It was just a splattering of Mizzou Arena that first rose to cheer Missouri on defense.
And then, with interim coach Melvin Watkins’ arms lifting vividly upward, the arena eagerly responded with near-unanimous encouragement.
For now and the remainder of the season it will be Watkins trying to lift them back up, fans, players and a program alike.
Watkins and the Tigers won a 74-71 get-back-to-ball game over Kansas State on Sunday, amid still simmering debate of when and exactly how Watkins had gotten to this place. Or how resigned coach Quin Snyder became resigned.
That’s why in the locker room after the game the questions rolled more fluidly toward the former than the current. Q, Q, coach Q, Quin reporter after reporter started, giving the letter more airplay than its ever known. And the players, defending their coach till the end, responded with the same feistiness they had shown throughout the streak-ending game minutes before.
It was the first win for Missouri (11-11, 4-7) in its past seven tries. It was Watkins’ first Big 12 Conference win in his past 18 tries, dating back to the 2002-2003 season; a year before Watkins’ Texas A&M bunch went 0-16 in the league. More noticeably, it was the end of a streak of basketball that saw six and a half years for better and worse from Snyder, and the fans responded to the change.
Two grade school-aged girls roamed the empty rows of section 204 and 205 before noon Sunday, running back and forth in a makeshift game of one-on-one tag, oblivious to anything outside of who’s ‘it’, and surely ignorant of any situation involving coaching.
Two hours later, Watkins took a similar pattern of movement, pacing back and forth on the Missouri sideline, if not the same haste. And though the girls weren’t as aware of the circumstances of the past few days, they were exemplary of a freer spirit inside the facility. The scrutiny was over, and no matter who’s side each fan saw themselves on, they could get back to basketball.
It was an early-arriving crowd, equally without delay in discussing Snyder’s departure. Amused grins and unhappy scowls discussed what they knew and what they thought, creating a buzz through the arena. When the talk drifted from Snyder, the day’s Centennial celebration increased the excitement that had been lacking lately, at least outside of the coach watch.
There was a collection of Missouri’s finest talent, or available talent that wasn’t playing overseas, together in what the athletic department called the largest display of its kind at MU. During halftime introductions, the past-playing greats lined up for their return to the spotlight; Anthony Peeler embraced it, rotating his shoulders as he dribbled his self-envisioned basketball, juking the imaginary defender as if he could still slice his way inside today. Doug Smith didn’t look like he could quite make it to the rim, but ate up the applause anyway. But it was Norm Stewart, perhaps expectedly, who received the most applause, and with it the most talk. Which almost immediately, and quite understandably took the talk back to Snyder, and in turn Watkins.
When Watkins finally emerged, stepping purposefully through the tunnel with the confidence of a former head coach (one that is in fact confident enough to forget that pending personal string of losses), he veered right, away from the court, straight to the student section. The fans, after the briefest of hesitations, enthusiastically met their new coach with high fives as five TV cameras scrambled to capture the moment. He then went to what was now his bench on his sideline.
Early on Watkins paced patiently. When Marshall Brown fit a bounce pass between two defenders setting up a Kevin Young dunk, Watkins’ hands were on his hips. When Brown committed a foolish foul on a jumpshot at the other end, Watkins’ hands were on his hips. But by the second half, Watkins’ hands were moving faster than he could keep up with; his animated frustration needed no sign-language interpretation. His agitator was Jason Horton, guilty of a lazy pass, compounded by a lackadaisical retreat on defense that led to a layup. The timeout was immediate, the scolding severe. When Horton talked back, Watkins raised him a decibel, ending the fleeting insubordination. It’s the discipline of experience, consistent in games and practice (the team committed two turnovers the final 20 minutes of the game; Watkins has disallowed the players’ practice of untucked jerseys in practice).
The fans responded. During another timeout, Watkins emphatically pounded his finger on his dry-erase board, then pounded it in the air pointing at each player. Pockets of fans, those on the north side who weren’t shielded by the players and could see this, stood to applaud. With under two minutes to play, Watkins waved up the fans hoping to get a stop against the Wildcats. The crowd remained standing for the final moments, when, after shaking his opponents hands, Watkins returned to the same section of students. This time they embraced Watkins literally, hugging the coach as he approached. In came the cameras, this time at least a dozen, welcoming Watkins back to the pressure.