Commentary

Frank Haith fits right in with the Tigers

Originally Published: February 15, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Alan White would like to make a small clarification to the Frank Haith story.

The former Elon athletic director, realizing his student was in a financial pinch, did in fact give Haith some living space inside the university's gymnasium.

It was not, however, a janitor's closet.

"It was actually an old ticket booth," White said.

And we thought this was an outhouse-to-the-penthouse story.

Plenty of head coaches can spin a tale about the old days, of long hours cramped in bad cars with worse food, traversing the country in search of players and, with a little luck, a better job, nicer car and healthier diet.

[+] EnlargeFrank Haith
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonTo the surprise of many, Frank Haith's Tigers have been one of the nation's best teams.

For all the glitter that surrounds the man in charge once he gets to the top, basketball lifers rarely dine from the silver spoon of ease menu. Haith's hardscrabble tale goes even a little deeper into the scrabble, from humble beginnings to an unwelcome party at Missouri, the coach has been counted out more than he's been counted in.

Sound familiar? It ought to.

Like dogs and their owners, teams tend to assume the personalities of their coaches. Never, though, have a coach and a program walked hand in hand through the rubble quite like Haith and Missouri.

The day after Haith was hired, only 9 percent of 6,000 people polled in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch thought he was a wise choice.

On Oct. 3, Laurence Bowers tore his ACL. A day later, the basketball editor at ESPN.com sent out an email asking staffers whether they'd like to reconsider Missouri in their preseason power rankings. It was a reasonable question. Without Bowers, the Tigers had exactly one player taller than 6-foot-8.

Only seven of 15 voters kept the Tigers in their Top 25.

When the national polls hit, Mizzou clung to the 25th spot by a thread. Fifteen weeks later, the Tigers are 23-2, third in the country and vying for a No. 1 seed.

You'd think that would stop the questions.

It hasn't. As the NCAA tournament nears, plenty of people think Mizzou isn't built for the long haul.

"They've heard everyone tell them how small they are, how they're going to lose the next game they play," Haith said. "When we started out, it was 'wait 'til Kansas City' [where the Tigers played a ranked Cal team]. Then it was 'wait 'til Villanova.' Then 'wait 'til you get Illinois.' Then 'wait 'til conference play.' It's always been 'wait 'til' for these guys. I think it will be for the entire season, but that's OK; that's what fuels these guys."

It's also what fuels their coach.


He was 5 when he moved to North Carolina, young enough not to be too overwhelmed but old enough to feel the culture shock after leaving his New York City roots.

Haith was one of 10 kids and, with too much on his parental plate, Haith's father shipped Frank and his sister Patricia to live with their grandmother in Burlington, N.C.

Three other siblings would follow.

There are those who believe life's twists and turns are arbitrary. Not Haith. Without a father in his life, he clung to the men who were his father figures, mostly coaches who schooled him in peewee sports.

One of them was White, a Wake Forest gridiron star who got his start in six-man football. He got the wheels moving on a startup football program in town, and, after Haith's grandmother finally agreed to let her grandson play, Haith signed up along with White's son, and Haith's good friend, Kyle.

[+] EnlargeFrank Haith
Ed Zurga/Getty ImagesA relentless work ethic has helped Haith reach the top.

It was just the first of many legs up White would offer Haith.

"At times it was very difficult to accept, even as I got older," Haith said. "Now I look back and realize it gave me a chance."

A chance, really, is all Haith needed. Despite his own financial limitations -- or maybe because of them -- he'd always been a self-starter, a kid willing to work and determined to succeed. White saw that from the get-go, even back in those peewee football days. Haith never complained, never let on that his home life wasn't easy or ideal.

Years later, when Haith enrolled at Elon, White, the university's athletic director, hooked him up with the basketball team. Haith spent two seasons on the bench as a student assistant with the team then called the Fighting Christians.

It was just a step up from a manager position, but not to Haith, who saw it as a step toward his future.

Norma White, Alan's wife, taught math at Western Alamance High School, Haith's alma mater. She never taught Haith but knew him through her husband and son and was always impressed, she said, by his spirit: "He was soft but always focused." Norma also was a buyer for a dress shop in town and, one day, a good friend called her asking about a young gentleman who had stopped by the shop.

"She said, 'Who is Coach Haith?' Norma said, her voice twinkling with Southern charm as she relayed the story. "And I said, 'My word, he's not a coach. He's just a student.' But he saw himself as a coach. That's who he was."


Saying you're a coach and becoming one, of course, are two different things, especially when you come out of college with no playing experience and little in the way of basketball pedigree on your résumé.

Haith didn't so much climb the ladder as linger on every rung, putting together a multipage dossier that read like a road map -- Elon to Wake Forest to UNC-Wilmington to Texas A&M to Penn State back to A&M back to Wake and on to Texas before finally landing a head-coaching gig at the University of Miami, a school so uninterested in basketball it dropped the sport for 15 years.

But, in a profession known for the hustle, Haith simply hustled. He banked his reputation on working hard, earning his biggest props for helping Rick Barnes land Texas' heralded 2004 recruiting class of LaMarcus Aldridge, Daniel Gibson and Mike Williams.

Now with others to do the heavy lifting for him, nothing has changed. Despite the riches of a robust head-coaching salary, Haith at his core remains the kid whose dad deposited him six states away, one who had to load up on student loans to pay for college and fight to make his way.

"Someone sent me a note, and it's so true," Haith said. "It said, 'Success is not owned. It's rented, and you have to pay rent every day.' I live my life like that. I work every day like I'm going to be fired tomorrow."

It's no surprise then, when Haith admits he has no patience for kids who treat their basketball careers like a birthright, who don't appreciate their opportunities or who shortchange their talent.

Which is what has made this unexpected marriage with the Tigers so unbelievably rich.

In his Mizzou roster, Haith has found himself a group of veteran players who were abandoned by their coach -- Mike Anderson left for Arkansas -- and all but discarded by basketball minds after Bowers' injury.

Of course, coming off a season that spun into disappointment, from a 14-1 start and No. 8 ranking to five losses in the final six games, including a first-round departure from the NCAA tournament and a spot outside the Top 25, no one necessarily believed the Tigers were a hardworking bunch.

Then again, they didn't think Haith was the right coach, either.


At the beginning of the season, Missouri assistant coach Tim Fuller handed out T-shirts to the team. The message was simple, yet direct: "We're all we got."

Four words, so many meanings.

Someone sent me a note, and it's so true. "It said, 'Success is not owned. It's rented, and you have to pay rent every day.' I live my life like that. I work every day like I'm going to be fired tomorrow.

-- Missouri coach Frank Haith

At the surface, the shirt served as a reminder to the Tigers to stick together, especially on the road. A season ago, Missouri was a debacle away from Columbia, going only 1-7 in Big 12 play.

Fuller told the players to count on one another, to go as far as to touch each other in the huddle so they would know they weren't alone.

But the T-shirted slogan referenced more than just a comforting salvo for games away from home.

The Tigers are drawing fans to Mizzou Arena now. The Antlers, the rowdy student fan group, have been given new life, and Missouri boasts five sellouts this season.

The players and coaches, though, are like elephants. They say they didn't care what was said about them a few months ago, when people slammed their coach and wrote off their chances.

They might not care, but they do remember.

"At the end of the day, we know that people love us but we're the only ones who will be here if things go bad," senior Kim English said. "The supporters are a mile wide but an inch deep. We're all we got."


English has a favorite poem, Rudyard Kipling's "If." He can recite it from memory and quotes it quietly to himself before every game.

In Haith, he believes he has found a man who lives the poem's words:

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
… If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those impostors just the same;
… Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And -- which is more -- you'll be a Man, my son!

After Anderson left for Arkansas, Missouri endured a protracted -- and ultimately unrequited -- love affair with Purdue's Matt Painter. After such an epic swing and miss, anyone else was going to look like a second choice.

[+] EnlargeFrank Haith
Dak Dillon/US PresswireHaith's players have bought into a selfless brand of basketball this season.

That athletic director Mike Alden went with Haith, who had one NCAA tournament berth in seven seasons at Miami, was greeted with equal parts derision and confusion.

"Bizarre" and "inexplicable" were some of the kinder words national columnists bestowed upon the hire.

"This is like if another program hired Quin Snyder away from us," Jonathan Keenan, an exasperated alum told the Columbia Daily Tribune, referring to the former Mizzou coach who was fired amid NCAA troubles. "We'd be laughing. What do you think Miami is thinking?"

Four months later, Keenan's words proved prophetic when Haith's name surfaced amid a Yahoo! report detailing alleged NCAA violations at Miami. Meantime, Alden's words -- that he chose to hire Haith because he was a man of high character -- rang hollow.

The NCAA accusations haven't disappeared, nor will they for a while. This is a complicated case, tied in with football and with myriad accusations from a jailed Ponzi schemer to sort out. While the NCAA weighs its decisions, Haith's reputation has been left twisting in the wind.

He is tired of answering the questions, yet answers them tirelessly, insisting that he is innocent and that his name will be cleared. He wishes Miami wouldn't be part of his current narrative but grudgingly accepts that it has to be.

Perhaps ironically, it is in how he has handled those struggles as well as his team's successes -- the triumphs and disasters of Kipling -- that Haith has won over this team.

"What's impressed me most? He's even-keeled," English said. "When he first got the job here, the fans were killing him, talking terrible about him. They didn't know anything about him. Then, with the Miami scandal, it was just the same. He didn't care what anyone said. He just worked. And now, with the success, he's not walking around gloating. He's the same guy. Seeing that in him, I don't care what anyone says, coaches rub off on their players. That's what's happening here."

The Tigers circled tighter amid the preseason acrimony and haven't broken the inner sanctum even as the wins pile up. A fractured team of a season ago, one the players will readily admit was too hell-bent on its own individual glory to achieve overall success, has been rebuilt on the most surprising backbone of all: one of selflessness.

English, a 6-6 guard, slid over to the 4-man spot to compensate for the absence of Bowers, and Marcus Denmon, the team's leading scorer, is also the biggest cheerleader when other guys, such as Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon, score.

It is the only way this unorthodox team could win, but even the Tigers are surprised at how much they've won.

"You lose your second-leading scorer and, depending on who you talked to, maybe your best player in Laurence Bowers, you're not supposed to do this," Haith said. "But they did this. They bought in. They worked their tails off. They didn't listen to the naysayers. "


Given the chance to gloat, to go kindergartner-on-the-recess-yard and scream a "neener neener," Alden demurs.

"I've tried to stay away from that," he said.

And, although he certainly believed in his hire, even Alden is not foolish enough to say he believed Haith would go from being viewed as the offseason's worst hire to a front-runner for coach of the year.

What he will admit, however, is that what first attracted him to Haith is the same characteristic he believes has turned Missouri into such a winner.

"When I talked to people about Frank and did my research, it all came back to the same thing -- he was genuine," Alden said. "Our guys saw that. You can't fool kids. They can see right through you if you're not real. Frank is real."

It's been 24 years since Haith graduated from Elon, and, although he still lists Burlington, N.C., as his hometown, he hasn't actually lived there in ages.

Yet when asked about White, the man who gave him his start, Haith produces White's phone number in an instant. And, when Norma White answers the phone, she says she just hung up with Haith not too long ago.

People like to say they remember where they came from.

Haith knows exactly where his roots attach -- inside a ticket booth that might as well have been a janitor's closet.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter @dgoneil1.

Dana O'Neil | email

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