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March 10, 2012

Mizzou's faith in Haith rewarded with Big 12 title

KANSAS CITY--As Frank Haith mounted a ladder positioned beneath the basket at one end of the Sprint Center floor, Kim English paused in an interview and looked up.

"That should be the national coach of the year right there," English said.

Haith had guided his team to the Big 12 championship and its 30th win in 34 tries with a 90-75 win over Baylor about 30 minutes before. He had accepted the championship trophy about 10 minutes prior. In between, he had stood on the court with his family, all trying - and failing - to hold back a few tears of joy.

"We are an extension of him," English said. "He doesn't care what you say negatively about him. He doesn't care when people praise him. He only cares about what his team has to do. We won this championship for him as much as we won it for our teammates, our state, Mizzou fans all over the nation."

That it had reached this point is perhaps college basketball's most shocking development. Hired from Miami with a 43-69 conference record, seen widely as Missouri's (at best) second choice, Haith was embattled from the start in Columbia. Message boards melted down, national experts took their shots, even those fans English referenced could not believe where director of athletics Mike Alden had turned after Mike Anderson's departure.

"I don't think anybody could have pictured this," Alden said, conducting interviews along the baseline as his coach celebrated a conference title.

Haith acknowledged he heard the criticism. He has said he read it all. What he did not do, his players say, is let any of it get to him.

"No, not at all," Matt Pressey said. "Everybody's gonna harp on you, you have guys out there hating and saying certain things. I think coach Haith's done a great job of handling all the adversity and still winning in the process."

"We spent a lot of time together, an awful lot of time together," Alden said. "I would tell you this: He's an awfully strong man. He has a strong faith and he has a strong family and he has strong friends. He always stayed focused."

"He's been even keeled all through it," Marcus Denmon added. "I think that's something that allowed us to do the same."

Haith and his band of seven scholarship players ran roughshod over the competition. They beat Notre Dame by 29, Cal by 39. They finished the non-conference season undefeated. They responded to their first loss by winning four straight, their second by reeling off seven in a row. They beat Kansas in miraculous fashion before losing a game and the regular-season league title to the Jayhawks in heartbreaking fashion. They came to Kansas City on a mission to reign supreme over "our city," as they called it all weekend.

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When it was over, when Denmon had dribbled out the clock and English had accepted the trophy as the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, there was Haith standing solemnly, soaking in the 12 months that have redefined him as a coach.

"He's a passionate guy. Those tears of joy, he's just so happy for us and all that we've been through since the coaching change, all the controversy with him and Miami," Ricardo Ratliffe said. "I'm pretty sure it just took a toll on him."

"I think it's special," Denmon said. "People don't understand the hard work that all of our coaches put in. So much hard work, extra time with us. I think it's really special for us to be able to come here, win this and have a season like we're having."

And Alden, who took no small amount of heat himself for putting the program in the hands of Frank Haith, choked back tears himself as he was asked about his emotions.

"You have so much joy to be able to see a group of people work so hard toward a common goal and to do it the right way, focus on the right things," he said. "To be able to see that really culminate in a celebration like this, it is very emotional. It's something I think that is kind of hard to describe. It's been wonderful. It creates something in your heart that just makes you feel great."

It started as a Twitter hashtag, as a rallying cry from only the most positive of Tiger fans. And on Saturday night in Kansas City, as the fans chanted "S-E-C" and "one seed" and didn't want to leave, they all finally had it:

Faith in Haith.

"Boy, I tell you," Alden said, the pride evident, "The future looks really bright with all the things we have going on."

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