COLUMBIA, Mo. - Desiree Reed-Francois’ introductory press conference as Mizzou’s new athletics director wrapped up late Wednesday morning at Memorial Stadium. All the MU dignitaries past and present were there. Three of the five living Mizzou football coaches: Eli Drinkwitz, Gary Pinkel and Bob Stull. Former AD Mike Alden. Several members of the UM System Board of Curators and high-profile boosters. Most of Mizzou’s current head coaches, including Cuonzo Martin, Robin Pingeton and Larissa Anderson.
Here are some quick takeaways from the event …
THE DECISION, PART I
We start with former AD Jim Sterk, whose introductory press conference fell on Aug. 11, 2016 — five years ago to the day. That day, when he first stepped to the lectern, Sterk thanked the administration for “their confidence in me to lead this very, very good program from good to great.”
Perhaps this was a coincidence. Perhaps not. On Wednesday, Missouri president Mun Choi made a call back to Sterk’s opening statement before introducing Reed-Francois.
“Now there are many people working in leadership that talk about going from good to great, and that word has been used so often,” he said. “I believe it's lost its essence. So today, I'm going to throw down the gauntlet: We're not going to go from good to great. Today, we're going to go from good to becoming champions, the very best. And with the right leadership, the right vision and investments, we can get there.”
Later in the day, I asked Choi about his comment, that going from good to great isn’t good enough any more at Mizzou. How does he measure this higher standard?
“It really goes back to the concept of accountability,” he said. “And you've probably noticed this in your field, but the word great is just bandied about. Who measures greatness? Is there an organization that measures greatness? Are their standards aligned? But champions, there's no denying who's a champion. At the end of the year, there's only one champion standing. And that's where we want to be. It may take us three, four, five years to get there. We can't do it with a snap of a finger. It takes a sustained commitment.
“So we're looking for sustained, long-term visionary leadership that's going to create that championship culture. I hear this from coaches and from our board members: We want every single person that works in athletics, to get up each morning and ask themselves, how am I going to contribute to that championship culture? When they're asked about it, whether it's the person serving food to our students, the person that is involved with the academic advising or the head football coach, they should say the same three things that they need to develop. And that's going to be part of the strategic plan.”
Choi also made it abundantly clear, as we reported here consistently, that it was not Sterk’s decision to step down with two years left on his contract.
“I want to say that Jim is a man of great integrity,” Choi said. “And there are many important things that he and his staff accomplished. But looking 10 years out into the future, I knew, the Board knew, that we needed a different direction. And, and it's that innovation, innovation that we need, given the changing dynamics. The fact that for us to develop into champions, we have to work harder than Alabama. We have to work harder than Florida. Are we going to bring that culture, that high level of expectation that starts from the top? That's the reason that we made that decision."
THE DECISION, PART II
Now, for the timeline. Choi said he and the search committee consulted with about 100 people for their advice on what they should look for in the next AD. Coaches, athletes, boosters and Curators. From there, they started with a list of 30 potential candidates. That list shrank to seven or eight, he said. Then it got down to four. Then he and committee chairman Jeff Layman met with two finalists in St. Louis on Sunday. Sources have indicated that Memphis AD Laird Veatch was the other finalist.
The committee initially planned to spend four weeks on the search, Choi said. They came to terms with Reed-Francois 13 days after Sterk stepped down.
"We always said from the beginning, 'If we find the right person, we're going to end the search and make the hire.' That's what we did," Choi said. "We have a little bit of rivalry with Tennessee. They (hired an AD) in two weeks. We did it in 13 days."
“We stopped the search on Sunday at around 1:30 p.m.,” he later said, “because we found the right person, the very best person.”
THE MIZZOU CONNECTION
Here’s one of the most interesting parts of Mizzou’s path to Reed-Francois: She was in Columbia just two months ago as her son, Jackson, was on a campus tour. He’ll be a senior in high school this fall and plans to enroll at the MU School of Journalism and walk on the MU basketball team in the fall of 2022. All of that was decided long before Mizzou chose to part ways with Sterk. During that June visit, Drinkwitz gave the Reed-Francois family a tour of the football facility — not knowing she’d become his boss two months later.
In fact, when Parker Executive Search called her last Friday to set up the in-person interview in St. Louis, she kept it a secret from her son.
“In Jackson's room, he has this huge Missouri flag,” she said. “He has the pennants. He has the basketball poster. His whole room is all Mizzou. When the search firm contacted me, I was super excited. And then I wanted to make sure it was real. But I didn't tell Jackson, because I thought in case they don't offer me the job, or I don't accept it, I didn't want him to have a negative impression of Missouri."
Her husband, Josh, was on a golf trip in Mexico. But not for long.
“So called my husband, I'm like, ‘Hey, listen, I need you to come back. I gotta go to St. Louis. … It's the Missouri thing. Don't tell Jackson.’”
One problem: She needed some gold to wear. So she and Jackson went to the mall. She sent him on “a wild goose chase to buy a hat because he likes hats,” while she ducked away and bought a gold blouse for the trip.
On Sunday, after Choi offered her the job, Reed-Francois came clean.
“Well, you thought that you were escaping your parents,” she said. “What would you think if Mom might be the new athletic director at Mizzou? He’s like, ‘Seriously?’"
“He was blown away,” she said. “He was really, really happy. I had tears in my eyes because it was just really special.”
Reed-Francois fielded a lot of questions about the challenges that Mizzou faces in the SEC and on the national stage. She preferred to use another word: opportunities.
“When we actually came to campus in June, what I saw was actually opportunity,” she said. “I saw this AAU institution. We’re the only Power 5 school in the entire state. There's 114 counties here, and I want to get to know people. So I saw this incredible opportunity. We have great coaches, great staff, and I saw really just phenomenal opportunities to really go and make our mark in the Southeastern Conference. This is the best conference in the entire country. We deserve to be here. We're going to go compete for everything. I saw more opportunities as opposed to challenges.
“But my first priority is I want to get to know our people. I want to get to know our student athletes, and I want to get to know our global Mizzou community.”
Much has been made about the gender barrier Reed-Francois has broken in a male-dominated industry. Asked about that topic Wednesday, she didn’t downplay the significance, but she made it clear she wants to be known as an AD, not a female AD.
“I look at my niece, and I have two of them, and I look at Sarah (Thompson) who I met this morning who is one of our swimmers,” she said. “I am so looking forward to the day that when my niece or when Sarah wants to be an athletic director or CEO, I'm looking forward to that day when no one has to ask that question. I understand the importance of context. And I understand my responsibility. I have a responsibility to do great work because I want to serve the University of Missouri. But I also want to keep that door open. And I want to keep that door open so that the incredibly talented people regardless of their gender, regardless of their ethnicity or where they come from … that's what I love about college athletics.”
That’s when she called on a person sitting in the third row.
“Coach Pinkel, you built a team, and that's what I love,” she said. “If you can play, it doesn't matter where you come from. You can play, you can perform. If you're going to work and you're going to compete, we've got a spot for you.”
Who are Reed-Francois’ mentors in this business? She shared an impressive list: former SLU, Maryland and N.C. State AD Debbie Yow … Virginia Tech AD Whit Babcock … former Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer … Hall of Fame NFL coach Bill Walsh … and women’s basketball coaching icon, the late Pat Summit, whom she worked with at Tennessee.
“Coach Summit taught me the importance of alignment,” she said. “I asked her, ‘How did she win all these championships?’ Obviously recruiting, but also the alignment. You have to have alignment with your board, with your president, with our coaches, with our student athletes. We all have to be in it together.”
Reed-Francois won over the crowd with a question about upcoming SEC expansion.
“I am very glad that the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma have followed Missouri’s lead,” she said. “So I just say, welcome. And it just means more.”
Choi, who was part of the SEC’s unanimous vote to admit OU and Texas into the league, had the same tone.
“I'm very excited,” he said. “I'm very excited to bring in such storied institutions into the SEC, which is the best conference in the country, and will only get better. It'll make us better by having even more competition within the SEC. Because of our location and proximity to those schools, I think it's gonna create more excitement among the fans of all three institutions. We're really, really good with it.”