The Story of Kim Anderson
The story of Kim Anderson is so familiar to Tiger fans, I won’t linger on it here, but for the sake of context, let’s try and note the important bits. The controversial final hire of longtime AD, Mike Alden, Anderson was the “True Son” choice and protégé of legendary coach Norm Stewart. Anderson had coached Central Missouri University to an NCAA Division II national championship and inherited a huge mess, courtesy of Frank Haith. Amassing a total of 19 wins in two seasons, and seemingly unable to recruit or retain talent, Anderson’s defenders had already begun defecting when the 2016-17 season begun. Then non-conference losses to Eastern Illinois, North Carolina Central, and Lipscomb cleared the bandwagon of even the most loyal holdouts.
Tiger fan morale is at a historic low, and thus the story is no longer one of Kim Anderson, but of Jim Sterk, whose strategy for dismissals we know precious little about. This is not because he hasn’t been in Missouri long, but instead it's because despite a more than 21-year career as an athletic director, the man has had a surprisingly thin track record on removing high profile coaches from their position.
So, what do we know about Sterk? Most notably, we know he was at the center of a wrongful termination lawsuit from a successful women’s basketball coach, while he served as athletic director at San Diego State University. Sterk was called in to testify and faced no legal or financial penalties, but it created somewhat of a dark cloud over his hire here in Tiger Country. On a more positive note, Sterk has been the beneficiary of a number of large private contributions to the athletic department and has led the charge on renovating the football stadium’s south end zone; a major strategic goal for remaining competitive in the SEC’s ongoing facilities arms race.
What do we need to know about Sterk?
Refreshers about Kim Anderson and Jim Sterk aside, what might be most important moving forward is what you might not already know; namely, what does Jim Sterk’s long track record in university athletics tell us about how he plans to rebuild the basketball program. The Anderson era is over, and Sterk is the one person who will decide what is next. Let’s delve into Sterk’s past and try to gain some insight into his approach to personnel. One thing that’s striking about Sterk’s time leading four different programs is that he has only ever fired one basketball coach and one football coach in 21-plus years. There are a lot of things that one could read into this, but rather than speculate, let’s try and see why this is.
Portland State Vikings 1995-2000
Sterk’s first leadership position was at Portland State where he launched their basketball program that had been dormant for 15 years. He hired first-time coach Ritchie McKay who posted a winning record in just his second year, and used the success as a launching pad to gain a coaching job at Colorado State. Sterk then hired Joel Sobotka who posted two more winning seasons before Sterk took the AD job at Washington State.
On the football field, Sterk inherited Tim Walsh, who had come off of three straight seasons leading Portland State to the NCAA Division II playoffs. Walsh struggled with rebuilding teams in the first few years of Sterk’s tenure but the athletic director remained patient and the Vikings were back in the playoffs by the time Sterk left Portland.
In a similar tale to today, Sterk inherited a mess of a basketball program at Washington State. Paul Graham could not even muster ten wins in three out of his four years as head coach, and following the 2002-03 season, after 30-year lows in attendance and wins, it was clear his time at Wazzu was done. In his eighth year as an athletic director, Sterk made his first high profile Division I firing.
"The decision is based upon the last four years ... the overall picture of the basketball program," Sterk said of the decision.
Tasked with rebuilding the basketball program, Sterk turned to veteran coach Dick Bennett who in three years did not manage one winning season, but amped up recruiting to a new level and amassed a few exciting victories over traditional Pac-10 powers UCLA, Arizona, and Stanford. After three seasons as head coach, Bennett retired and handed the team over to his son Tony Bennett.
The younger Bennett would become Sterk's greatest basketball hire, by quickly turning Washington State around, tallying 26 wins in both 2006-07 and 2007-08, tying a school record. After the 2006-07 season, Bennett was named the AP Coach of the Year, Naismith Coach of the Year, and won the prestigious Henry Iba Award. He was hired away by the University of Virginia in 2009.
Sterk’s final basketball coaching hire at Washington State was a man named (and I’m not kidding here…) Ken Bone. (No relation) Bone had a few years of success but nothing to match what Bennett had achieved while leading the Cougars.
Regarding the Wazzu football team, when Sterk arrived, he had the benefit of Mike Price, one of their most successful football coaches in the modern era. In just Sterk's second year as AD, Price took the Cougars to a #9 national ranking and a Rose Bowl berth. Price was hired away by Alabama but was fired just four months into his tenure there after repeated reports of publicly boozing and carousing with strippers.
With what would be his first major Division I hire, Sterk named Bill Doba, Price’s former defensive coordinator. In his first season has head coach, Doba led the Cougars to a 10-3 record, but was never again able to achieve a winning record. After a 5-7 2007 season, Sterk faced his first major football firing. Sterk held back the axe until the completion of the 2007 season, which ended up complicating the decision. Doba won his final game against WSU’s archrival Washington Huskies, forcing Sterk to acknowledge the win while removing the coach, noting that, “You want to take a full body of work before you make a decision on something like this."
Sterk hired Eastern Washington head coach Paul Wulff who ended up as likely the worst major hire in Sterk’s career. Wulff was fired by Sterk’s successor after four seasons, having amassed a 9-40 career record at Washington State.
Jim Sterk had the easiest job in the world when it came to overseeing the SDSU basketball program. His only role was to stay out of the way of longtime head coach Steve Fisher who routinely posted 20-plus win seasons and conference titles.
There was a little more work to be done with the football program as red-hot head coach Brady Hoke was snatched up by Michigan after a 9-4 2010 season (in which a #12 Missouri beat them, ahem). Sterk continued a hiring trend in football by once again promoting a defensive coordinator, this time in the form of the veteran former New Mexico Lobos coach, Rocky Long. One of the top hires in Sterk’s professional career, Long has remained San Diego State’s coach to this day and has taken them to a bowl game every year he’s been at the helm.
What does the past teach us?
There we have it. Two major firings in more than 21 years. Does that mean Jim Sterk only makes good hires? Not necessarily. Sterk was hired by San Diego State in time to let his successor at Washington State deal with a terrible football coach. Does it mean that Sterk hangs on to bad coaches too long? That’s not necessarily the case either. Sterk has shown patience, for instance in allowing Tim Walsh to re-find his footing at Portland State. He’s also shown willingness to yank a coach when the time calls for it, as he did with Paul Graham at Wazzu.
I believe the lack of many high profile firings stems from a combination of factors. For the most part, Sterk has made good hires. And for most of Sterk’s career, he has led smaller or less prestigious athletic programs. When one makes a successful hire in these types of environments, it often means those hires are quickly stolen away by bigger programs. This means you have more bites at the apple on coaching decisions, and you have more chances to make a mistake. Sterk has dealt with a lot of successful coaches leaving after just a couple of good years, and has done especially well making follow-up hires that maintain momentum. Another factor leading to stability in Sterk’s time has been benefitting from inheriting seasoned veteran coaches who he allows to maintain success under his watch. Sure, inheriting a good coach can make any AD look good, but it’s also quite easy for a meddlesome AD to disrupt a successful program.
How does this tie into Kim Anderson?
Given Sterk’s past, I think we can expect a patient decision maker. To the dismay of many Mizzou fans, that likely means Anderson’s dismissal will not happen until the conclusion of the season. What we likely have to look forward to however is a well-thought out and likely successful coaching hire for 2017-18. While Sterk hasn’t had a great deal of experience firing coaches, he has shown a talented eye for hiring them.