarily worried about the outcome of games," Anderson said after beating Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament championship. "Games are not that important, not when you're dealing with kids' lives. That's the important thing."

Anderson wanted to win. But he also knew he was only willing to win one way. His program had to reflect his values.

So, when his leading rebounder, Kalen Grimes, ran into trouble with the law before last season, Anderson removed him from the team. When his leading scorer, Stefon Hannah, broke his jaw in a fight at a Columbia nightclub in January of last year, Anderson removed him from the team, too.

The coach suspended four other players who were at the nightclub with Hannah, though he eventually reinstated them. Anderson described the decision to hand out that discipline as difficult but necessary.

Looking back, the suspensions might have been the turning point for the program.

"I tell you what, that wasn't an easy decision, but it was about who I am and what I want my program to be about," Anderson said. "I want to bring a brand that is going to be exciting and fun and uptempo basketball. Kids are going to graduate, and they are going to do the right things on and off the floor."

Anderson said he needed to send a message, not just to the players involved but to the families of the players, the administration of the university and recruits who would commit to his program in the future.

The coach thought of the parents of recruits like Kim English. He wanted those parents to be confident their kids had done the right thing choosing Missouri.

Apparently, it paid off. English chose to come to Missouri despite the controversy. As a freshman this year, he started for much of the season.

"Hopefully, it is going to continue to help us as we recruit in the future," Anderson said.

Last season's failures also helped establish the senior leaders who have been instrumental in the success of this year's team. Anderson issued a challenge to DeMarre Carroll, Leo Lyons, Mike Anderson Jr. and Matt Lawrence to take ownership of the team.

After a disappointing season full of losing and devoid of fun, those four were ready to listen.

"It just tells you the makeup of the guys that are here. I've got to give credit to the leaders, the guys that have been through the storms and the downs," Anderson said about the program's resurgence. "They've worked extremely hard. They've shown the leadership and ... the ownership."

But don't give all the credit to those leaders. Their coach deserves some attention too, even if he doesn't particularly like it.


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