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Flying Tigers
March 02, 2009
Thanks to its Hell-raising coach and a tough, frenetic style that has recaptured the hearts of its disaffected fans, Missouri has overcome scandal and apathy to become a contender once again
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March 02, 2009

Flying Tigers

Thanks to its Hell-raising coach and a tough, frenetic style that has recaptured the hearts of its disaffected fans, Missouri has overcome scandal and apathy to become a contender once again

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THE BUILDING of modern Missouri basketball took more than 30 years, the demolition less than a decade. Not long ago Mizzou was a reliable power, with 20 NCAA tournament appearances—and three Elite Eight finishes—in 28 years under longtime coach Norm Stewart and his successor, Quin Snyder. For Missourians the Tigers were a source of state and university pride built on principles that matched their own. "Here they like a team that works hard, plays defense and protects the home court," says Jon Sundvold, a two-time all-conference guard who played at Missouri from 1980 through '83 and still lives in Columbia. "They like tough teams." ¶ But tradition can prove fragile if not given proper care. Missouri has not reached the NCAA tournament since 2003, and in that time has left behind the customary detritus of college sports collapse: a deposed coach, NCAA sanctions, off-the-court embarrassments, falling attendance and, most damning, defeats and anonymity. From one home in Columbia and another in Palm Desert, Calif., Stewart, 74, watched and agonized. "It took a lot of young men a lot of time and effort to get to the point that we reached," says Stewart. "It was tough to see it dismantled."

Yet just as the Tigers lapsed into irrelevance, now comes an unexpected rebirth. After a 66--53 win over Colorado in Boulder last Saturday, Missouri improved to 23--4 overall and 10--2 in the Big 12, and at No. 11 in the nation this week is surely NCAA tournament bound. And in a four-day stretch beginning Sunday, the Tigers are scheduled to play at Kansas and host Oklahoma at Mizzou Arena in Columbia on March 4, games that will command the sport's attention and help configure postseason play. "Three years ago students would ask me if we were ever going to win more games than the football team," says senior guard Matt Lawrence. "Now they're asking me what seed we're going to be in the tournament."

Missouri has returned to college basketball's consciousness behind third-year coach Mike Anderson, who has melded an unlikely mix that includes two battle-scarred seniors, two transfers and seven first-year players and embraces the 40 Minutes of Hell style that Anderson learned in 17 years as an assistant to Nolan Richardson at Arkansas during the heyday of the full-court-pressing Hogs. The Tigers, who beat border rival Kansas 62--60 on Feb. 9 for the first time in three years, have not lost at home this season. They are alive again, both as a cautionary tale about the perils of taking success for granted and a parable of revival.

THEIR STORY begins somewhere en route to the bottom, during a bus ride to an airport in Waco, Texas, on Feb. 7, 2006. Missouri lost 90--64 to Baylor that night, the Tigers' sixth consecutive defeat, to fall to 10--11 for the season. Snyder walked to the middle of the bus and offered up a brief speech. "He said, 'There's more to life than basketball,'" recalls Lawrence. "And I remember thinking, Man, that was weird. I wonder what that was all about."

It was all about the end of Snyder's brief, tumultuous tenure in Columbia. He was hired in 1999 to replace Stewart, a state institution who had starred as an All-America guard at Missouri from 1952 through '56 and went on to win 634 games in 32 years as the Tigers' coach—though the program had brushes with the NCAA police in his time too. Snyder was 32, the top assistant under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and one of the hottest names in the profession, a comer with a great mind and even better hair. "We had to recruit him just to get him here, because so many other people wanted him," says Missouri athletic director Mike Alden.

Snyder won 62 games in his first three seasons and went to the NCAA tournament each year. He also presided over the recruitment of controversial guard Ricky Clemons, who was arrested in a domestic battery case in January 2003, plead guilty to reduced charges and was jailed that July. While incarcerated, Clemons made allegations about cash payments and improper academic aid to players, which ultimately led to the resignation of two assistant coaches and a major NCAA investigation that landed Missouri on three years' probation in the fall of '04. Snyder's '04--05 and '05--06 teams won only 16 and 10 games, respectively, and worse, seemed to be losing that connection to their loyal populace. "Things just unraveled," says Sundvold.

Two days after the Baylor loss Snyder walked into the locker room before practice wearing jeans and a dress shirt and told the team that he was resigning. His top assistant, Melvin Watkins, was named interim coach, and Missouri finished the regular season with two wins in its final six games and a loss to Nebraska in the first round of the Big 12 tournament. "A whirlwind," says Lawrence of that period. "It was pretty disheartening around here."

It was also terrifying for the university. The spectacular $75 million, 15,061-seat on-campus Mizzou Arena had been completed during Snyder's last year, built on the goodwill from Stewart's tenure and the buzz of Snyder's hot start. Now it was half empty for home games. (Mizzou's average attendance had fallen from an average of 12,281 in the smaller Hearnes Center in 2004 to 8,369—10th in the Big 12—in Snyder's final season.)

"You can say that the program was in disarray," says Alden. "Our brand had been damaged significantly. Looking back, we were trying to do too much too quickly—build an arena, have great success on court, recruit nationally. We should have slowed down. Quin worked his tail off. All of us could have done a better job."

ON MARCH 26, 2006, Anderson, then 47, was hired to restore the program. He had finally gotten his chance to be a head coach when Alabama-Birmingham hired him in '02, and in four seasons with the Blazers his teams had gone 89--41 and made three trips to the NCAA tournament. But Anderson credits Richardson for his good fortunes. He got his start playing for Richardson at Tulsa for two seasons in the early 1980s. "He was one of the toughest guards I ever coached," says Richardson. "He would take a charge on a Mack Truck."

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