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When abrupt and unexpected major personnel news emerges in the world of sports, it’s instinctive for media and fans to consider what oddities or issues might be at play behind the scenes.
So it was on Monday just after 5 p.m., when the University of Missouri announced with zero previous public hints of an impending change that, presto, by mutual agreement athletic director Jim Sterk would “step down from his position once a new leader is found.”
“We are grateful for the dedicated leadership Jim has provided over the last five years to position Mizzou for even greater success,” University of Missouri president Mun Choi said in a news release. “We recognize his many contributions and appreciate his continued role as we search for the next leader of Mizzou Athletics.”
The (apparent) suddenness, along with Sterk and MU leadership not being available for comment beyond the obligatory laudatory-but-antiseptic quotes in the statement, leaves the development hovering with the vibe of a controversy waiting to be explained.
At age 65, for instance, why not call this a retirement?
And it’s certainly possible there is a clarifying explanation that hasn’t met the eye that will emerge.
But if we can all stifle our cynicism for a moment, it’s also quite possible the answers, including the timing itself, are hidden in plain view. Especially when you consider that Sterk’s departure time frame is less than instant and could yet be months, seemingly indicative of at least a semi-amicable separation.
Interviews with several sources familiar with the dynamics of the MU athletics program projected a composite picture that looks like this:
With the impending addition of Oklahoma and Texas to the Southeastern Conference, the stakes just were raised dramatically to be competitive in the SEC. And Sterk, pleasant but reserved and to some, even aloof, didn’t possess the bold energy that Choi exudes and favors in visible and pivotal leadership roles.
For most of his tenure, Sterk enjoyed the deep support of chancellor Alexander Cartwright, who was hired in 2017 but left in 2020 to become president of the University of Central Florida (where Sterk was so widely believed to be a candidate for the athletic director job that he publicly refuted that in February.)
But between the temperament and tempo that Choi is understood to favor and some gaffes of Sterk’s along the way, he only tepidly endorsed Sterk. And when it came to a new sense of urgency with SEC expansion, the thinking goes, he determined it was time for a change.
Certainly, some of the words in the news release itself insinuate that MU is seeking something it was lacking.
“We now begin a national search for a visionary athletics director who will develop a strategic plan for Mizzou to achieve exceptional success in the SEC,” it said, “and to navigate a bold path in the rapidly evolving world of collegiate athletics.”
Keywords: “visionary” and “bold.”
Not that Sterk didn’t enjoy some notable success at MU, including being generally known as a good person. Mizzou staff and others close to the program were astonished by the news.
Among others he hired are promising young football coach Eliah Drinkwitz and men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin, whose leadership is a tremendous asset to the university in numerous ways even as pressure is mounting for an NCAA Tournament breakthrough.
Sterk had enormous fundraising success early on and presided over the $98 million south end zone project at Memorial Stadium. More recently, he helped drive a $34 million indoor football practice facility, for which ground is scheduled to be broken this fall.
In fact, the Tiger Scholarship Fund raised a record $55.5 million this year, per the release, eclipsing the record that also had been established under Sterk ($50.4 million in 2017).
Still, football might have been the most significant factor in the so-called mutual agreement to part.
Sure, some other issues surfaced along the way for Sterk, including the inherited mess of the NCAA academic fraud investigation that MU couldn’t fend off. And then there was the feud with South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley that led to a $50,000 settlement after Staley sued for defamation and slander.
(For the record, we figured the NCAA was at fault in how it dealt with Mizzou as it sent a broader message that it was better to deny responsibility than to cooperate. And in the Staley episode, we backed Sterk in what we considered a defense of his women’s basketball program that suggested a double-standard in how the SEC disciplined its programs.)
But it’s all about football performance in the SEC, and Missouri’s has been the very definition of mediocrity with a 30-30 record over the last five seasons (including 5-5 in Drinkwitz’s COVID-shortened debut last year).
On the surface, anyway, the circumstances of firing True Son Barry Odom only a year after extending his contract (and despite the distractions and constraints of NCAA sanctions looming all year) seemed a statement that Mizzou was targeting a home-run hire with name recognition to jolt those apathetic fans staying away in droves.
Instead, Sterk was effectively rebuked by the Board of Curators for his lackluster tentative list of finalists.
Though that launched a redo that led to Appalachian State’s Drinkwitz, no household name but possessed of charisma and credibility, the way it unfolded left some in power with the notion Sterk was out of his depth. Certainly, there was more to it than that, but Sterk never elaborated on how that went down.
It should be remembered that Mizzou still was reeling from the fallout of racially charged protests in 2015, the catalyst for sweeping leadership changes, when Sterk came on the job in 2016 … before Choi and Cartwright.
He helped stabilize that dismal scene and move Mizzou forward.
It’s just that now, with college athletics itself at numerous crossroads and MU on the precipice of a new frontier in the expanding SEC, Mizzou evidently is ready for a different sort of energy and vision in the job.
Maybe there’s more to it, of course.
But maybe it’s really all just right here in front of us.