COLUMBIA — Frank Haith stepped onto the stage and behind a podium for his first press conference as the head coach of the Missouri men’s basketball team. The applause stopped and the new coach began to acknowledge his family. Just one minute after he started, he made his first mistake.
“My wife Pam, who I’ve been married to for 20 years, but we’ve probably been together for 25 years," Haith said. “I think. Is that right?”
The woman sitting in a chair near the stage smiled and reminded her husband that the two have been together for 27 years.
“I knew I was going to be wrong,” Haith said. “I thought I was going to do a great job today.”
On Tuesday, even Haith’s slip worked in his favor. The exchange between the husband and his wife relaxed the room. People laughed and tension eased. And when Haith began speaking again, his message slowly began to wash away some of the criticism that has surrounded his hiring.
Haith did not hide from the issue that hung over his introduction. He knows his 45-72 ACC record, accumulated during his seven seasons as Miami’s head coach, is the reason many were not thrilled to hear his name announced as the man who will take over where Mike Anderson left off.
But Haith didn't apologize for the record.
"I stand here today with my head held high, very prideful of what we accomplished at the University of Miami," Haith said. "Would I have wanted to do more? Absolutely. But I understand what my situation was, coming into a place where we were creating our tradition."
Haith said Missouri is a better situation, with better resources and a better environment. With more, Haith said he will be able to do more.
As far as the criticism of his qualifications, Haith addressed it with a joke directed toward Missouri athletics director Mike Alden.
“Mike told me. He said, ‘They are going to love you.’ So you lied to me, Mike. Some people don’t love me just yet. I already know that," Haith said.
He has embraced it. He knows he has minds to change, and he framed it as a challenge he is glad to have.
“We’re gonna make it work. I don’t look at the negativity I’m hearing so far as a negative. I look as it as a positive. That’s why I’m here. That’s what I want. I want that passion.”
As Haith spoke, his weaknesses seemed to wither while his strengths — attention to academics and strong recruiting — were stressed.
He thanked his former school, and he acknowledged those who preceded him at Missouri. He credited Mike Anderson's success, and paid tribute to Missouri’s coaching legend, Norm Stewart.
Haith said all the right things. But speeches can be prepared for, and questions can be answered with the help of folded pieces of paper pulled from a pocket of a suit.
Actions come more naturally. And Haith's came off as smoothly as his words. He hugged strangers. He kissed women politely on the cheek. He shook every hand that was extended to him. Every move seemed to say he was happy to call Missouri his new home.
Missouri players saw the same when they met their new coach as a team for the first time early Tuesday morning.
“He did it perfectly,” junior guard Kim English said. “He was receptive. He was open. He listened.”
For English and Haith, it was a reunion of sorts. Haith recruited the junior guard to come to Miami before English ultimately chose to be a Tiger. But the player who knew Haith earlier wasn’t the only one who picked up on his energy.
“He woke us up,” junior forward Laurence Bowers said. “I was asleep. We had a meeting at seven in the morning, and that just goes to show how excited he was, how happy he was to be here.”
For English and Bowers, the relationships they can form with Haith could drastically impact the makeup of next season’s team. Both players declared for the 2011 NBA Draft on Monday. Both said their decision was predetermined and had nothing to do with the announcement of Haith’s hiring. Because neither player hired an agent, they can return for their senior seasons if they withdraw their names by May 8.
Bowers said he is 50-50 in his decision to go or stay, but both players said the option of returning to school is more favorable now that they know and approve of Missouri's new coach.
“Hiring a great guy like him definitely makes you want to come back,” Bowers said.
And while that coach embraced his critics, his new players are already defending him.
“Give him a chance,” Bowers said. “Let him prove his worth.”
English simply dismissed the doubters.
“Too bad for them," English said. "He’s our guy. He’s who we have. He’s who we’re gonna win with. And that’s all that matters.”