ST. LOUIS – Mike Anderson walks inside the Edward Jones corporate office building surrounded by fanfare the way a man enters a reception hall after his wedding.
The coach hired to reunite the Missouri basketball program has arrived, and he’s here to greet family on the latest stop of his honeymoon tour. Almost three months after his hire, Anderson can seemingly do no wrong in the eyes of a fan base hungry to believe again.
He scans the lobby, searching for a familiar face. Members of the St. Louis Tiger Club pause their prep work for the night’s rally. A fruit plate grows stale. Sport coats and gold polo shirts pepper the guest of honor with pleasantries, every handshake as sincere as a booster’s donation.
“Hey, Coach, welcome to Mizzou.”
“Glad to have you, Coach.”
“Remember, Coach, Shakespeare’s for pizza, Booche’s for burgers.”
Anderson stands on the jet-black tile floor, his presence a magnet for the masses. It’s a strong suit, Anderson’s emphasis on family, a selling point for a program eager for change. Anderson may lack former coach Quin Snyder’s glamour, but perhaps the Mizzou-rah contingent needs a little less flash after a recent past littered with controversy.
During his introduction at Mizzou Arena, Anderson stressed the importance of reuniting a strained fan base. Since then, the MU caravan has wasted no time spreading Anderson’s family-man persona throughout the state: St. Joseph, Springfield, Mendon, Kansas City, Columbia. Tonight, the latest stop on the quest to win hearts and minds.
“I’m a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy,” Anderson says. “Mike Anderson didn’t happen overnight.”
People like what they see. Masses trickle in. The reception nears; it’s almost 6 o’clock. Black and gold. Young and old, more arrive by the second. Soon, a huddle forms around Anderson, and men revisit memories of grandeur: Remember when you played against Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon during the 1982 NCAA Tournament?
A few hours later, the lobby stands empty, the spectacle gone. Potential danced with everyone’s imagination here. Dreams were born.
With a smile on his face, as if to recognize a job well done, Anderson exits through sliding doors and spots an elderly couple near the curb. He doesn’t miss a beat: “I’ll be seeing you!”
And with that, Anderson climbs inside a white Infiniti, the door closing to provide an exclamation point on the evening, another checkmark on the journey to define his image. The caravan takes a right on Manchester Road, past idling luxury cars and into the sunset, toward family to meet for another day, toward a new home.
* * *
Inside Mizzou Arena, a scrapbook sits atop a coffee table outside Anderson’s office. The book’s black covers contain newspaper clippings since his hire on March 26.
Around this building, the stories are a welcome reprieve from the turmoil that surrounded Snyder’s departure in February, which turned the MU athletic department into a fortress under fire. When compared to turbulent times, these headlines make for easy reading: “At Home at MU,” “MU Meets the New Boss,” “Missouri Got a Gem.”
There’s also a childhood photo within the book’s laminated pages, one in which Anderson, at about age 3, wears red polka-dot suspenders over a white T-shirt, eyelashes squinted with a fuzz of dark hair matted on his head. Siblings surround him.
“Look,” says Donna Snyder, executive assistant to Anderson, pointing to the newsprint, “that smile hasn’t changed.”
Anderson has negotiated himself within large families since boyhood. Fact is, his desire to reunite a Missouri fan base whose conscience carries scarlet letters – Ricky Clemons, Paige Laurie, Quin Snyder’s resignation, Board of Curators investigations – will only be a continuation of his upbringing.
Sharing a bedroom with seven brothers and sisters inside a three-room house in Ensley, Ala., taught Anderson to be disciplined at an early age. He could never hide anything, never fudge his way through life. There were too many eyes watching.
So he learned to make those eyes pay attention.
Anderson included himself in his four brothers’ ventures, sometimes tagging along as the loose end. He stood up to older boys around his Avenue J neighborhood, carrying himself beyond his years. Every Sunday at Birmingham’s St. James Baptist Church during the early 1960s, a young Anderson dropped quarters into the collection plate, because that’s what his parents, Willie and Lucy, told him to do.
“We had a lot of love and caring in our family,” Anderson said. “My mother, you’d just look at her, and you’d do the right thing. My father was a disciplinarian. But he was always proud of me.”
As Anderson aged, his mantra didn’t change. But his outlook matured. It’s about passion, he decided one day. It’s about caring for the people who mold you into the person you become.
In the end, it’s about family.
Anderson’s passion as a player led Jefferson State Junior College to the 1980 national junior college championship game. In the following years, his passion caught the attention of teammates and coaches alike at Tulsa.
“They started to call him ‘Mighty Mouse’,” former Tulsa coach Nolan Richardson said. “Because he was a little guy who could make big things happen.”
After college, Anderson paid his dues, coached under Richardson at Tulsa and Arkansas. He continued to learn, but without a sense of entitlement. He never complained.
Eventually, Anderson landed his first head-coaching job in 2002 at UAB, building a program at the same time Missouri’s faltered. He led the Blazers to three consecutive NCAA tournaments, went to the Sweet 16 in 2004.
“He reminded me a lot of myself,” said Herman Frazier, University of Hawaii director of athletics, formerly at UAB. “Mike is as straight-forward as you can be.”
Since coming to MU, Anderson has made the rounds. Charity golf tournaments this week, team camps the next. He’s been the keynote speaker at countless events. Everything has become a blur.
But wherever he goes, the message stays the same.
“I’m going to win a national championship someday,” Anderson says. “Maybe that’s way out there for some people. But you got to have vision.”
For Anderson, vision has been a matter of survival, a way to keep his goals within reach. The struggle keeps him passionate. If a bear were to pick a fight with him, Anderson has said, then Heaven help that bear.
A familiar task faces Anderson in Columbia. He has a new family to share his passion with. He understands obstacles lie ahead. He understands he has a new bear to fight.
“People are taken in,” Anderson says with that smile. “Tiger Nation is thirsty for something to happen.”
* * *
The family grows as Anderson shares his philosophy. People listen. They want to care again.
The family hears about fast-paced basketball and recruiting victories. About closing the borders, making sure a talent like Poplar Bluff’s Tyler Hansbrough never leaves for Carolina’s bluer pastures.
The family hears about being proud of its Tigers. About the day when that $75 million arena stands full, because Missouri is ranked and it’s Big Monday. ESPN’s in town, the spotlight shining on Columbia for something that happens on the court for a change. Anderson tells them that day is soon.
“He can’t worry about what has happened,” says former coach Norm Stewart. “He can learn from it.”
The family hears about putting attitude back into the Black and Gold, about a vision for Tiger Basketball. A vision that includes them all: open practices, Antlers antics, Final Four road trips, the whole lot.
The family hears those things because it has to. But talking points only last so long. If it listens closely, the family will hear more. It will hear something that goes beyond anything said into a microphone.
It will hear about discipline. About how even though you’re a hotshot recruit, you can’t wear those earrings around Coach, son, because you will be a face of Missouri’s flagship institution, and the taxpayers deserve to be represented with class. It will hear how boys become men.
It will hear about camaraderie. About dinners at Anderson’s house, players staying late with guy talk floating from the kitchen over plates of lukewarm tacos, because the ice has melted and time stands still. It will hear how memories live forever.
“We try to support our players anyway we can,” wife Marcheita Anderson says. “They all have something to offer.”
It will hear about character. About how Anderson walked up to Stephanie Hannah’s door in dress slacks during a recruiting trip to visit her son, Stefhon. It will hear how Anderson stared deep into those eyes of hers and said, “I’ve been praying for you and your son,” because, for Anderson, every day is a prayer day. It will hear how maturity wins trust.
It will hear about loyalty. About telling young men to grab a few tissues and to load the UAB bus after a Conference USA tournament game, because Marvett McDonald lost his mother the other day. The funeral is a short drive away, and a teammate must not cry alone. It will hear how it’s important to grieve with your own.
If they listen closely, they will hear how Anderson touches lives.
“Any player who becomes a part of my family,” he says, “is a part of my family forever.”
* * *
It’s not quite noon, Mizzou Arena already buzzing with activity. It’s the second day of high-school team camps. Anderson will address the attendees soon. He’s about to sell himself again.
Donna Snyder sits at her computer, looking over the caravan’s schedule. An Eagle Scout dinner here, a jazz reception there. She recites the list. There doesn’t seem to be an empty date in sight.
“Some people think we don’t do much around here in the offseason,” Snyder says. “Obviously, they’re wrong.”
Anderson steps outside his office, ready for the next checkmark on a seemingly never-ending journey. This is the busy part of his year. Building family takes time.
But Anderson’s aware the honeymoon will end, that the court will define the image he has carefully crafted since his hire. Without success, the family will become dysfunctional again, his talking points will be ignored.
He can’t wait to prove himself.
“I’m ready for the 6 a.m. workouts, the conditioning,” Anderson says. “That’s when I’m in my element.”
In the end, he must produce to keep the family stable. Victories will make the Missouri fan base buy in to his methods.
“The problem concerning any fan is winning,” Richardson says. “Winning doesn’t cure something, it cures everything. You create the monster, then you must feed the monster.”
Before leaving, Anderson pauses and stops by Snyder’s desk. They discuss business, knowing inside every logistical detail lies a piece in shaping his image. He takes his time. He wants to get everything right.
The family man wants his passion to show.