Shortly after officially deciding to part ways with former Missouri men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin, freshman MUAthletic manager Desiree Reed-Francois called the new opening “one of the best men’s basketball coaching jobs in the country”.
But given that United are now facing their fifth managerial change in 16 years, how desirable can that be?
Moving to the Southeastern Conference in 2012 — which at the time wholeheartedly adopted the “football conference” motto — seemed like a perfect opportunity for a nationally ranked Missouri basketball program. to start collecting additional material against the less impressive league.
But after 10 years at the SEC, the Tigers are far from sniffing out any kind of material.
The combined conference record of 63-115 over the past 10 seasons puts Missouri in last place in the SEC. In the eight SEC tournaments United have entered, four have featured him in the qualifying round. It would have been five if the Tigers hadn’t been banned postseason in 2016. And it would have been six if the COVID-19 outbreak hadn’t canceled the 2020 SEC tournament.
Only Vanderbilt and Auburn have had more play-in appearances since 2012 than United, both with five. But considering Auburn hasn’t done so since 2017 and is currently two seeds in the NCAA Tournament, it’s safe to say that Auburn made it out of the dreadful first day.
But even in Missouri’s best seasons since joining the league, it hasn’t finished better than fifth (2018) and made it past the SEC Tournament quarterfinal in three tries. In its three appearances in the NCAA Tournament, the Tigers have failed to make it past the first weekend.
While most conference teams have trended upward since the conference expansion, United has gone in the opposite direction.
Nonetheless, Missouri’s solid basketball history still allows for some truth in Reed-Francois’ claims.
The Tigers rank fifth among SEC teams in all-time wins with 1,683. Only Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama and Tennessee have more.
MU have played in 28 tournaments – seven of them have resulted in Sweet-16s and five times the Tigers have reached the Elite Eight. The Tigers have won eight conference tournament championships, including the 2012 Big 12 Tournament which was the final season before they switched conferences. Additionally, Missouri also has 15 regular season conference titles. Seven different Tigers have been named first-team All-Americans.
This long list of accolades has allowed MU to be part of some of the sport’s top rivalries in Kansas and Illinois as well. Fans’ passion for supporting the Tigers in these rivalry games has at times shown the entire country what an environment the Missouri faithful can bring, whether it’s at Mizzou Arena or the Enterprise Center.
And because of the passionate fan base and history, many, like ESPN college basketball writer and author John Gasaway, believe working in Missouri is still very attractive despite the lack of recent success.
“There is reason for hope,” Gasaway said. “Missouri has a basketball history and a fan base that really wants a winner. These are positive things. You often hear these things phrased as negative for coaches, but I think that’s what (a coach) wants.
Of course, the move to the SEC could have put the Tigers in this current state in the first place. But it is the same conference that can actually benefit them in this reconstruction.
“The SEC has seen some really good rebuilds in its recent history here,” Gasaway said.
The most successful rebuild has been Auburn, but smaller rebuilds in places like Arkansas and Alabama have allowed once-historic programs to reemerge as contenders.
Although several teams are joining Missouri in seeking reconstruction this offseason — South Carolina, LSU and Georgia have all fired their coaches — MU may already be in a better position than some.
“Yeah, it’s a rebuild for Missouri,” Gasaway said. “But it’s not something on the scale of what Georgia is looking at. It’s really a ground-up kind of process that they’re going to have to look at.
“Then you have (LSU) looking like they’re going to face some major NCAA upset for the foreseeable future. And that’s spreading a little more talent around.
No sanctions have been officially issued to LSU, but many expect the program to receive sanctions soon due to now fired coach Will Wade and his payout scandal. This will hurt LSU’s chances of securing potential coaches who are unwilling to deal with the setbacks anticipated.
The SEC is now considered one of the top conferences in college basketball, making the Missouri open more attractive to top coaching candidates.
“A stronger conference, I think, makes it easier to get a good coach. I think the candidates are saying, ‘Yeah, we want some of that action,’ when maybe that wasn’t so much the case. ten years ago,” Gasaway said.
But Gasaway warns that if the Missouri faithful are going to wait for the next version of Norm Stewart to lead the Tigers for 38 seasons, the wait is going to be very long.
Gasaway noted that in today’s game, the most senior coaches either work in “top-notch” programs, like Duke or Syracuse, or in small, mid-sized programs. It’s rare to find a major conference program that isn’t a blue chip to hang on to coaches for long. And even if a coach has managed to stay more than 15 seasons in a school, the star is always called upon to appear.
“You look at a guy like Mike Brey, who has been (at Notre Dame) for 22 years. And Notre Dame is definitely not a safe bet,” Gasaway said.
And despite leading his program to back-to-back Elite Eights in 2015 and 2016 and having a .652 winning percentage with the Irish, Gasaway mentioned the hot seat placed on Brey after a 4-5 start this season. Brey managed to finish second in the Atlantic Coastal Conference and made the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s much more often the case that a program can have a coach like Norm Stewart, but they choose to fire the coach before he reaches Norm Stewart’s tenure,” Gasaway said.
Patience is wearing thin for college basketball fans in general, but it’s thinning especially for Missouri fans after the past 10 seasons of disappointing results.
Martin leaves behind a 78-77 record in his five seasons in Colombia. While not exactly the most impressive record, the 27-68 record left by his predecessor Kim Anderson shows that the program has improved under Martin’s leadership. It just wasn’t enough.
Martin’s fifth season saw record turnovers coupled with record shooting numbers since taking over the Tigers. His inability to recruit after appearing in last season’s tournament was a clear indication that the program had taken another painful step backwards.
When the East St. Louis product was hired to replace Anderson in 2017, many hoped he could do what Anderson couldn’t: recruit and lock down the St. Louis area.
But with the city’s best prospects still picking top-notch programs — think Cam’Ron Fletcher (Kentucky) and Caleb Love (North Carolina) — over the flagship university, Martin’s performance in recruiting failed to meet high expectations.
But the idea of locking himself into what Reed-Francois called a “recruiting hotbed” is unrealistic and something that shouldn’t be expected for the next coach.
“You can’t lock places,” Gasaway said, referring to St. Louis. “You can’t just win these battles by just saying, ‘We’re the University of Missouri.’ There’s too much talent coming out. Yeah, Duke and Kansas, and other places are going to get their fair share.
But (Missouri) can still have some really good players. You stay in that quest and you build those relationships, and you get what you can even if you’re not going to get a monopoly.
Gasaway highlighted when Lon Kruger left Florida after becoming frustrated that he couldn’t keep talent in the state after Vince Carter chose North Carolina. He assumed it was impossible to win a championship in a program like Florida. However, Billy Donovan then took over the Gators job and ended up winning back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007.
“You can do the job in your public school even if your state’s talent is poached,” Gasaway said.
Using the history of the Big Eight and Big 12 and combining it with the current state of pro-reconstruction SEC men’s basketball, Gasaway believes the Tigers have a great opportunity to rebuild quickly.
But everything seems to depend on who Reed-François decides to hire to be the next head coach.