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BenFred: Would Mizzou give scandal-plagued basketball coach a shot? An important question is going unanswered

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Corruption case won't stop the calls on Selection Sunday

Arizona coach Sean Miller enters the arena before a college basketball game against Colorado in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 men's tournament on  Thursday, March 8, 2018, in Las Vegas. Arizona won 83-67. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

Desiree Reed-Francois is not taking questions about the Missouri men’s basketball coaching search.

Mizzou’s new athletics director launched the hunt for her first signature hire with a short news release that included two quotes and no plans to say more until the new guy is introduced.

The announcement needed a couple of fact-checks and one clear answer about a topic that should have been addressed.

Reed-Francois said she believes this gig is one of the best in the country. It certainly can be. But it hasn’t come close to that in a long time, and definitely not since the Tigers joined a Southeastern Conference that has aggressively improved.

The SEC cares more about basketball than it ever has before. The same can’t be said for Mizzou. Please don’t confuse being real with being negative.

Mizzou, at the moment, does not stack up in key areas critical to being near the top of its league. Its potential and its present have a gap separating the two. Closing that distance should be the goal here, and the right coach could help do it, but he’s going to need help from the athletics department and the fans, and minimizing the amount of work that must be done helps no one. He needs to win the news conference, then keep winning.

Another thing Reed-Francois mentioned was the “incredible alignment” between decision-makers at Mizzou.

That line made people who know better chuckle.

Remember the chaotic coaching search that led to a clash between former athletics director Jim Sterk and curators before Eli Drinkwitz was hired as the Tigers’ football coach?

The last two Mizzou men’s hoops coaches got hired by different ADs than the ones who fired them for not winning enough.

The basketball hire who will be expected to lead Mizzou to annual NCAA Tournament appearances without down seasons will be determined by Reed-Francois, the usual scrum of influential donors and curators, and opinionated system president Mun Choi, who has thrust himself into the sports mix. Aligning differences will be critical to success. Pretending they don’t exist fools no one.

While no one expected Reed-Francois to say a ton about what Mizzou was prioritizing in its search for Cuonzo Martin’s replacement, declining to answer any questions about it left one big issue unaddressed. By saying nothing about where Mizzou stands on the topic of coaching candidates scarred by recent, significant scandals, Reed-Francois left the door open for speculation about names such as Sean Miller, Rick Pitino and Gregg Marshall.

Maybe that’s because Mizzou is open to considering them?

If not, Reed-Francois should have done herself and the next coach a big favor by shutting down such speculation. Because it’s already started. Especially with Miller.

Mizzou should not underestimate the growing number of fans who are pulling for a detour down reclamation road, where proven winners are waiting to get back to the big stage after their winning ways were derailed because their programs were as screwed up off the court as they were competitive on it.

The rapid arrival of the NCAA-allowed name, image and likeness movement has confused fans when it comes to what is allowed, and what is not. Fewer and fewer care about NCAA fine print, or the NCAA in general. It has been proven, including at Mizzou, that taking a fighting stance with the NCAA can be as rewarding as staying within the rules and cooperating when lines are crossed.

The Tigers are in a basketball league in which repeat NCAA offender and Auburn coach Bruce Pearl was voted coach of the year the same season he served a multi-game suspension for failing to monitor a staff member who got clipped by the FBI’s wide-ranging investigation into bribery and corruption in college basketball. Resuming games against bitter rival Kansas, which has stuck by coach Bill Self and continued to win since a dark NCAA cloud popped up above Lawrence, has only encouraged those who want to see Mizzou get back to breaking bad after Kim Anderson and Cuonzo Martin didn’t win big while coaching clean.

Turning heel isn’t my advice. But the sequence of events that have led some to call for it is easy enough to see. It would be an easier sell than ever before, and some would not have to be sold at all. In fact, some will be disappointed if this is not the route Mizzou goes. And if it’s not the route Mizzou wants to go, Reed-Francois should shut it down. The sooner the better. Say the FBI guys are non-starters. Say coaches who have mistreated players are a no-go. Say something before a new coach is introduced and a portion of fans are mad it’s not Miller, Pitino or Marshall.

Miller still has a pending NCAA penalty hanging over his head for the FBI mess playing out with Arizona, and there are some hefty academic misconduct details in that storm, not just recruiting payouts. But he wins, and probably will again when he gets that next shot. He made 11 of 17 NCAA Tournaments during his time at Xavier and Arizona. He never had a losing season. He has been to Elite Eights.

Pitino is getting up there in age (69) but his popularity has bounced back during his restart at Iona. His time at Louisville was rife with scandals, the last one being the big FBI probe. More disturbing was the suspension he served in 2016 after it became known recruits had been mingling (and a lot more) with strippers during visits paid for by a member of Pitino’s staff. Pitino has 800-plus wins now, though, and he’s been to seven Final Fours. He’s a Hall of Famer, like it or not.

Marshall didn’t get busted for bribing players. He got booted from Wichita State for allegedly abusing them. Multiple former players accused him in the media of physical and verbal mistreatment. How he could ever recruit again, I don’t know, but he won a ton at Winthrop and Wichita State (525-204 overall record) while almost always making the NCAA Tournament. He even took the Shockers to a Final Four.

I wouldn’t hire any of these guys. Some of you would. But we aren’t the ones making the call.

What matters is what Mizzou thinks, and Reed-Francois is choosing to let it remain a mystery.

It could wind up hurting the next person hired.

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