COLUMBIA, MO. — As Mizzou’s offseason of uncertainty over the NCAA appeals case drags along and gets closer to resolution, Jim Sterk approaches his fourth year as athletics director bullish as ever about the direction of his most visible program — and enthused about a revitalized fan base.
It’s officially the offseason for all Tiger sports, but it’s prime appeals season for Sterk and MU’s team of lawyers and compliance officials, who are preparing for their in-person hearing with the NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee, expected for some time next month. Meanwhile, donations to Mizzou athletics continue to set records, while football season ticket renewals are surpassing the last few seasons.
On the field, Sterk has seen an uptick in results under Barry Odom, also heading into his fourth season in charge, matched by a subtle swell of support from the fans.
“What we’ve done is gained back trust,” Sterk said.
Attendance at Memorial Stadium has dropped every season since 2014, reflecting a national trend that has athletics directors brainstorming for new ways to engage fans and drive up revenue, but more than two months away from the Sept. 7 home opener, MU’s season ticket renewals stand at 82 percent, Sterk said. That’s up from 76 last year and already MU’s highest renewal rate since 2015, Gary Pinkel’s final season as head coach, after which fan support unraveled when campus protests led to a brief team boycott.
Under Sterk and Odom, Mizzou has rebooted, and despite the NCAA sanctions that could keep the Tigers out of the postseason this year — MU has appealed the ban, plus other penalties that came from the academic misconduct case — Sterk can point to signs of growth. The athletic department’s annual fund raised a record $11.4 million last year. MU expects to push its annual donor base past 10,000 this year, surpassing the Tiger Scholarship Fund’s record membership of 9,200 from 2013. For the first time since 2015, the university’s licensing department is seeing revenue growth from items sold bearing the Tigers’ logo.
“We have an opportunity to really grow (the fan support) back stronger and get more people involved,” Sterk said. “I’m excited about that.”
He feels especially strong about the case Mizzou will present to the NCAA appeals committee in July. Mizzou will argue the sanctions against the baseball, football and softball teams go against NCAA case precedent, exceed the severity of the violations and, perhaps most interesting, could have a “chilling effect” on future NCAA enforcement cases. The NCAA Committee on Infractions lauded Mizzou for the way it cooperated with investigators but still slapped the school with heavy sanctions, including one-year postseason bans for all three programs.
“Anyone that’s been in intercollegiate athletics understands there has to be cooperation,” Sterk said. “There has to be that buy-in by the membership. What has really shocked people and caused them to step back is we did all that and got (praised for) exemplary cooperation and they went above and beyond any kind of precedent in the decision.”
“That’s what I’m concerned about as a member and working a long time in the NCAA at NCAA institutions for 30 years,” he added. “I’ve always been one that my philosophy is we’re going to win it right and do it the right way, but that decision doesn’t encourage that.”
Otherwise, Sterk has been impressed with Odom’s leadership while preparing for a season with an uncertain finish line. As part of the sanctions, Mizzou seniors are allowed to transfer without having to sit out the 2019 season but none have entered the NCAA transfer portal.
“The student athletes believe in (Odom),” Sterk said. “They care about him. A couple years ago when he was under fire, that’s what I saw in the locker room with those players. It’s continued to get stronger with the leaders that went through that and are now seniors. There’s a pretty dang good group of seniors on this team. You sprinkle in some talented transfers and it really makes it exciting what they can do.”
Sterk has other business this summer besides the NCAA appeal, starting with MU’s efforts to sell beer and wine in general seating areas at sporting events as part of the Southeastern Conference’s newly approved rule allowing alcohol sales. Sterk has met with several committees of campus leaders to discuss the plans but is still working out logistics to make the change possible for the upcoming football season. MU Police chief Doug Schwandt, probably the most important ally in the cause, supports selling alcohol at games, Sterk said.
So far, Sterk said, the only opposition is from some fans who “like the college or SEC model versus the pro model.” One solution is to offer alcohol-free sections of the stadium, Sterk said. He hopes to have plans finalized and ready for final approval by July.
Elsewhere around Mizzou athletics …
• Sterk confirmed that recently removed swimming and diving head coach Greg Rhodenbaugh has been the subject of a Title IX investigation that is still ongoing. Rhodenbaugh was placed on administrative last fall leave while MU investigated allegations of team management issues. In May MU promoted assistant Andrew Grevers to head coach while Rhodenbaugh remains on staff as a senior administrative consultant in the athletics department.
“In order to move forward with the program we needed to, in practical terms, set Greg’s decision aside as far as … he’s not going to be the head coach moving forward,” Sterk said. “But the process with Title IX wasn’t complete and isn’t complete. We couldn’t act on his employment status other than we could reassign him. That’s what we did. We couldn’t really wait any longer as far as our swim program. We needed leadership there and we felt Coach Grevers was the person to do that and felt really good about Andrew.”
• Sterk described the recent decision to fire longtime cheerleading coach Suzy Thompson and Golden Girls coach Shannon Fry and condense their roles into one position as “the best model to create unity and support and direction and best experience for both programs.”
• Once the football team moves into the new south end zone complex at Memorial Stadium, the women’s soccer and men’s and women’s track and field teams will take up the office space that belonged to the football team at the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex. The track teams will move into the football team’s locker room at the MATC after some renovations.