Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk had an eventful week.
On Jan. 26, the same day Sterk fired softball coach Ehren Earleywine, it was announced that junior point guard Terrence Phillips, who is the subject of an ongoing Title IX investigation, was suspended from the men’s basketball team indefinitely.
Then, after a scuffle led to two ejections in the Missouri women’s basketball team’s loss last Sunday to South Carolina, Sterk made national headlines for alleging that South Carolina fans spat at and directed racial slurs toward Tigers players and that Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley had fostered an unhealthy atmosphere at Colonial Life Arena. Staley and South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner clapped back at Sterk and demanded a response that did not come.
On Friday, the Missourian sat down with Sterk to discuss the Missouri softball situation, Counzo Martin, Barry Odom’s contract extension, new projects for athletic facilities and several other topics as the end of the winter sports season draws near.
Was there a particular incident that led to softball coach Ehren Earleywine being fired 13 days before the season?
“I think I’ve said what I’m going to say on that. There’s no great time, anytime, for those kinds of changes. But I’ll just stick with the statements I have.”
Gina Fogue has been named the team’s interim head coach. What will the coaching search at the end of the season look like?
“It’ll be a national search, but, as I said, (Fogue) has an inside track because she has the opportunity to prove herself, and she’s never been a head coach before. She’s taking on a big challenge, but I think she’s up to the task. So it’ll be a search that looks for the right coach for us to continue to move and even bring the program to a higher level then it’s been.”
What sort of season would she and the team need to have for the interim tag to be dropped and for her to be retained?
“I think it’s not just wins and losses. I told the team that. It’s about can she run the program, the confidence in recruiting and all of those things that I think are indicators of a program moving on an upward trajectory. Moving forward, if there’s that kind of momentum, she’ll be a hard candidate to beat.”
What were your thoughts on Cuonzo Martin’s speech in the locker room to Stephen F. Austin after Missouri’s 82-81 win on Dec. 19, and what does that say about him?
“I think he wouldn’t have probably done it if he knew he was filmed, but he does things behind the scenes that shows his great character and the quality of person that he is. That was indicative of the type of person he is, that he respects people that work hard and do it the right way, and I think he wanted to tell them that.”
When a Title IX investigation is lodged into a student-athlete, what does that process look like? Does it start in the athletic department or in the Title IX office?
“If there’s an allegation, it goes to the Title IX office. We may or may not hear about it if it’s a student-athlete until it reaches a certain point. They’re kind of an independent safe haven.”
Do events like the ones going on at Michigan State have an influence on how you make your decisions here?
“That’s a piece of our world, so it has to come into play. How it influences decisions, it depends on the situation. But it’s a part of our life, and you know, it’s a part of every university in the country.”
What did you see from coach Barry Odom over the final few months of the football season that made you reward him with a two-year extension?
“I think it was happening for him and the team before those final few months, and I tried to explain that to people when we were 1-5. There were a lot of indicators that things were going right within the locker room, and he hadn’t lost the student-athletes. They were all working together as a staff and student-athletes to get better, and then they started to show it on the field, as well. I think those were things that, again, showed the program was moving in the right direction as opposed to going on a downward slide. I didn’t think it was headed that way, so we wanted to make sure, as far as Barry, that people outside also saw that and recognized that and knew that he was being rewarded with an extension.”
How involved were you in the search for a new offensive coordinator, and what are your thoughts on Derek Dooley?
“That was Barry’s hire; all I do is kind of sign off on it. Barry went down and interviewed him in person, and he had spent a lot of time getting to that point. But he came away very impressed, obviously, and we feel he (Dooley) will really lead the offense in a great way.”
You’re very proud and vocal about the achievements of the school’s nonrevenue sports teams; what has led to those successes?
“I think it’s the quality of the coaches that are leading those programs, like a Brian Smith (wrestling) or a Robin (Pingeton) (women’s basketball) or Marc Burns (cross country/track distance, mid-distance), who’s building a heck of a distance team. Those kinds of coaches attract high-quality student-athletes. Then there’s the support that they have behind them; we have a staff here of people that care about that student-athlete experience and try to provide one of the best ones. Those coaches are doing a great job, but they have the support of the medical training, and the physical training, administration, facilities, so they have a lot of people working with them.”
What are your thoughts on the ongoing debate over NCAA transfer rules, and where do you see it ending up?
“Boy, I don’t know. I think there’s good and bad with everything. I think you want to give the opportunity if a student wants to leave and have immediate eligibility somewhere else, but then you don’t want recruiting going on, so that players are leaving right after the season. Someone gave the example, ‘If it was just open to everyone, you could have your 11 guys in basketball all gone,’ and then what do you do? I think there’s a lot of discussion that needs to take place, and hopefully it forms around some really positive things that are positive for the student-athletes but yet protects the integrity of the game so that schools can still offer a great experience. I like the graduate transfer rule. If they’ve shown that they’ve academically done what they needed to do at that school and then if they want an opportunity, I think that’s something. It gives them an option.”
In both men’s and women’s basketball, the SEC is having one of its strongest seasons in recent history. What does that say about where the conference is right now?
“I think it’s great, because if you go .500 in our league and you have a strong RPI like we had coming in, you have an opportunity to be in the postseason. It’s about the type of coaches that you have and building the program. There’s some really good coaches within the league, both men and women, so it’s going to be a great tournament. Both of them are going to be really good, and this last month of play, who knows where everything ends up.”
What sort of progress has been made in the construction of the new south end zone at Faurot Field?
“They’re still in the demolition phase. I believe the first of the month it totally goes down. They’re trying to salvage what’s salvageable in there, but the lockers, the seats, they’re gone. I haven’t looked from the inside to see what it looks like now, but I know part of it looks torn apart. But it’s getting there, and then they totally tear it down in the first part of March.”
Come the Sept. 1, 2018, home opener against UT Martin, what will the construction look like? Will it resemble what some fans saw at Arkansas’ Razorback Stadium last year?
“I think so. ... I think it will probably be similar. They were further along by the time we got there later in the season, but I think it’ll probably look a lot like that.” In addition to the south end zone project, new turf was laid down at Taylor Stadium. Are there any other projects in the works?
“There’s a number of needs and wants with our coaches, and we’re gathering those, and at some point we’ll probably release those. We’re putting together kind of a master plan, if you will, or a master list of needs and wants. But there’s plenty out there, and each of our coaches have facility needs that they think can help move their program forward.”
Supervising editors are Brooks Holton and Pete Bland: sports@columbia missourian.com, 882-5730.