By the time the relatively anonymous and seemingly ill-credentialed Frank Haith was introduced as Mizzou’s men’s basketball coach on April 5, 2011, he knew his hiring had been ridiculed around the nation and by many MU fans who had visions of a high-profile candidate such as Purdue’s Matt Painter.
Haith had been 129-101 overall and 43-69 in Atlantic Coast Conference play guiding Miami, the apathy around which made his currency hard to gauge.
“When I hear, ‘Who is this guy, Frank Haith, and what has he done?’ ” Haith said then, “I get it.”
But Haith had an uncanny grasp of the MU mood and won the news conference, as they say, with a sort of verbal jiujitsu that leveraged the cynicism in his favor.
“I don’t look at the negativity I’ve heard so far as a negative,” he said. “It’s a positive. Because that’s why I’m here. That’s what I want. I want that passion. ... So I am not taking (the criticism) the way that you may think I should take it.”
That was the start of a lot that has defied what anyone might have thought of Haith, who in some ways had only one thing to sell his initial MU team.
“You know, I like what he said: ‘Faith in Haith,’ ” Mizzou’s Laurence Bowers said that day, adding, “I think we need that. We’ve got to have people out there who actually give him a chance and let him prove his word.”
As of Saturday night’s 82-73 victory over No. 10 Illinois in the Braggin’ Rights game at Scottrade Center, Haith’s word — and deeds — have translated to this:
Twelfth-ranked Mizzou is 10-1 this season and 40-6 overall in his tenure, all the more remarkable a record because he largely has coached two entirely different teams along the way.
That includes a 14-4 record in Big 12 play last season, a three-game sweep of MU’s last Big 12 Tournament, a 7-3 record against ranked teams, a 4-2 record against top 10 teams — including 1-1 against Kansas — and two wins in as many tries in the Braggin’ Rights game that has bedeviled previous MU coaches.
It took the legendary Norm Stewart nine tries to win the game after it began being played annually in St. Louis in 1983. Stewart’s replacement, Quin Snyder, was 1-6 in the game, and Snyder’s successor, Mike Anderson, lost his first three before winning two.
Of course, nothing defines a season like the NCAA Tournament, and Haith’s second-seeded Tigers were stunned by No. 15 Norfolk (Va.) State in the round of 64 last season. But Haith nonetheless earned multiple national coach of the year honors.
His second MU team is brimming with traits — big, deep, versatile, veteran, defensive-minded — that could take it deeper in March but also is emblematic to date of another distinguished coaching job.
“That’s the type of coach Coach Haith is,” junior guard Phil Pressey said Saturday night. “You see how he can mold ... a guard-oriented team (last season) and this year with the bigs. My hat goes off to him. He’s doing a great job.”
More specifically, last season Haith fused together a cast of seven veteran scholarship returnees who might have doubted a new coach into a four-guard offense that led the nation in shooting.
This season, with only one player (Pressey) back, he’s cajoled a team mostly made up of transfers and freshman to lead the nation in rebounding (47.2 a game — 15.2 more than last season) and is among its best in field-goal percentage defense (35.6 percent — 8.8 percent better than last year).
“That’s who we are,” Haith said Saturday night.
That was the umpteenth time this season Haith has said that, and the identity is becoming more consistent with the proclamation as the season goes along.
As different as the styles are, MU’s success last season and so far this year has some clear common denominators:
Haith and his staff’s ability to get players to trust them and each other and buy in to their roles, and Haith’s intuitive ability to see the bigger picture.
Some coaches, for instance, might have determined that Pressey needed to sit some Saturday after going zero for eight from the field in the first half and, in fact, missing his first 15 shots.
But Pressey had eight assists in the first half, finishing with 11, and his free throw shooting (six of six) and even rebounding (seven) more than made up for his misfires.
“Even though he didn’t shoot the ball well,” Haith said, “he controlled the game.”
Other coaches might have been inclined to have guard Jabari Brown come off the bench in just his second game as a Tiger, but Haith clearly has identified the transfer as an offensive energizer and a much-needed glue and IQ component on the floor so he started.
Then Haith stuck with him even after Brown committed three early turnovers. He committed none thereafter and finished with 18 points and seven rebounds.
“It worked pretty well,” Haith said, smiling, and adding that part of inserting Brown into the lineup was in conjunction with substitution patterns he wanted to use. “It was all about our balance.”
Choreographing it all likely was a simpler task a year ago, when he tapped into a nucleus of players who had a history together, enjoyed an elite eight run as freshmen and were hungry to leave a legacy.
With only seven men in the rotation, roles were clear and playing time was plentiful — predictability that helped foster selfless play.
This time around, Haith has parts he’s still learning. He’s shuffled lineups four times in 11 games, three more than he did in 35 games last season.
He’s asking many players to do things they’ve never done before and still is tinkering with rotations and playing time.
None of which has led to any apparent or acknowledged pouting and all of which seems to have created a strong-willed, tight and poised foundation for the season ahead — starting Friday at UCLA (9-3).
The cohesion and maturity were especially evident when MU fell behind 62-57 with 8:05 left Saturday and outscored Illinois 25-11 the rest of the way.
“We made plays when we were down. We didn’t rush things,” Haith said. “As a matter of fact, when we got down, we executed better than when we were up. A game like this, with two high-level teams, the runs are going to happen.
“It’s just how you handle yourself. You don’t let it just spiral. And I thought our guys did a great job with that.”
Just as Haith obviously has, staying cool as he played from behind when he was hired, never letting it spiral and thriving almost ever since.