Monday, Missouri coach Cindy Stein announced she will resign at the conclusion of this season. This doesn’t come as a surprise except possibly in the timing … the last-place Tigers,11-16 overall and 1-13 in the Big 12, have two more regular-season games and then will compete in the league tournament.
I’m not sure why the announcement came this week … it’s bad enough to be presumed “out the door,” but you’d think even worse to have that confirmed while you still have work to do. Perhaps this gives fans and opposing coaches a chance to say goodbye to Stein, who has always seemed well-liked by both.
Whatever the case, it will soon be time to talk about a new era in women’s basketball at MU.
Will this job lure a group of strong candidates who see the possibilities _ a state-of-the-art, still-like-new arena, a strong/respected academic institution, being situated halfway between two large metro areas, membership in the conference that has led the nation in women’s hoops attendance the last decade – and feel they can take advantage of those things?
Or will they see Mizzou Arena as a mausoleum for women’s basketball, and view the program as having the least vitality in a mostly enthusiastic and hopeful league? Will they wonder if they can change decades of crushing indifference by the community and alums?
As a 1987 Missouri graduate who covered the MU women’s hoops team for three years in college and then for 12 seasons while I was at the Kansas City Star, I have actually followed this program longer than any other in women’s basketball. I went to my first game at age 18, and now I’m nearly 45. I’m not sure exactly how to describe all those years for the program in a way that won’t sound depressing.
Which is not entirely accurate – it hasn’t all been bad, by any means. The Tigers were NCAA tournament contenders for most of the 1980s, going the first five years of the event, and they have made the field three times in the 2000s, most recently in 2006. The high point under Stein was in 2001, when an Amanda Lassiter-led team upset Georgia on the Dogs’ home court to advance to the Sweet 16.
But even that season, Missouri was eclipsed in its own state by Missouri State and Jackie Stiles, who made the Final Four for the second time in the Bears’ history.
I see this resignation as sad but necessary. Sad because it’s always hard to see someone have to leave a job when you know she really did not want to. But necessary because Stein, 184-175 in 12 seasons, was just treading the same water and going nowhere. The Tigers’ best Big 12 showing was finishing fourth in 2006; they went on to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Since, it’s not that they have been an awful team in terms of playing ability, but that has not translated into many wins. Let alone increased fan interest for the program.
Missouri has made strides forward in most of its sports programs in the last several years, men’s and women’s. Whether a flame of potential can be lit with women’s hoops remains to be seen in whom the school hires and how much it’s willing to put financially into the program.
Stein was not hired by athletic director Mike Alden; he came shortly after she did in 1998. They worked together for 12 years, but I never got the sense he was very invested in her or the program _ certainly not the way several other Big 12 schools have been invested in their coaches and programs. But that’s not uncommon with ADs in regard to someone they didn’t hire.
Alden has made some hires in his time at MU that right now would be judged successful, led by Gary Pinkel in football and Mike Anderson in men’s hoops. But he also had the odd saga of his first big hire, Quin Snyder, who started well in men’s basketball but ended badly.
Based on the success that Missouri has had in softball, volleyball and women’s soccer, I don’t have any reason to think Alden doesn’t care at all about women’s sports. I think like most ADs, he certainly doesn’t want them to be lousy. Is that the same thing as being really emotionally invested in them? No … but, again, that describes most ADs in BCS conferences.
They are CEOs who need to make money off their cash-cow sports and figure out ways to make everything else work. When women’s basketball makes a rise and adds to the coffers – usually not actually producing revenue, but becoming less of a revenue drain – even the ADs who don’t really care are cheered up.
We will find out soon how serious Alden and the university are about what it thinks MU women’s basketball can accomplish under new leadership. It’s not like there is a strong, vocal demand from Mizzou grads/fans that Alden hit a “home run” with this hire, since so many of them pay little or no attention to this program anyway.
However, even most of those folks don’t want him to strike out with the hire, either. And if there is to be any hope to get them to ever care about Mizzou women’s hoops, what happens next is critical.
I wish I could optimistically say I think Missouri, with a fresh slate, will do everything it can to field a more competitive program and truly work on building community/alumni interest. But Missouri will have to do something with this hire to warrant optimism.