Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Mizzou Exchange: Jeff Ermann of Inside Mizzou

I think this post makes today officially the busiest day ever for Mizzou Sanity. Go us.

Jeff Ermann is the current proprietor of’s
Inside Mizzou site. He has done a tremendous job in the last few months of making IM a valuable source for Mizzou insider info. He was gracious enough to exchange a few e-mails with me. Here’s the latest Mizzou Exchange!
The Boy: We'll start with a pretty easy two-parter: For those who have not been paying attention, how long have you been at the helm of Inside Mizzou, and how long have you been entangled in the web that is Mizzou Sports (as a fan, writer, etc.)?
JE: I've been the Publisher of Inside Mizzou Magazine and for about five months. A few years prior to that, I covered the Mizzou hoops team for the Columbia Tribune. It was the 2003-2004 season. Quin and Co. were ranked in the top five nationally in the pre-season. I thought I was going to be at the Final Four Final Four. We all know how that went. I didn't even get to cover the NCAA tournament! A trip to watch an NIT game in frigid Ann Arbor, Michigan, was my consolation prize.
TB: I suffered through that season just the same, only I didn't have to go to Ann Arbor (or, to be honest, even watch much of the NIT game at all). I think I win that battle!

2004 was a demoralizing year all-around for Mizzou athletics--for men's basketball and football in particular--and I think you're seeing some of those scars reemerge when it comes people's predictions for the 2007 football season. They don't trust that Mizzou won't choke again like they did in 2004. The perception of Gary Pinkel's program as a whole continues to be affected by the all-around disappointment of 2004.

Which leads us somewhat into our first topic: football recruiting. Taking a macro look at the situation, one sees that Mizzou has improved from year to year all but once under Pinkel, and the facilities continue to see massive upgrades. Despite that, recruiting hasn't really improved in terms of rankings and in-state gets--in the case of in-state recruiting, it's actually regressed.

However...every class that Pinkel and Co. bring in seems to be more athletic than any previous one. They seemed to get whichever MO kid they wanted in 2003 (sans Laurence Maroney) and 2004, but those classes have arguably been less successful in terms of star power and athleticism than the 2005 class (which came on the heels of the 2004 disappointment) and--to the extent that can be measured at this point--the 2006 class. It's hard to adequately (and subjectively) compare recruiting classes at this early a stage, but there definitely hasn't been as strong a correlation between the # of top MO kids signed and the overall quality of the class as one would have thought.

So I guess I have two questions for you at this point: 1) What do you feel are the major causes of the downgrade in Mizzou's in-state recruiting, and 2) How much do you feel this matters?
JE: Here's my stance on the in-state recruiting: Everyone wants to keep the best talent at home. That's not just Mizzou; it's every school. But people tend to be parochial and also have attachments to local players and schools.

The real question is, how many guys during Pinkel's tenure have left the state and become stars? I'm not talking about highly rated recruits he didn't get, I'm talking about players who then panned out in college as big-time players. Laurence Maroney is one ...

So in short, I guess I'd say it's a tad overrated. There is a lot of good talent in the state, don't get me wrong. But you want to get good players, regardless of where they come from. There's a saying that goes, 'It's not the players you miss on that hurt you, it's the ones you do get who can't play.'

St. Louis clearly does not consider MU the home school. The players there seem to favor the Big 10, Notre Dame, etc. I'm certain MU would like to do better there and the staff is trying to address it (they did already get a commitment from '09 standout Sheldon Richardson). But sometimes with the major city and the state school, problems arise or a relationship just gets stale. Being that close together, people are bound to find things they don't like. It's like family, only with family you are going to work it out regardless.

This is a phenomenon I'm very familiar with, being a Maryland basketball fan. The Terps have had cool relations with locals, and have had to watch players like Rudy Gay, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley leave the area in recent years. Like Mizzou fans, it's a major issue for Terps fans.

Mizzou is getting good players and better athletes than before, like you said. If the staff can make a big dent in Texas, that would certainly help ease the pain of not getting every top in-state kid -- and then some.
TB: We are on exactly the same page then. It's funny that you brought up Maryland--I've used that example before, but only for Durant and 'Melo...I hadn't even made the connection that Gay and Beasley were also from that area. And it's got to severely irk Maryland fans that Beasley chose to play at K-State, of all places. At least the other three chose major programs.

Sticking to in-state recruiting for a my unofficial count (feel free to add whoever I'm missing), Mizzou has potential offers out to three uncommitted Missouri kids: OL William Cooper (Hayti), DE Aldon Smith (Raytown), and DE James Moore (St. Louis). Of that bunch, who do you see committing to Mizzou? And going beyond those three kids, in your opinion, what other Missouri kids are the most likely to receive an offer?
JE: Yup, Gay and Beasley too. Of course, there is a lot of off-court baggage with some of these guys. Maryland doen't 'play the game' as much as some schools. The Terps also missed on five (five!) local McDonald's All-American's this past year. Anyways, I won't bore you with my Maryland anguish.

As far as the in-state kids, I think Mizzou has a good chance with Aldon Smith. Smith might be the most physically gifted player in the state this year. He has been overlooked a bit but now is racking up some offers and is sure to get more major schools. He would be the first priority in my opinion. He does like Mizzou, but is going to go through the process before making a decision. It would be painful to see him end up at Nebraska.

Between the kids Mizzou from whom Mizzou has gotten verbals and the kids who've committed elsewhere, there honestly aren't a lot of must-get kids other than the one I mentioned. Locally at Rock Bridge, quarterback Jake Morse and receiver Chase Meijia could play their way into offers with strong senior years.
TB: My dad worked in College Park for a few years, and I own a "Fear the Turtle!" shirt, so I don't mind discussing the Terps. But I do suppose we're here to discuss Mizzou...

Sadly, at this point I've found it's a relatively accurate practice for in-state recruiting predictions to just look at where the kid is from and, disregarding any and all interviews and statements, make the prediction based on that. If they're from rural MO, Mizzou has a good chance (then again Tyler Compton is from Bonne Terre, and he's going to NU). The KC area (sans Grandview), Mizzou has a good chance. From StL? Chances are iffy at best. I hate to over-generalize, but it seems Mizzou continues to fight an uphill battle against perception in St. Louis, and I'm not sure what will change that.

I thought the quotes from Robert Steeples' Mizzou visit a couple months ago (to paraphrase the DeSmet DB: "I didn't expect Mizzou to be that StL, everybody looks down on Missouri football") were amazingly revealing. His teammate, Wes Kemp, pretty much admitted that it would take one major StL kid going to Mizzou to open the floodgates...then proceeded to commit to Wisconsin. Parkway West's Blaine Gabbert (the #1 player in the state by all accounts) visited Mizzou eleventy billion times and became close friends with Mizzou commit Andrew Jones...then committed to Nebraska and attempted to get Jones to do the same.

I realize that we're both in agreement that this entire in-state recruiting issue doesn't matter as much as some would like to think it does, but...the best-case scenario for Mizzou is still an even playing field in St. Louis. Is this current disconnect fixable, or are the causes too deeply rooted? I know that Norm Stewart and Larry Smith had iffy relations with certain StL schools and coaches, but...they're not here anymore. Obviously the best possible solution to what ails Mizzou in the department of StL recruiting is winning, but...Mizzou has improved every year but one in Pinkel's tenure. Any recruit who visits—and most St. Louis kids visit at some point at least once—sees strong facilities, a good family atmosphere, and continued improvement. And yet they continue to choose even a program like Minnesota over Mizzou. Steeples might have been over-generalizing with his comments, but maybe he wasn't.

Before I move past in-state recruiting (and I promise I will shortly), I need to ask...can Mizzou bridge the gap in St. Louis? And if they there any way to catch up permanently, or will the same crack begin to form the next time Mizzou has the inevitable less successful season?
JE: You're right Bill. it is a situation that needs to be worked on. There's one magic cure: Win, and win big.

You have to keep in mind that while we all are pro-Mizzou, these in-state kids have not grown up watching an overly impressive MU program. There have been a few good years, but overall Mizzou's win-loss record during the span during which, say, the last six graduating high shool classes have grown up, does not compare with those of some of the programs that come here to recruit -- Notre Dame, Iowa, Georgia, Nebraska, etc.

The first thing kids want these days in terms of football programs is playing time early. Then they want to win. If Mizzou can put together a big year this year and continue its momentum, that will heal some of the STL recruiting malaise for next year and for the future. Everyone loves a 'name-brand' program. Win and they will come.

P.S. Nice use of eleventy-billion.
TB: That's not even a real number. Yet.

You mentioned 'name brand' programs...that brings me to my next thought: is it actually possible for Gary Pinkel and Mizzou to make the jump in recruiting success and stay there? I
posted recently about the ‘cycle’ that seems to follow most mid-rung, non-‘name brand’ schools—in general, recruiting successes are tied directly to a mid-rung team’s success in a given season, and sustained recruiting prowess—and a break of peaks-and-valleys cycle—is extremely difficult to come by.

Am I totally off-base with this? Do you think a breakthrough ’07 season would be enough to buy Pinkel and Staff a few years of recruiting success even if there’s a step backwards in 2009 after Chase Daniel graduates?

To break into ‘name brand’ status, it seems like you’d need a number of things in place: a great coach (who wants to stay at your school), an energetic coaching staff (to beat people on the recruiting trail year after year), a rock-solid commitment from your athletic department (to pony up the cash to keep the great coach and continue keeping up with the facilities arms race), and a strong, dedicated fanbase (as your ‘name’ grows, your stadium grows, your ticket prices go up, and your fans have to keep filling the bigger, more expensive stadium). Does Mizzou have that?
JE: I think Mizzou does have that. Of course, not to be redundant, but they need to do it on the field. Pinkel needs this to be his breakthrough season. Also, assuming Daniel doesn't leave early, you should have two good-to-great years in a row coming up.

I think the fans are dedicated enough to sustain success. Mizzou had 17 losing seasons in 19 years and the fans kept coming in good numbers. It would be nice to see the program play against more 'name' teams, but that doesn't seem to be in the plans for the time being.

The facilities get rave reviews from all of the recruits I speak with.

You're right, it is quite difficult to sustain that name-brand status. Mid-level teams fail at it a lot more than they succeed. But like I said, it never hurts to have that signature player like Daniel, you've got the facilities and an improving inroads into texas, now you need to put together two very good years.
TB: You’re definitely right on with the ‘signature player’ thing. Mizzou had one named Brad Smith for a few years, and the draw of playing with him him immensely helped first. Brad did, however, show how a ‘signature player’ can backfire if his results don’t coincide with the potential everybody saw initially. For whatever reason—Pinkel’s coaching, Brad’s own limitations (my guess), luck—the Brad Smith era didn’t live up to expectations (though it filled 30 highlight reels), and I think Mizzou and Gary Pinkel are continuing to pay for that...and will do so until they have a breakout season.

And yes, that breakout season really needs to come this year. As I’ve said on the blog before, another 8-4/7-5 year puts Gary Pinkel firmly in Glen Mason Territory, where he’s not a failure as a coach, but he’s not exactly a success either. He’s in limbo—constantly threatening to either break through or fall apart and get fired and doing neither—and that’s not a pleasant place to be. We only have to hope for the best for another month, though—the season’s finally right around the corner.

Switching topics now...on to basketball recruiting. Mike Anderson inherited an interesting scenario when he took the Mizzou job. There was hardly any recruiting for him to do in 2007—which hurt a little because a coach’s recruiting grace period (where recruits believe he’ll lead his team to a championship) starts immediately and doesn’t normally last more than 2-3 years. However, after not having much work to do in 2007, Anderson and staff have a seemingly infinite number of scholarships to fill for 2008. So far they have a Truman Patriot on board—PF/C Steve Moore—but there are plenty more slots to fill. How big a splash do you see Mike Anderson making in 2008?
JE: That's the eleventy-billion dollar question, Bill.

Mizzou is in with LOTS of kids right now, but it's incredible how wide-open it all seems to be. There are precious few who you can point to and say you'll be truly surprised if they don't come to MU. Marcus Denmon is one -- the shooting guard from Hogan Prep. Keith Ramsey, a 6-8 juco forward, told me last week that MU is his favorite. He'd be a good get.

After that, it's a lot of kids who like MU, but of whom you can't exactly say MU is definitively the favorite. They're casting a wide net, which is good. The playing time is the best thing they have going, because the program's prestige isn't where it was a few years ago. Mike Anderson's name still carries a lot of weight in Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama, but the top guys down there are very hard to pull away from the SEC.

The big fish is Scott Suggs, the 6-6 guard from St. Louis. He is the top guy on the board. We were able to get the latest news on Suggs last week, but I can't give away all of my good stuff! *cough**cough*

(Note: between the time it took for us to finish this Exchange and me to get it posted, Suggs committed to Washington. Damn.)
TB: Yes, feel free to pimp out your site as much as possible here. We've been impressed with how coverage there has improved on seemingly a month-to-month basis lately. Keep up the good work.

And speaking of broke the Miguel Paul story a couple weeks ago. This kid came out of nowhere a while back, and now he's the first high school point guard commitment of the Mike Anderson tenure. One thing that always held Quin Snyder back was his inability to develop a strong point guard. Wesley Stokes didn't really develop too much, which led to his emergency recruitment of Ricky Clemons. After all the dust had settled there, he got Jason Horton, who was supposed to be a big-time player, but it really hasn't happened. From what you've seen in Paul, do you see him as someone who can quickly contribute and develop (a la Keon Lawrence) or someone who'll start slow and improve incrementally every year?
JE: I have not seen Paul in person, but I have seen tape and heard the reviews, and I think he'll be able to contribute right away. He's very fast and quick, is a natural scorer and is an extremely hard worker. The first thing he did the morning after getting home from the 18 hour drive from Columbia to Florida is get back in the gym. He takes 5,000 jumpers a day and runs like a maniac. I think MU found a hidden gem here.
TB: The jumpers habit is a very good one. Lots of point guards are strong scorers in high school because they're so quick that they can get layups whenever they like. Good point guards have to have at least a somewhat capable jumpshot to be truly effective--that skill seems to have eluded both Stokes and Horton.

I think we're approaching the 3,000-word mark here overall, so I guess that means we should wrap up. On to the last topic...same as the first one: Football. I was up in Chicago last weekend, and a Mizzou buddy of mine asked me, "So are we really actually going to be good this year? Should I really get my hopes up?" My answer to him was the same it's been every year that he's asked that question--"Of COURSE! This year's going to be great!" I can't help myself, though that optimism is usually countered nicely with extreme doubt the week of a game. It's obvious that this is Gary Pinkel's best shot at a 10-win season, even better than the now-infamous '04 campaign. Will they actually get it done, or is an 8-4 season and a trip to Glen Mason Territory more likely?
JE: That's the big question. I'd like to say they'll get it done, and I think they can, but things are going to need to fall into place perfectly. The big questions are:

1. Will the defense be improved significantly? WIth an above average defense, this becomes a possible juggernaut of a team.

2. Will other teams have figured out how to slow MU's offense. After what the Tigers did last year, it's safe to assume many a defensive coordinator spent many hours in the film room this summer game-planning agaist them.

3. Will the team bring it on a consistent basis and avoid the sort of letdowns that have occurred too often. They say they have, and they seem very focused right now.

There's not question this is the best shot MU has had at a 10-win type of season in many years. To give away a secret, I picked the entire schedule in our upcoming magazine, and the only loss I had was at Oklahoma. That, of course, would be a dream season.

So, to summarize, I'm slightly on the fence, but leaning more toward the side that says this will be the breakout year everyone is expecting.
TB: I'm glad to see you make predictions like me. Back when The Beef and I were doing Tigerboard Radio, I always made the super-optimistic prediction...that way I could say I called it if it actually happened. Granted, that means my predictions are usually (okay, always) horribly inaccurate, but of these days...thanks again for doing this, Jeff!