Fans dotted the south side stands in Mizzou Arena. Truman roamed, searching for someone to return the excitement of his high-fives, with limited takers. The cheerleaders sat back in their chairs, presumably formulating chants in their heads to fight what looked like an urge to nod off to sleep.
It was 4 p.m. Sunday, and those gathered to meet Missouri’s new basketball coach had been waiting for what seemed like 45 days. In one afternoon. But 15 minutes later the cheerleaders rose, the chatter returned, and Mike Anderson took the court in Columbia for the first time.
“It’s a tremendous honor and privilege for me to stand here before you today ... and be the head coach at Missouri,” Anderson said. “It’s an awesome assignment.”
The excitement lacking earlier in the day — a hangover from a lousy season mixed with dissatisfaction about the coaching search — was supplanted with bright talk and a broad smile.
Anderson beamed beneath a Tiger cap, addressing those who did come out and stick around (the press conference scheduled for 3 p.m. didn’t begin until 4:20) and commending the man sitting to his left, Mike Alden.
The athletic director smiled and clapped, having endured a day, if not weeks of innuendo about his job performance and security. When the day began, there were doubts he would finish the day the same way he started it: as MU’s director of athletics.
Hours earlier an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator visited the University Hall parking lot.
Upstairs MU Chancellor Brady Deaton, UM System President Elson Floyd, university general counsel Bunky Wright and the UM System Board of Curators met for a closed-door teleconference. Numerous media reports indicated the meeting was to decide whether to retain or fire Mike Alden, although officials would only confirm it was to discuss personnel matters.
Meanwhile downstairs, John Best put on his black leather jacket, helmet and dark sunglasses for the occasion and jumped on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. His rumbling through the parking lot echoed the “noise” — from Internet rumors to the scorn of Norm Stewart — that has plagued Alden.
Best joked, “I’m the Terminator. I’ve come for Mike Alden.”
Told that Deaton had said that Alden was still MU’s athletic director, Best looked surprised.
“You’re kidding me,” he said.
Floyd spokesperson Joe Moore re-affirmed it moments later.
“The Missouri Board of Curators held a closed meeting today,” Moore said. “There were no votes taken, and Mike Alden is indeed still the athletic director.”
The meeting, which lasted more than two hours, came after another closed portion of the curators’ quarterly meetings Thursday and Friday in Rolla.
Still, despite the speculation, Alden had hired a coach.
Anderson, who marks the 16th men’s head basketball coach — and the first black coach — in MU history, arrives in Columbia after a four-year stint at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. His teams qualified for the NCAA tournament the past three seasons. The Blazers enjoyed their best season under Anderson during the 2005-06 campaign, finishing 24-7 and earning a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament, before dropping a first-round matchup with Kentucky.
Sunday, Anderson stood at a podium, his pin-striped suit highlighted by a black and gold tie, and voiced his support for Alden. Even as reporters peppered him with questions about his decision to step into the uncertain atmosphere that surrounds the MU athletic department, Anderson remained loyal to the man responsible for bringing him to Columbia.
“I have the utmost confidence in Mike Alden,” Anderson said, at one point turning and pointing toward Alden, who sat two seats away. “I see some great days ahead. And it’s going to be under the leadership of Mike Alden.”
During his 30-minute address, which included a question-and-answer session, Anderson also discussed the need to bring a renewed sense of family to the MU basketball program. The stage sat beneath the arena scoreboard, retired jerseys hanging in the background of the rafters, Stewart and former player Jon Sundvold included. Within the first minute of his address he cited the tradition and fan support that Stewart had established in his 32 years as coach of the Tigers. Later he mentioned Sundvold’s name, along with Doug Smith and Anthony Peeler and several others. Peeler, Stewart and Sundvold have all spoken about their desire to see MU return to the success the team enjoyed, at times, in past decades, and Anderson called that a welcome challenge. He said a national championship is the ultimate goal.
He even managed to slip in an anecdote about the Antlers, MU’s notorious student cheering group, in pointing to the school’s rich tradition. During his time as an assistant at Arkansas, Anderson recalled a road trip in Columbia when he suffered his first up-close meeting with the Antlers.
“We’re on the bus, coming toward the hotel, and alongside us is a little group we call the ‘Antlers,’” Anderson said. “Well, they’re driving a car and they’ve got a hog head on top of the car, saying ‘Hey, this is what’s going to happen to you guys, fellas!’”
With attendance declining the past two years, the infusion of Anderson’s frenetic style — full-court press defense leading to steals and an up-tempo offense — was repeatedly mentioned at the news conference.
“When you think about the things that we’ve done at Arkansas and at UAB, I want to bring that type of excitement here to Missouri,” Anderson said.
He now has that chance.
Alden confirmed Sunday that Anderson will receive a five-year deal, but he refrained from further comment until the specifics have been finalized, and the contract has not yet been made available by university officials.
Anderson, however, is expected to earn significantly more than he did at UAB, where his salary was $600,000 with up to $175,000 available in incentives.
Afterward, there seemed to be as many questions about Alden’s future as Anderson’s.
“What’s difficult is the distractions, the noise,” Alden said. “You hear a lot of noise that’s out there from various areas. But as far as I’m concerned, it hasn’t been a distraction.”
Still, by day’s end, both Anderson and Alden were employed by MU.