|Frank Haith's Tigers are in a three-way tie for first place with Kansas and Baylor in the Big 12. (US Presswire)|
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- I remember the day Missouri hired Frank Haith.
It was the night before last year's national title game. I was at an Irish bar near Rice University enjoying dinner and drinks with a group of fellow writers. We were having a pleasant time. And then everybody became distracted by their phones. I got a text that read simply, "Haith to Mizzou?" So I stepped away to make a call. About three other people at the table got similar texts and made similar calls. And we were all being kind of secretive until somebody finally said, "You hearing Haith-to-Missouri, too?"
Eventually, the story broke.
We all tweeted the news in some form.
Then we all tweeted jokes and generally mocked the hire.
"And I read it," Haith told me late Saturday night. "I read all of it."
And now I hope he's reading this, too. Because we were wrong. We were all wrong. Me and every other so-called expert at that table that night were wrong. We looked at Haith's 43-69 ACC record in seven years at Miami that featured only one NCAA tournament appearance, and we laughed and laughed and laughed. Missouri had just made the most surprising and least inspiring hire of the season, and we all had really strong opinions about it. But here I am 10 months later sitting in Haith's new hometown, and I'm writing about the team he coaches that's 21-2 and ranked fourth nationally after an incredible 74-71 victory over No. 8 Kansas, and, I must be honest, I feel a little stupid.
I mean, I've been wrong before and I'll be wrong again.
But know this: I'll never mock a questionable hire like that again.
That's what I've learned from watching Haith go from ridiculed to ridiculously successful. I've learned it's impossible to know for certain. Granted, there are slam dunk hires like John Calipari to Kentucky and Urban Meyer to Ohio State, but we'd probably all be wise to refrain from speaking in absolutes about hires that might not make sense on the surface because sometimes things that don't make sense on the surface turn out OK. Drafting Russell Westbrook fourth overall is one of those things. Hiring Frank Haith at Missouri is another.
"When somebody gets a job, 100 percent of the people are not gonna be happy," Haith said. "Obviously, the percentage was probably a lot higher than normal with my hire. But I couldn't control that. All I could control was how I prepared myself to do the best job I could do."
Turns out, that's a better job than anybody anticipated.
Pamela Haith included.
"Even we didn't imagine this," Haith's wife said with a smile. "It's been amazing."
Which brings me back to Saturday night.
Amazing is a good word.
From the pregame hype to the back-and-forth first half to Marcus Denmon's late heroics that helped Mizzou close on an 11-0 run that turned an eight-point deficit with fewer than three minutes remaining into a three-point victory, the whole thing was amazing. The soldout crowd of 15,061 that watched what Kansas coach Bill Self promised will be the final Border War game played in Mizzou Arena for at least "the immediate future" was treated to a classic. It was exciting and tense and really, really loud.
Thomas Robinson (25 points and 13 rebounds) looked like the National Player of the Year.
Then Denmon (29 points and nine rebounds) outdid him.
Then the final buzzer sounded and the fans hugged and jumped and, in some cases, cried tears of joy. The Big 12 standings were updated to show a three-way tie for first between Missouri, Kansas and Baylor, and the man who has won 91 percent of the games he's coached since he got universally ripped for getting hired took it all gracefully.
This would've been a nice time for Haith to fire back.
The national media was here.
We were all here.
It was the perfect opportunity to take a shot.
"But that's just not my nature," Haith said. "I've had people say, 'Frank, people come after you so much because you're a nice guy.' And I said, 'Is it a crime to be a nice guy?' I'm not gonna change who I am. I believe things happen for a reason and that those kinds of things build character."
And teach lessons.
Or at least this thing has taught me a lesson.
It's taught me to never be so certain about a questionable hire again because no matter what happens in years to come and regardless of how Haith eventually does without a roster like his current roster, built by former coach Mike Anderson, this "questionable hire" has already done more than any of us sitting at that table at that Irish bar near Rice University believed was possible on the night he was hired.
Sure, some athletic director somewhere will make another seemingly wacky decision this April, and when that happens I won't completely understand it. But when somebody asks about it, I'm not going to mock it completely and arrogantly. Instead, I'll be a little more nuanced.
"This doesn't make sense to me on the surface," I'll probably say. "But neither did Haith-to-Missouri. And look how that turned out."