COLUMBIA — Missouri assistant coach Ernie Nestor remembers Frank Haith's college days.
Nestor, who had already been coaching basketball for about a decade, met him when Haith was a student assistant at Elon University. They later coached together as assistants at Wake Forest from 1997 to 2001.
"He struck me as a young man who had great seriousness and purpose when he was young," Nestor said. "When he was on the staff with me at Wake Forest, he had a really accelerated interest in learning more than just recruiting. He worked very hard to expand his knowledge of basketball and teaching techniques."
Now, Haith has been a head coach since 2004 and is in his first year at Missouri. He brought in Nestor to join him when he took the Missouri job. Nestor has been coaching since 1976, and has had two stints as a head coach — at George Mason from 1988 to 1993 and at Elon from 2003 to 2009.
Nestor chews gum as he sits in the seat nearest to Haith at games, occasionally tucking it in his lower lip and leaning forward to talk to Haith or yell something to the players on the court.
"We talk a lot about personnel rotation, when to put kids in," he said about his conversations with Haith. "He's very open-minded, he talks to a lot of people on our staff."
He calls the move from the head coach's seat to the assistant coach's seat on the bench "the longest 18 inches."
"I just support and give ideas," he said. "Ultimately (Haith) has to make the final decision, because as a head coach that's what he does. Assistant coaches make suggestions, head coaches make decisions."
During practices, Nestor has been instrumental in teaching the players.
"He has a lot of knowledge," sophomore point guard Phil Pressey said. "He has unbelievable experience. He has a perfect quote for every situation."
One of junior Michael Dixon's favorite quotes is: "On defense, that's not your man, that's our man."
Early in the season, senior Kim English sometimes tweeted "Nestorisms" with the tag #DailyCoachNestorism.
- On Dec. 11: "Don't accept in a win, what you would not accept in a loss"-Ernie Nestor
- On Nov. 16: "If you dive on the floor for the loose ball, you'll get 50% of them. Extra possessions are priceless"-Ernie Nestor
- On Dec. 3: "Andrew Jones, you just screen the guy, you don't have to Pancake block him" -Ernie Nestor. Our new teammate #Mizzou TE
Dixon and Pressey say Nestor has been a big part of Missouri's success this season. Despite somewhat low expectations, the Tigers (25-4, 12-4) have been ranked in the top 10 since Dec. 5 and are poised to finish in second place in the Big 12.
"You maximize your assets and you minimize your liabilities," Nestor said. "That's what we've done, or have tried to do."
This year's Missouri team reminds Nestor of a team he assistant coached at Wake Forest in 1984. Like Missouri, that Demon Deacons were "very undersized, but we had really good guard play." Future NBA guards Anthony Teachey, Delaney Rudd and Muggsy Bogues led them to the regional finals of the NCAA tournament.
"It's better to have good players than it is to have players that are big," Nestor said. "If you're bigger than the other team, get them in a closet and beat them to death. If you're quicker than the other team, get them in an open field and run by them. So we try to run by people."
He attributes Missouri's success not just to talent, but also to experience and a communal drive to win.
"They have a great investment in the University of Missouri and University of Missouri basketball," he said. "These guys love this basketball program. When you look around college basketball, you don't find a lot of senior-laden teams playing at the top level."
Now, the Tigers will try to reach the highest level. Missouri finishes out the regular season with two games this week, then will prepare for the postseason.
Missouri faces Iowa State (21-8, 11-5) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Mizzou Arena.