Sometimes good intentions go awry. I truly had no plans to write about Mike Anderson today. I was fully content to let a sleeping Hawg lie.
The day before his return to Mizzou Arena, Anderson threw a not-so-subtle jab at Frank Haith, saying "That was a team that probably could have contended for a Final Four. I really thought that...It was in great shape. Most guys don't inherit a team like that."
And still, I thought, the boos would rain down, the Tigers would roll over the Razorbacks and the fans would get the cathartic closure they needed. All of that happened. Anderson was booed. The students brought derisive signs. Missouri won by 30 and Arkansas posed no threat in the game's final 30 minutes.
With that, really, it should have been over. Of course, in the post-game press conference, there would be some questions about returning to his old stomping grounds, the emotions that brought forth, and so on. I anticipated fairly mundane talk about how it was just another game, it was Missouri versus Arkansas and the rest of that stuff was just filler for us simpletons in the media who can't figure out another way to satisfy our readers with a sufficient amount of content.
But those weren't the answers Anderson gave.
"I was doing what's best for me and my family," Anderson said in response to a question about not making any public statements upon his departure from Columbia. "It's a tough decision and I still say that. That's what it was, a tough decision. It's no different than, think about it. Just think about it. Missouri's in the Big 12 right? Okay? Conference realignment's taking place. What did Missouri do? They did what's best for them."
All right. Fair point. And had it stopped there, still, nothing is likely written beyond the puff pieces about the fans booing Anderson and Anderson ignoring it. Of course, you know by now, it didn't stop there.
"I didn't know what to expect," Anderson said of the reception from Tiger fans. "But at the same time, you've got to remember now, it's a basketball game. Emotion's sky high. Passion. That's what's in there. There's passion again."
Good answer, coach. Stop now. PLEASE. STOP. NOW. Oh, you're not done, Mike?
"When I got here, it was empty," Anderson continued. "It was empty, 'Damn, they got a program over there?' All of a sudden it's changed now. That's good. I think that's good. Sometimes you guys need to write about and talk about that."
Let's do. Let's write about that. Let's talk about it.
Mike Anderson did a good job at Mizzou. He won 111 games in five years. He did it taking over a program that was as low as it had been in 40 years when a Mizzou alum named Norm Stewart came back to coach his alma mater. Remember that guy Mike? If not, hopefully you looked down if you walked across the floor on the way out of the arena last night. His name is ON THE COURT.
Let me say that no one likes to be told they are second-best. And that is what Anderson effectively told Missouri fans when he left. I like you, but I love Arkansas. And that's fine and there's not one thing wrong with him feeling that way. Honestly, he intimated that Missouri was barely better than Oregon or Georgia so Mizzou may not even have been in Anderson's top five or ten or twenty-five. So is there some bitterness from Tiger fans? Not a single doubt about it.
Like I said, Anderson did a good job in Columbia. He won quite a few games. He won a Big 12 tournament. He advanced to the Elite Eight, matching Stewart and Quin Snyder as coaches who have made Missouri's deepest run in the NCAA Tournament.
But can we stop with the notion that Mike Anderson built Missouri basketball? (To be fair, nobody but Anderson appears to really believe that). Stewart won some games. He won 731 of them to be exact. The program existed and thrived before Anderson got to town. And if 52 wins in 65 games (that's an 80% clip) is any indication, the Tigers just may keep playing ball now that he's gone.
The program was in bad, bad shape when he got here. There is no denying it. Had he left after three years, it would have been in phenomenal shape. Even after five, it was on solid ground. Of course, Anderson lost five of his last six games at Mizzou, four of them by double digits. And there was the small matter of leaving a roster with seven seniors and zero, yes ZERO, freshmen.
Was it a Final Four caliber team Anderson had left? Well, if so, that says more about Anderson's failure to get that squad out of the first round than it does Haith's. Haith won 30 games and a Big 12 tournament and had his defense fail to show up at the wrong time against a hot team. Anderson had the same players and fielded a team that had no business in the NCAA Tournament by the time it actually got a bid. And the team that Haith has now? Only two of the players were brought to Mizzou by Mike Anderson.
But, yes, to be fair to Mike Anderson, the program was clearly in better shape when he left than when he got here. Not even while wearing the most black-and-gold tinted glasses on the face of the planet can you argue that point. However, contrary to his apparent belief, Mike Anderson is a chapter in Missouri's basketball history, not the whole book. It's a pretty short chapter and not even the best chapter.
In a way, last night was great. The boos, the game, the comments, all of it. Last night brought back memories of some other great games at Mizzou Arena. The biggest difference? A different shade of red and two extra letters in front of the word kansas.
Even in all those battles with the hated Jayhawks, we never saw one coach go after another. The players brawled one year. Fans probably did it. But Stewart and Snyder and Larry Brown and Roy Williams and Bill Self never had to be pulled back to their bench by an assistant coach. Yes, both Haith and Anderson termed an incident where Tim Fuller hugged Haith and guided him back to the Missouri huddle as "a miscommunication." Yes, Haith said he was talking to his team and Anderson "thought it was something else." I can live with those explanations. I just don't believe them. The video and photos of the post-game handshake (above) tell me I shouldn't.
So, yes, last night was fun. There's a rivalry here. It's going to be a ball. In future years, I don't think it will be so much about Mike Anderson versus Missouri. That's already happened. He's made his return. Tiger fans got to scream and yell and make signs and broadcast their displeasure to a national television audience. The media got to ask a couple of questions that it felt should have been asked two years ago. I think that will cease to be the storyline anymore. The storyline now is that Missouri and Arkansas will play twice a year. And fans of both teams will circle those two on their schedules in November.
"You know what?" Anderson asked a reporter on Tuesday night, "I think in life sometimes you got to move forward. Move forward."
I will if you will, coach. Deal?
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