For an instant reaction, I was startled by the breaking news of another athletic director leaving Missouri. Desiree Reed-Francois is on the way to Arizona to take a lesser job in a lesser conference for lesser pay.

After the usual quick-thought take – wait, what, are you kidding, this makes no sense, I can’t believe this is happening … is this development really so stunning? No, it is anything but that.

Missouri athletic directors should always rent their lodgings in Columbia. With mortgage rates being so unpredictable in a volatile housing market, is it wise to buy a home? Suppose you have to sell your domicile when it’s time to go from CoMo?

Desiree Reed-Francois is leaving because they all leave. The Mizzou ADs are forced out, or fired, or allowed to resign with reasonable grace. Sometimes they just run away. (Hey there, Mack Rhoades.) Sometimes they’re just made to feel uncomfortable and make their move to avoid the inevitable sacking.

Rhoades was Missouri’s AD for about 27 minutes until bolting for Baylor. He was succeeded by the affable Jim Sterk, who issued a standard statement, disappeared, and has never been seen again. OK, I’m exaggerating in both cases but that’s only to reinforce my point.

As soon as a person accepts the appointment to become the AD at Mizzou, the clock starts running. The countdown to bye-bye time is underway.

Chasing away athletic directors away is a cherished Mizzou tradition, right up there with the black and gold, Truman the Tiger and the Missouri Waltz.

Sometimes, after the cold and passive-aggressive treatment from operatives inside the MU administration, the beleaguered AD reads the room and uses the opportunity to secure an upgrade. They feel a desire to live and work happily ever after – with a better gig that comes with an increase in pay and appreciation. They don’t have to wear a defensive suit of armor into the athletic department suites.

My old friend Joe Castiglione is an example. He did a helluva job at Missouri but the Mizzou people weren’t fans. The administration didn’t see him as a big-time AD. That particular posse included many fans. Oklahoma saw him as a big-time AD and hired him in 1998 and he’s become one of the top ADs in the nation. Joe is still there. Blissfully so. He even has a fancy title: vice president for Intercollegiate Athletics Programs and Director of Athletics at the University of Oklahoma.

In the matter of Reed-Francois the question is, why now?

Well, my answer is … why not?

The Reed-Francois exit has Mizzou preparing to hire a new athletic director for the fourth time since Mike Alden left the role in 2015. After succeeding Castiglione, Alden lasted around 18 years, and that’s a miracle. After all, it was Alden who eased iconic basketball coach Norm Stewart into retirement. Alden had a lot of people after him, wanting to take him down. I don’t exactly know how Alden stayed a few steps ahead of the conspirators for such a long time. But he was always quick to identify his enemies, even before they became enemies.

Alden kept moving, kept talking, kept schmoozing, kept lobbying, kept enlisting new allies that could shield him. During his lengthy residency at Mizzou, Alden could turn enemies into friends, and friends into enemies.

Most of all, football coach Gary Pinkel was Alden’s guardian angel. After Pinkel raised the football program from the dead, he had plenty of power. Before that, Alden protected him when the wolfpack was ready to pounce after a difficult 5-6 season in 2004. They were a good team, Alden and Pinkel.

I don’t believe the same could be said of the uneasy alliance between current football coach Eli Drinkwitz and Reed-Francois.

Correction: there was no alliance.

DRF didn’t hire him. Sterk didn’t hire him, either. Drinkwitz was hired by influential members of the Board of Curators, after they’d rejected Sterk’s initial recommendations. A bond was formed – Coach Drink might as well be seated on the Board himself – and those relationships have bonded to maximum strength.

When Drinkwitz sought a contract extension after another dull season in 2022, Reed-Francois held off, wanting to see how the squad did in 2023 after going 6-7 in two consecutive seasons. But Drinkwitz, a savvy political operator, enlisted the right supporters among the curators and received an extended and sweetened contract.

Reed-Francois was overruled …

Just as Sterk was overruled …

And what do they have in common? They’re former Missouri athletic directors.

At Missouri, it usually comes down to knowing who has the juice and operating accordingly. After winning 11 games and coaching his Tigers to a No. 7 ranking in the nation, Drinkwitz has the juice. And he also has a memory.

Reed-Francois was effective in the job but probably lacked the necessary experience in waging internecine battles. That’s the thing; I don’t think anyone is fully prepared for this job — which probably should have the office inside a herpetarium.

Drinkwitz outflanked her and got his extension. The Board of Curators could take a bow for giving the coach the new deal. The gamble on a 17-19 coach turned out to be a wise investment that produced a dramatic payout in 2023.

Drinkwitz has been a coach/CEO during a crazy time in college football. He’s an excellent navigator in a constantly changing landscape that includes lucrative NIL transactions to benefit players – plus the annual free-agent period for players to shop around for a better deal. (It’s called the transfer portal.)

If Drinkwitz wanted to use his enhanced power to guide the selection of the new AD, this was the time to strike. If he has a couple of bad seasons and the program loses momentum, the Board of Curators could turn on him.

I assume Drinkwitz understands the other side of this: once you go to the Board of Curators and allow at least some members to become part of the process so that you can curry favor and see to it that they fulfill your requests, they’ll also come back to you with demands of their own.

Evidently, these folks believe they’re qualified to run the athletic department. It sure seems that way. Earlier this month a new oversight committee was formed to zero in on the athletic department and establish stronger accountability. You don’t have to be able to read tea leaves to see where this was headed.

Translation: Desiree Reed-Francois, you will answer to us and do as we say.

What DRF did was pack up and move to Arizona. Under the circumstances, it was the smart choice … and also the only choice.

The Curators earned their button by rejecting Sterk’s wishes on a new football coach and going with Drinkwitz, then doing an end run to go around the AD to reward Drinkwitz with that contract extension.

In that context, the Board is 2-0. And with these victories (and surely others) they’re emboldened to use their expanded muscle. This flexing of curator power will go on at Missouri for as long as The Six Columns stand.

(Sidebar: men’s basketball coach Dennis Gates was hired by Reed-Francois. Season Three becomes even more important to his future after this season’s disaster.)

As for the next replacement AD for Mizzou, I have no suggestions. What’s the point? Others can play that particular parlor game, and I sincerely appreciate their efforts. Finding a new Mizzou AD is something of a spectator sport.

(I go way back to the days of Dick Tamburo – in office from 1988 through 1992 – who was affectionately dubbed “Floyd the Barber” by then Post-Dispatch columnist Tom Wheatley. If you don’t understand the Floyd the Barber reference, Google it.)

I’ll congratulate and support the next AD, hope for success, then wait for the next luggage cart to drop. And when the next luggage cart drops, we’ll know that the new AD is the former AD, boarding the Leaving Train. I’m an optimistic sort, so I’ll set the over-under at 3 and ½ years.

If we didn’t know it by now, we surely can understand it now: Missouri does not have one athletic director. Missouri has nine shadow athletic directors that occupy seats on the Board of Curators.

Thanks for reading …


A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.

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