To paraphrase the popular Dinah Washington hit, what a difference a year makes. On March 23, 2011, after proclaiming a deep and abiding love for MU and professing Columbia to be his retirement home, Mike Anderson, the popular and highly touted head basketball coach departed Missouri for the University of Arkansas.
Apparently blind-sided by this decision, Athletics Director Mike Alden set his sights initially on hiring an experienced coach with the credentials of Anderson or other successful, big-name mentors of athletes. After being rebuffed by Purdue's Matt Painter and reportedly by Virginia Commonwealth's Shaka Smart, Alden hired Frank Haith, then-basketball coach at the University of Miami.
To say this hire was not met with overwhelming enthusiasm is the understatement of the decade. After five years of enjoying Coach Anderson's erasure of the embarrassment from the adolescent antics of former coach Quin Snyder with three trips to the NCAA tournament, Missouri was reduced to hiring a virtually unknown (Frank who?) whose won-loss record at Miami was an unimpressive 43-69 in ACC play over six seasons.
Not only were Haith's coaching and leadership abilities in question, but also his character and integrity came under fire when it was revealed in August that the NCAA had begun investigating Miami's athletic program at the same time he was named Missouri basketball coach. A Miami booster, Nevin Shapiro, alleged that he provided $10,000 to secure the signing of a star recruit and that the payment was acknowledged and approved by Coach Haith.
Never mind that Shapiro, a convicted felon, was serving time for a Ponzi scheme. Already piqued at the hire of a relatively unknown and obviously second-tier coach, the sharks, in the form of media sports reporters and athletic boosters, began to circle in for the kill.
To acknowledge a few of the "Haith Haters," Sam Mellinger of The Kansas City Star openly questioned Haith's character and struck out at Mike Alden, alleging the athletics director had failed in the vetting process.
Likewise, Inside College Basketball's Luke Winn accused Missouri's athletics department of engaging in "spin control" over the new coach's qualities of integrity and character. The only person in recent history called for more vetting process lapses was John McCain in selecting Sarah Palin for his presidential ticket.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz recommended Haith do the honorable thing — resign. The Columbia Daily Tribune's Joe Walljasper urged searching for a new coach and considering placing Coach Haith on administrative leave.
And, according to editor Matt Conner of SB Nation, "The time is right to cut ties with Frank Haith whether or not he is found guilty, since there's enough smoke to hit the fire alarm." With "objective friends" such as these, one hardly needs enemies.
By now, we know "the rest of the story." Coach Haith refused to bow to the negative pressure of the assaults on his moral character and integrity, instead calmly and resolutely taking on the task at hand. Despite losing a roster linchpin, senior forward Laurence Bowers to a season-ending knee injury, he played the hand he was dealt in making the most of the talents of the seven scholarship players remaining.
Testimonial to his leadership and coaching skills, he took a team of veteran players, accustomed to playing a unique style of basketball for a different coach, and melded their talents into an NCAA top 10 team and a second seed in the Big 12 tournament. Unhappily, the team succumbed to Kansas on its home court by one point in overtime — largely because of "home team officiating."
Undersized and with little depth of roster, Missouri basketball's unselfish and quick paced team has evoked praise from the highest levels of the sport's noted experts — many agreeing the team is a legitimate Final Four contender.
Everyone loves a happy ending — even the media and blogging critics who, despite being stingy with apologies, have climbed aboard the bandwagon.
Coach, you made us proud. Mike Alden, we owe you for your faith in Haith.
J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via email at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.