Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Mizzou Exchange: Chad Moller

(Here is a quick exchange I had with Mizzou Sports Information Director Chad Moller last week about the state of Mizzou athletics. Hopefully I will be having a short discussion like this with him at the beginning of each season of sports. Enjoy.)

The Boy: Baseball earned a #1 NCAA seed a year after making the Super Regionals. With a new brand new coach, Softball went from losing record to playing for the Big XII title on the last day of the season. Wrestling finished #3 in the nation. In a rebuilding year, Volleyball came within one game of back-to-back Sweet Sixteen appearances. Football's been to three bowl games in four years. Men's basketball made giant strides in their new coach's first year at the helm. A Mizzou golfer qualified for the Masters. It's too much of a softball to ask how you think things are going, but instead I'll ask a) what's been the biggest surprise for you in the last year or so, and b) what's made the biggest difference for the continued improvement of the athletic department as a whole?

Chad Moller: We have had a lot of high-level successes by individual sports over the past few years, so while every accomplishment is something we’re all excited about, for me personally, I’d have to say the biggest thing I’m most pleasantly surprised with has been the ascension of wrestling. I’ll digress a little bit first and tell you that when I got my start in the business (in 1992 as a graduate assistant in this office – which back then was known as the Sports Information Office, for what it’s worth), the sport I first handled was wrestling. My first year working with the sport, the great Shaon Fry made it to the title match at 167-pounds, and that was the most thrilling thing I’d ever experienced. I got totally ingrained with the program, hanging out with the guys on road trips (lots of stories I could tell there but probably better not – if you’ve never traveled with wrestlers, let me just say it’s a cultural experienceJ), getting to know them, getting geeked about wins and feeling really depressed about losses. I fell in love with the sport right away and the amount of hard work and dedication and sacrifice that I saw those kids make day after day was really impressive. I continue to say to this day that I don’t believe any sport takes more discipline and dedication than wrestling, and I don’t say that to demean the efforts of any of our other 19 sports, but that’s just how I see it.

Anyway, back when I was working with the sport, we were a top-30 to top-25 team nationally, which was good, but we were not competitive in the Big 8 – fifth out of five teams, and very far behind the fourth-best team. With all of that, the program kind of backslid over the next few years and had some character issues with some of the kids, and when the decision was made to change coaches in 1998 or so, there definitely was the consideration for dropping the sport altogether. I wasn’t part of the decision-making team at all, but I do know that it was a very big potential (maybe as much as 50-50) that we’d drop the sport because it wasn’t in such good shape, and then we’d be more in compliance with Title IX and it would help the budget, so on and so on. There were definitely some compelling reasons to do just that, but thankfully, we found Brian Smith and he was someone that was given a chance and he’s obviously taken the ball and run with it.

Coach Smith had some challenges, and I know he’s said before that while he always believed he could do it, that there were times when he wondered if it would be able to happen. Our facilities were just awful for wrestling when he took over, but when Mizzou Arena opened up, that allowed wrestling to take over the 4th-floor practice gym (where Kelly Thames and myself both tore our knees up playing basketball, doh!!), and they have converted that into one of the best wrestling rooms in the nation. It’s an absolute recruiting tool for the program, and Coach Smith has done such a great job of eliciting financial support for his program with his support club and other program benefactors, that he’s just a master to watch at that, in addition to his coaching.

So to get back to the more specific answer, I’d say that because of the state of the program – both competitively, and how bad the facilities were at the time he took over – I’d say that how wrestling has grown has been the most surprising. If you would have told me in 1998 that in 2007 we’d be maybe just a handful wins at the national meet away from winning a team national championship, I’d have thought you were crazy. It’s been fun to watch for certain, and it will definitely be interesting to see how they can keep it going with the loss of Ben Askren and Matt Pell, but with the recruiting class that Coach Smith has coming in, the future is definitely bright.

In terms of answering your second question, I’d say the biggest thing that has helped us step up overall is the development of our facilities. You can’t do those things without money of course, so you could argue that the money overall has been responsible, but the most tangible aspect of the money has been the facilities that we’ve been able to build because of the financial support. There hasn’t been one sport that hasn’t benefited immensely over the past 5-6 years from facility improvements, and that does nothing but help them in the recruiting battles out there. We used to get negatively impacted in recruiting because of our facilities, but now that is not the case. I remember back before the Mizzou Aquatic Center came online, Brian Hoffer wouldn’t take recruits over to see our old pool at the Natatorium because that was so awful that anyone who saw it would never come here. And not too far in the past, we didn’t have a softball, track, soccer or tennis facility, so I have no idea how we could have had any success in those sports (imagine the recruiting pitch – ‘well, we sure want you to come to Mizzou, we don’t have a track, but we want you to come run track for us’!!).

On an aside, we just had our annual Senior Staff Retreat, where the senior team sequesters itself for a couple of days and does the team-building and planning thing, and maybe the most interesting thing I took out of it was some thoughts that Pat Ivey, our strength coach, threw out there. He was talking about how we’re trying to build a championship-caliber program for all of our kids, and that he felt the new dining hall and all the other aspects of the newly-opened Mizzou Athletics Training Complex (MATC) has been the single-most important thing he’s seen. The dining hall, specifically, he feels is the best thing we’ve ever done for our kids. It might seem like a little thing, but in our previous facility, the dining hall wasn’t big enough to serve all of our sports, and really only football and maybe 3-4 other sports were able to eat there – the rest had to fend for themselves on campus or elsewhere. That created kind of a “class” system, where the sports who ate there felt privileged, while the sports that didn’t eat there felt second class, if you will. Coach Ivey really feels that since the new hall opened up, and every night now all of our kids get to eat there and interact, that it is a huge intangible for the mindset of our kids. It obviously is a positive for the sports who previously couldn’t eat there, but interestingly, he felt that the biggest benefit might be for the sports that could eat there before. He said that he felt that “brought them down a notch” so that they realized they’re not above anyone else, and kind of has helped instill a greater sense of community and things of that nature that he feels are really important to building a championship mentality.

So with all of that excitement, it’s time for us to finally break through and get some championships! It’s been absolutely amazing how we haven’t been able to win anything for so long – you would have thought that one would have washed up on the beach by now, but luck just hasn’t been on our side. This past year was a prime example – we had the best wrestling team we’ve ever had in our history, and a team that was the third-best in the nation. Unfortunately, it just happened to be the second-best in the Big 12 Conference, so no team title. If we had only won two or three matches that didn’t go our way at the Big 12 Championships, the title drought would be over, but that’s how it goes. I really believe that we will break that door down this next year somewhere, and hopefully it will open the floodgates.

I know I can’t wait for football to get started, I just feel like we’re on the verge of a special season. I hope that our fans will have something to rally behind and feel good about, because they deserve it, and our kids deserve it too...

Thanks for the chat, look forward to more of this anytime...
TB: Me too!