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With hoops faithful awake, SEC hurdles await Missouri

9:25 AM, Nov 5, 2012   |    comments
Dec 30, 2011; Norfolk, VA, USA; Missouri Tigers head coach Frank Haith against the Old Dominion Monarchs at the Ted Constant Convocation Center. Mandatory Credit: Peter Casey-US PRESSWIRE
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Eric Prisbell, USA TODAY Sports

On an early autumn afternoon, Frank Haith meanders his Chevy Tahoe through a college town that not-so-warmly welcomed him a year ago with student-led plans of "a peaceful but adamant rejection of Frank Haith."

"There was no parade," Haith remembers.

A different vibe resonates in Columbia this fall. Haith walks into a local restaurant and is immediately greeted with pats on the back and words of encouragement. After Haith endured what he called the most trying season of his eight as a head coach, the perception of the maligned 46-year-old has evolved.

"He did the best coaching job in America," says Norm Stewart, Missouri's head coach from 1967 to 1999. "Right now, it is rolling. Everyone has great anticipation of some more good times."

Lingering questions persist. The NCAA continues to investigate allegations of rampant booster malfeasance involving Miami's sports programs, including the charge that Haith, when coaching there, was aware that booster Nevin Shapiro paid $10,000 for a recruit's commitment. Haith declined to comment on specifics of the case during a recent lunch, other than saying, "I am innocent."

And despite a 30-win season that included a Big 12 tournament title, the final snapshot came in a despondent locker room, where players sobbed and buried heads in hands after a stunning first-round NCAA tournament loss to 15th seed Norfolk State.

There is no question," Haith says of his first full year at Missouri, "it was pretty tough."

First-year coaches, especially when considered consolation prizes, are often initially rejected by their communities. But what distinguished Haith's season was its perpetual volatility and how he confronted it.

When word trickled out about Missouri's hire during the 2011 Final Four, fans were left slack-jawed at the choice to replace Mike Anderson because of Haith's 43-69 Atlantic Coast Conference record in seven seasons at Miami.

When Yahoo! Sports unveiled its exhaustive Miami investigation, it raised questions about Haith's recruiting tactics.

And when Missouri's Laurence Bowers, the team's best returning big man, suffered a season-ending knee injury, the Big 12 title hopes looked lost last October.

That's when Haith cobbled together an undersized seven-man rotation, moved 6-6 shooting guard Kim English to power forward and stewarded the team forward, unified behind the slogan "We're all we got."

And now Haith has two national coach of the year awards to show for the results.

 

Bowers says the public's negativity got so bad that players wanted to win for Haith. And when Missouri authored a banner regular season, Bowers says, "It literally shut everyone up. To come into a school that pretty much didn't want him except for the athletic department, the guy has fought through so much."

Calling Haith the best coach he has ever had, English, the Big 12 tournament MVP, who is now with the NBA's Detroit Pistons, says Missouri fans have a "sense of entitlement to what Missouri basketball is, but at that time it was not Kentucky, not Duke, not North Carolina, not UCLA, not Indiana. You can take all those coaches out of the mix who you may have loved to have. But we got a gem."

Throughout the season, Haith says, he received a steady stream of letters and e-mails from fans, many of whom apologized for initially criticizing his hire. And amid the thousands of early-season critics, the opinion of one observer stays with him most.

Before the Dec. 22 game against Illinois, a gray-haired man approached after practice and simply said, "You're off to a good start."

Said Haith, "Well, I've got some really good players, and they are working hard."

"Don't give me that crap," the man responded. "I am not some media member. You are doing a hell of a job coaching this team. I have seen this team play in the past. What you are doing, you are doing a hell of a job."

Haith then thanked Bob Knight for his feedback. "It meant something," Haith says. "It was special."

What impressed Stewart in particular was how even keeled Haith remained despite the relentless backlash.

"It's part of your job, but I wasn't very good at it," Stewart says. "If you react to every win with emotion and every loss with emotion, you'll be at the psychiatrist's office more often than you'll be at practice. I really think he does an outstanding job handling himself."

Besides winning, what Haith - the face of basketball throughout the state - gave Missouri was a sense of what he called his "heartbeat." Who is this guy? What is he about? So Haith spoke all over the Show Me state.

Shaken by the devastation of the tornado in Joplin, Mo., Haith also was among those who visited in the days after the disaster, standing amid debris and helping distribute donations. Haith and other Missouri officials pushed for the Tigers to continue their relief effort by playing an exhibition game in Joplin.

Throughout the season, the Missouri community, as well as his players, learned that Haith represented more than a middling ACC win-loss record.

"His personality, his morals wowed me," point guard Phil Pressey says. "He is more a father figure than a coach, a second father."

His path to the highest level of college basketball coaching has not been smooth. One of 10 children, Haith was 5 when he and a sibling were sent to live with their grandmother in Elon, N.C., because the sheer number of children became too much for their father in New York.

When Haith was old enough to play sports, he once became so determined to continue to compete despite a leg broken in two places that he grabbed a knife and sawed off his cast.

While he took classes at Elon, to stay financially afloat at one point his living arrangements were nothing if not convenient: a janitor's closet.

He knew he was hired at Miami in 2004 because of his recruiting prowess. Despite the inherent challenges with the Miami job, a large portion of Missouri's fan base painted him as an inferior coach.

Haith says the community overall has been great, and he praises the fans' passion. But the criticism hurt.

"Does it sting a little? Yeah. Motivates me? Yeah, all those things," he says. "But I know what (the staff and players) are capable of. I worked my whole life to prepare myself. I am not going to be unprepared."

With the backlash quieted, new challenges abound.

Though they add an impressive crop of newcomers, including Connecticut transfer Alex Oriakhi, the Tigers return 29.7% of their scoring. And they are poised to embark on their first season in the Southeastern Conference.

"They are going to see really where his coaching stands," Bowers says. "This year will be a true testament to his coaching. And I think he again will prove his worth."

 

 

 

 

 

 

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