University of Missouri-Columbia Athletics Director Jim Sterk visited Palmyra on Friday night for an alumni barbecue.
Jim Sterk, the athletics director at the University of Missouri-Columbia, was in Palmyra on Friday for a barbecue sponsored by the Great River Tigers chapter of the Missouri Alumni Association. Sterk sat down with the Courier-Post to discuss subjects such as his first year on the job, his expectations for the upcoming football and basketball seasons, and his take on rivalries.
Courier-Post: What is the purpose of your visit to Northeast Missouri, and what are you hoping to accomplish here?
Jim Sterk: “One, I was invited, so that was fun. Two, it's great for us, and we're making a really concerted effort working with the extension of Mizzou. With the land-grant status, we have extension councils in every county of the state, 114 counties, so we're connecting and really opening the door more so communication comes in and we can also get communication out. We can get branding, putting Mizzou flags in yards and things like that. We're going to have a campaign throughout the month of August and throughout the year where we utilize those folks that are in each of the counties. For me, I'm still learning the state. My father-in-law grew up here. We went down to the south part of the state and spent some time there, so the opportunity to come up north a little bit, I couldn't turn it down. I enjoy this because this is pretty similar to the rural part of the state of Washington where I grew up on a dairy farm.”
You've been athletics director at Missouri for nearly one year. What would you call the most exciting development for Mizzou athletics thus far in your tenure?
“We had a very good year. We had the most successful year overall with our programs. Sixteen of the 20 sports made it to postseason play, and we had the highest finish in the Learfield Directors' Cup. We were 33rd. But what's exciting about it to me is I don't think we've really reached our potential. We haven't hit the glass ceiling at all. Of those sports, football, basketball and baseball didn't make it to postseason, so I think we have an opportunity to really grow the interest, grow the brand and help the university build back up. I'm excited about the role we can play in that part of the overall mission of the university and representing the state of Missouri.”
On the flip side of the previous question, what's the biggest challenge your department is currently facing?
“There's been — and it's historic, they say it goes back to Norm Stewart days — preconceived notions about Mizzou. … For us to change that perspective and for people to experience it so they feel comfortable sending their sons and daughters to Mizzou is very important, and I think we're well on our way. ... That was why I was excited about the candidacy of (men's basketball coach) Cuonzo Martin that was born in St. Louis and can come and really talk about it and be a part of it. And (Assistant Athletics Director for Community Relations) Howard Richards, a former player that we hired six months ago. We're really putting together a council in St. Louis that can help so we get the message out and hear back from that. I think that challenge was big. When I told (former) interim chancellor Hank Foley, he was surprised that people were actually telling their kids they couldn't come to Mizzou. I like a good challenge, so I'm up for the task and I really believe in what we're doing and what the university is about, so I'm excited about that. Turning something like that into a positive is what we're doing.”
You brought up coach Martin. With the men's basketball team featuring lots of new talent, what are your expectations for the 2017-2018 season?
“I'm very excited about it. I never try to put a number of wins or things like that, but obviously the goal is compete for a championship and make it to postseason play with each of our sports … With a bunch of new guys and a great base of (returning) players who I think took their lumps as freshmen and sophomores, the combination of the two could be pretty powerful and it'll be exciting to see where it ends up.”
The signing of Michael Porter, Jr. has been the talk of the state. Landing a top recruit such as him, what's the impact you think he could have on rejuvenating the program short-term and long-term?
“The first person that really tried to open my eyes about that was Robin Pingeton, our women's basketball coach, who's his aunt. She said, 'Jim, have you seen him on YouTube?' I watched him and then I got really excited about the possibility. What I didn't realize too was, 'Yeah, you can get a Michael Porter,' but then the impact that it has on other players. Blake Harris, from North Carolina, who was a top-30 or so player that had committed to Washington is now going to come here. Those kind of players, (incoming four-star signee) Jeremiah Tilmon, others like that, they want to play with somebody like that. So that is even bigger than what I had imagined. That's really been a positive.”
Coach Barry Odom has one season under his belt leading the football team. Do you view this year as when you expect to see the progress of his regime and more success on the field?
“I think people underestimate the impact of having a change in offenses and how it takes a little while, especially a complex offense that we have. (With) Drew Lock being another year older with more experience and returning 10 of 11 starters on offense, I think we're going to score points. And I like the fact that Barry's really able to focus more on the defense as opposed to being a first-year head coach and dealing with everything he had to do for the first time. I think he understands it better how he can balance his time. Those two factors — and having a lot of guys who are committed to the success of the program — bodes well for us. Our first four games at home, getting those under our belt, gives us a good opportunity to have a good start.”
Rivalries are what make college sports fun for a lot of people. Missouri and Illinois are natural geographic rivals. The two schools have kept the tradition of an annual men's basketball game but haven't played in football since 2010. Is the Missouri vs. Illinois football game something you want to bring back?
“Yeah, their athletics director and I have talked and we're looking at dates. It probably won't be a every year type of thing because we're both scheduled out there pretty good. They're the ones that discontinued the series and didn't want to play it anymore in football, but we're looking at some dates and I think we can have that chance to play it in St. Louis. We're continuing those discussions, and I think something could be coming of that hopefully by the time football starts or during the season so we get something nailed down at least where we have one game out there and it's at least on the books and we get that started.”
Is there a specific year you hope the next Missouri vs. Illinois football game would happen?
“It'll be out there a ways. I don't know exactly, but it's at least 2022 or something like that. I think we have one opening in 2020, but we already have a Power 5 school so it's not going to happen then. And I don't think they're open until 2022 or 2023.”
Is the men's basketball game between Missouri and Illinois something you hope to continue?
“I heard before I got here that it was one of the better ones. I haven't seen it at its full potential, but I think this year could hit its potential again. (It can be) a sellout. It's a good braggin' rights game."
Especially with your program on an upswing.
“On both sides. They have a new coach for their program, so I think people will treat that very seriously."
Missouri no longer has annual matchups against former Big 12 rival Kansas in football, basketball and other sports. Do you want that rivalry to continue?
“I think it's moved beyond that. In the SEC, we now have new rivals in Arkansas, Texas A&M and South Carolina. I asked our coaches, 'Who's your top three?' I think only one or two coaches had Kansas even listed in their top three as a rival. I think that's perceived as something different than what our coaches feel. ... We're open to playing, and I think there's reasons why they don't want to, and I respect that. Like I said, I think we've moved beyond it as far as scheduling. We've got our hands full and we've got plenty of rivals in the Southeastern Conference. … We're talking schedules 2023 and beyond, so it doesn't seem like there's going to be anything (between Missouri and Kansas) in the near future.”
What are some plans you're working on to strengthen the university's athletic facilities and keep up pace with other schools in the SEC?
“We have a good base of facilities to build upon. But it's never-ending. Either you renovate or consider new. The (new football facility behind Faurot Field's) south endzone is the biggest project we have on the horizon right now. By the start of fall, we hope to have it approved as far as the financial plan. We've been, over the past six months, meeting with our architects and our construction managers trying to figure out the scope and what it can look like, what it can be, and then have estimates on what it will take to built it. Hopefully by the end of the summer we'll have the project approved and ready to go.”
Final question for you: From the looks of it, you had a good setup in your previous job at San Diego State. What sold you on coming to Missouri, and looking forward, what is it that's keeping you here?
“I was enjoying life in San Diego. I felt like I was on vacation everyday. I'd look outside my house and there were palm trees and a pool and all that stuff. You can't beat that weather. I had been there 6 ½, seven years and we had done a lot of things and accomplished a lot, and it felt like, 'OK, maybe if there's the right opportunity, I'll take a look.' Initially, a friend of mine called and said, 'Hey, (Missouri) is one I think would fit you very well.' I had to study it. I pulled it up, and the first picture I see was cows on the quad. I'm thinking, 'I think those are holsteins.' I grew up on a dairy farm, and maybe that fits me. I started digging more and more and then I met (former interim) chancellor Foley and he really sold me on the place as well. Then I had a son of a friend who was working in the athletics department and loved the place. Everyone I talked to, it was, 'This is the place. It's not what you perceive it as nationally what's going on at Mizzou.' I felt like, 'OK, I think I can come, and I love a challenge.' I don't know what it is in my DNA, but I love that and the opportunity to help a program and help a university grow and reach new heights. I think we can do that. So that gets me up in the morning, and then the opportunity to lead a program in the SEC, where you're able to, because of the resources, provide a great student-athlete experience so they can play at the highest level, graduate at an AAU institution, and we have programming to help them develop as a person — our Mizzou Made program. To help 550 student-athletes do that is a fun job.”