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Mizzou AD felt ‘blindsided’ by Porter’s injury

March 30, 2018 GMT

COLUMBIA, MO. • After selling out of season tickets the Mizzou athletics department was “blindsided” by the back injury that sidelined freshman basketball player Michael Porter Jr. for most of the season, athletics director Jim Sterk said Thursday during an interview session with local media outlets.

Sterk credited first-year coach Cuonzo Martin and the rest of the team for Mizzou’s 20-win season that ended with the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in five years but also expressed some frustration that Porter’s back injury didn’t surface until tip-off of MU’s Nov. 10 opener against Iowa State.

“It was disappointing to hear,” Sterk said. “Surprise was the biggest thing. No one really knew anything like that (except for) probably the trainers (with whom) he was doing physical therapy. But other than that I don’t think there was any (warning) as far as all of us. We were like you (in the media). We were kind of blindsided by it.”

Asked if Porter’s injury could have been handled better with more transparency, Sterk said, “I don’t know. That’s probably (for) the coaches and Michael and his dad, (Mizzou assistant coach Michael Porter Sr.), and all that. I really wasn’t in the middle of all that. A heads up that day would have been good, but I think that was last-minute.”

Eleven days after MU’s first game, Porter underwent back surgery in Texas and wasn’t cleared to return to practice until late February. He rejoined the team for the postseason, playing 51 minutes in losses to Georgia and Florida State in the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. After the surgery, Porter said he’d been playing for two years with a back injury he first suffered on the AAU circuit.

In January, Martin said he wasn’t familiar with the extent of Porter’s initial injury until the freshman got to campus last summer. “It was not as if it was something I read about or anything like that,” Martin said at the time. “To his credit he practiced and played and didn’t complain about it and did normal rehab.”

On Monday, Porter announced plans to enter the NBA draft and on Thursday quashed any chances to retain his eligibility when he signed with an agent. Porter made the announcement on Instagram while on a family vacation in Florida. Mizzou’s athletics department was unaware he was going to make the announcement until after it was posted on the social media site, multiple sources confirmed.

Porter is the first player at a school where Sterk has been AD who’s been one-and-done to the NBA draft. At previous stops, Sterk was at San Diego State when Kawhi Leonard left school after two years and at Washington State when Klay Thompson left after three years.

Sterk favors the Major League Baseball draft rules that allow prospects to be drafted out of high school but if they enroll in college they must wait three years before they’re draft-eligible again.

“It’s not a good situation for everybody to be forced into a year (of college) and playing,” Sterk said. “With three years the student athlete gets a chance to progress toward a degree. They’re pretty close by the end of three years because they go to summer school. Some of them even have degrees by that time. That gives them something that can help them the rest of their life beyond basketball. That’s why I’m for that type of rule.”

On other topics …

• Sterk declined to comment on the defamation lawsuit filed against him by South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley. “I can’t comment on any of that right now,” he said. “I know you had to ask.”

• Sterk will not hire a replacement for deputy AD Brian White, who left MU to become the AD at Florida Atlantic. Instead, Sterk has reassigned White’s responsibilities within the current staff. The decision falls in line with the department’s plans to cut costs in light of last year’s operating deficit. Sterk said MU will probably operate at a deficit again next year.

• The south end zone of Memorial Stadium has been demolished and a construction crane will appear there in June. Mizzou and visiting teams will have trailers for game day locker rooms this season while the new end zone facility is being built.

Here’s more from Sterk’s interview session:

On the men’s basketball team making the NCAA Tournament …

“I had the hopes of that. I wouldn’t have expected it probably. But I was hopeful we could show improvement. It went above and beyond that as far as the results of men’s basketball this year.”

On Martin handling the season …

“You guys have sat with him. It’s like nothing fazes him. He’ll make hard decisions and tough decisions, but it seems like he doesn’t linger and tries to get the best out of every situation that he’s dealt. That’s great for all of us. He relates a lot of things to life. You’re faced with a lot of difficulties but he’s looking at moving ahead. That’s a good philosophy.”

On measuring the impact of Michael Porter Jr. ...

“He contributed to the excitement around the start of basketball. Then the team took on that responsibility of creating excitement. And they did a heck of a job. People at the start were disappointed but as the season went on people were excited about what was truly happening. Not what it could have been or should have been or that type of thing. The players and coaches did a great job with that. And the fans did, too. They created a great atmosphere.

On the women’s basketball team …

“They ended up with 24 wins, three postseasons in a row. I don’t know how many 20-win seasons they’ve had … but that’s why it hurt so much for the coaches and the team, because they had high expectations. They’ve won a game in the tournament. They wanted to go beyond that into the Sweet 16 and make a good run. They felt they could have. They continue to progress. It says a lot that the community showed up and set an all-time record with 11,000 people at a game. That’s a great target long-term to continue to build that attendance level with women’s basketball because it’s a great sport to watch and we have a great team.”

On the south end zone complex …

“For the next couple months it probably won’t look like much is going on. It’s more of the infrastructure, the utilities and those kinds of things. In June there will be a construction crane so then you’ll see some action as far as starting to build it up opposed to digging down and tearing down. That will be more visible and then people will be able to see it throughout the season as it rises up. I think the construction crane disappears by November or December. So by that time the shell of the (facility) will be pretty much in place.”

On the addition enhancing the fan experience at home games …

“I think it adds a lot to the fan experience. It will add a lot to the football program, but it will add a lot to the fan experience with different types of venues to engage fans depending on how they like to watch a game. Downstairs in the Touchdown Area or the Bunker Club or whatever we end up naming that, it will be something they can stand and watch the team go through. It’s probably more of a social scene. Some people may stay there the whole game and some people may have tickets out in the stands and go down there at halftime or before the game. That’s a unique experience that we don’t really have right now. There’s some club and general admission and suites and things, but then up on the top there’s a couple decks that will probably be used on a game-by-game basis for people with smaller groups. So that will be good. The scoreboards will be updated so that will help with everyone’s fan experience.

“You’re competing with the social scene and millenials or whatever. All of us I think, we’re getting used to having high quality definition TV that you can see replays and things like that. To be able to offer that and still have the social side and watch a game is important. That’s why I think currently we’re about 97% sold out of our premium areas, the club areas the suite areas. It’s an event, not just a football game.”

On Mizzou’s financial challenges …

“We’re looking at our budget really hard. We’ve had some reserves and have used them for a number of things, projects and things like that. We had to cover a deficit last year and we’ll probably have something smaller this year, so we need to look at ourselves and look at what we can do more efficiently and effectively but still continue to move the program forward and compete. It is interesting to be in a situation where we’re in the top 25 or 30 budgets in the country, but yet we’re like 13th or something like that in the SEC. Some have $200 million budgets as opposed to $100 million. It’s a unique challenge, but I also think it’s an opportunity to do things in a unique way and effectively and compete against some of the best in the country too.”

“A friend of mine is in the MAC and he has about a $23 million budget and doesn’t feel too sorry for us. I think what we are trying to focus on is that student-athlete experience. We try to make decisions based on that. If we stay in that mode, then we’re OK. Now sometimes you have to make tradeoffs on things, but that’s the focus, trying to be as competitive as we can and providing a great experience. I’ve challenged each of the budget directors — and we haven’t gotten all that information — but I’m trying to drill it down to the people that are managing budgets, whether it’s medical training, whether it’s equipment or whatever and say OK, what does your budget look like with a 7 percent, 10 percent of 12 percent of 15 percent?′ A spectrum of things. Even if we stay even and grow our revenues a little bit, expenses are rising 8 or 10 percent in a lot of things. That’s the challenge. To even do the same things, we’re going to have to manage our expenses better.”

On not hiring a replacement for White …

“Actually, I just sent out an email today with an org chart. Actually we’re elevating and reassigning duties to people with direct reports that were to him are going to report to me and we’re not going to fill that position per se with a new person. We’re re-allocating duties and elevating people and giving more responsibilities. Because I felt like we had a great group of staff and both Brian and I agreed that he had hired some good people in those roles. It’s an opportunity to give more responsibility to let more people rise up.”

On interim softball coach Gina Fogue…

“I was looking back, last year we ended up 29-28. The SEC is really tough. She’s headed into a gauntlet now, but I think she’s really managing and doing a good job with the team she has. Last year and this year were impacted by pitchers transferring, so that’s a challenge, but I think the pitchers are getting better and better and the team overall. It will be tough because, you know, Georgia and LSU and all those are top 10 or 15 teams. That’s going to be the challenge to compete and I think we can. Shoot, she has 11 or 12 freshmen on the team and a lot of them are playing, so that’s a challenge but I think she’s doing a really good job.”

“I think she’s developing her culture and I think she has good communication with her team and they’re performing. They’ve missed some here and there and some inconsistencies a little bit, but I think they’re working through that and competing very well. They’ll lose one and then bounce back. I think last weekend they ha a chance, were ahead of Arkansas in the series tiebreaker and then they had a bad inning of seven runs or something like that.”

On momentum with the football program …

“We’re tracking a little ahead of last year with our season tickets and a lot higher in our new season tickets being purchased. I think that gives us an opportunity to have a very good year. I think we need to out of the gate start a little better than last year. I think everyone would agree with that and that gives us an opportunity to really engage the community and the state and nationally.”

On the proposed NCAA transfer rules …

“I don’t have a stance. That’s a strong position. I’m open to hearing, and I think they’re working on that and having really good discussions of trying to standardize it across all sports so it’s not different. But if they do then how does it impact the sports that are maybe outliers to that type of situation? I think they’d love to get rid of the applying for waivers on situations, but they’ve been wrestling with it for a while and I haven’t heard of any great solutions coming out of that other than once a kid wants to transfer, having that opportunity to transfer and not having to request it, I think that’s something that we’ll probably see. But beyond that, I really don’t know where it’s going to go.”

On managing Title IX cases …

“I think institutions overall have been better at integrating the Title IX office into processes and having someone within your department that is a liaison. Sarah Reesman is ours. If we hear of something then she’ll immediately inform the Title IX office so that they’re aware or if they hear something they’ll talk to her or me or both. I think that’s a healthy communication that works pretty well. But still, they need to keep their privacy and there’s a lot of rules that people don’t understand ‘why can’t you do this or that?’ There’s a lot we don’t control at all which is good and bad, but you may not know. They’re maybe doing an investigation and you don’t know everything about that. We’re informed. I think there’s good communication within the university and the system with that so it’s as good as it can be on those tough situations. Unfortunate, you don’t want it to happen, but I think that ours is as good as it can be.”

On the Hearnes Center’s future….

“I looked at that and looked at all the functions and the uses of the Hearnes Center. Overall it’s a building that’s not ready to fall down. It’s like a fortress. We’re investing back into it, if you will, with a heating and cooling system that works better, spending money that way trying to make it more efficient. We’re continuing to improve special areas. I don’t know if you’ve been up to wrestling, but (Brian Smith has) … is envied across the country for what he has up there. His weight room keeps getting better and better and I keep looking at that and how he’s making that happen. It’s a great spot for them. I think volleyball has done a number of upgrades in creating team rooms and things like that. So we’re investing back into it and there’s a lot more that could be done, but it’s a building that’s irreplaceable as far as the functions. I would hate to try to guess to replace everything that’s in there right now, what it would cost to try to replace that. I think it’s more cost effective to make improvements.”

On more upgrades planned for baseball’s Taylor Stadium …

“Not in the short term. Right now, I think there’s opportunity there to continue to improve it, but the field was the most important as far as Coach Bieser was concerned. I think he’s doing a great job. I think it’s an equalizer. Where we’re not able to get out as much because of the weather, it allows teams in a more Northern situation to get out on a more regular basis and get consistent work done on their skills. That’s why the artificial turf really helps.”