Tigers' coach ready to move forward
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Quin Snyder survived at Missouri.
He's not going anywhere, at least not for the next few seasons, and maybe beyond.
He might even be stronger if his calculated moves prove to be right.
His staff is older, wiser and more experienced than most at this level after he added three former head coaches: associate head coach Melvin Watkins (Texas A&M), assistant coach Jeff Meyer (Liberty) and student manager (by virtue of his grad school computer class) Jay Spoonhour (UNLV).
Snyder's team is young and extremely inexperienced, with seven freshmen and sophomores, but has the potential to be a top-four or five team in the Big 12 if it meshes correctly in the next two months.
The schedule could not have been planned more perfectly. The Tigers stay in the state of Missouri until a Jan. 11 game at Oklahoma State. Sure, that includes a game against Illinois in St. Louis and games against Arkansas, Indiana and Gonzaga, but the latter three will all at the brand new, state-of-the-art Paige Sports Arena.
Most important, Snyder is about to get closure on the most turbulent chapter of his professional life, as the NCAA is within two or three weeks of issuing its penalties after an investigation of the Tigers' program.
Missouri already has instituted self-imposed sanctions, including a two-year probation, the loss of a scholarship for the 2005-06 season and freezing Snyder's salary for two years. The investigation already gobbled up former assistant coaches Lane Odom and Tony Harvey.
Unrelated to the probe, but even more embarrassing, were taped telephone calls between former Tigers player Ricky Clemons and the wives of two Missouri administrators, while Clemons was in jail. During those conversations, Clemons ridiculed the athletic department. An HBO Real Sports piece last year detailed the calls, which cast the entire school in a negative light.
Oh, yeah, the Tigers also were one of the most disappointing teams in the country last year, falling from Big 12 favorite (with Final Four expectations) to a first-round NIT loser at Michigan.
But you wouldn't know any of this had occurred if you came around now.
"I thought it was all over," Missouri junior guard Jimmy McKinney said of the NCAA troubles. "I haven't heard anything about it."
The Tigers' new building is so new, so amenity-filled, that it's hard to think of anything but a fresh start here. The coaching staff is like that in the NBA, full of experience. Meanwhile, Snyder remains the dominant voice, weaving through the coaches and players, still orchestrating the practice -- and the program.
"There's a freshness here," Snyder said Monday afternoon, looking dapper in a yellow tie, white dress shirt and slacks, ready to head home to tuck in his toddler for the night. "The last year and a half takes a toll on you personally and professionally. There's a sense of opportunity and promise here. Players are aware of the opportunity. We've got a new mix of guys, a new building and a new staff. We've won a lot of games here (100-63 in five years) and there is confidence resurfacing, in spite of the adversity."
Snyder still wears the usual coaching stress, but he appears more relaxed. He wasn't a year ago. Then, he wore the pressure of the NCAA investigation, his voice quivering at times when discussing the probe.
"Last year, it was an ongoing distraction," Missouri athletic director Mike Alden said. "It was really hard last year. He's very passionate about what he does. He saw his program, our program, under such scrutiny. It's stressful for everybody, but now he's refreshed and he's moving forward. We're getting close to a final resolution on this so we can move forward."
Snyder's job remains safe. Snyder said he heard rumors that he was in trouble, but they were never true. Snyder went to the Elite Eight in his third season and went to four straight NCAA tournaments before last year, weathering a few early entries to the NBA along the way. His teams accomplished this despite never finishing higher than tied for fifth in the Big 12.
"There was never a question," Alden said about Snyder's job security. "I believe in Quin and I still believe in him."
Snyder had to make a public apology as part of the self-imposed sanctions for the violations that appear to be mostly secondary in nature, even though Snyder is named in a number of them. Most of the violations dealt with the handling of phone calls (the Tigers now have to log weekly calls to the compliance office), recruiting visits and meals.
The most serious charge, which Harvey has refuted, said that Harvey paid Clemons $250. Academic fraud allegations were thrown out during the investigation and weren't a part of the final report.
"We slipped up in some areas but (the university) knows the big picture and the character of this program is strong," Snyder said.
Alden added that Snyder was na´ve about some of the rules.
"There was a lack of attention to detail, but I've watched him the last year and there has almost been a metamorphosis, and his attention to detail has increased dramatically," Alden said.
Couch the resignations of Harvey and Odom all you want. They couldn't return under the cloud of allegations, and Snyder took the opportunity to add vast experience to his bench, following a trend that is pervasive in college basketball today (see Florida's Billy Donovan hiring Larry Shyatt, former head coach at Clemson, and Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson hiring former Houston coach Ray McCallum).
Alden said Snyder conferred with him on the hires, looking at where his strengths and weaknesses lay with the team. The credibility factor of Watkins, Meyer and Spoonhour, who can't technically coach but can be on the perimeter of the court and can assist in the planning of drills, helps this program move forward.
"I brought in guys with great character and have a lot of experience in teaching the game," Snyder said. "We've won a few tournament games here, so I don't need to be too defensive. But we wanted to put together a good team (of coaches) for our team (of players)."
Watkins considered sitting out a year after getting forced out at A&M. But he jumped back into the same league when Snyder called.
"I'm still trying to figure out (my role)," Watkins said. "I can bring some wisdom and a wiser way of doing things here. Defensively, Quin will be the first one to tell you that he wasn't pleased with what was going on. But I'm not trying to come here and take over."
Watkins said when he coached against the Tigers, he felt like the team lacked a bit of chemistry, something McKinney refuted. But Watkins also said he thought the Tigers didn't guard well off the dribble and were dealing with a lot of things away from the game.
Snyder doesn't deny either of the last two points, and is adamant that this team will defend the ball and the basket better, along with remaining physical, to stay in the Big 12 race.
Regardless, he understands that there are high expectations here in Columbia.
Just how hot is Snyder's seat?
"It's cold here in the winter, so warm is OK with me," Snyder said in jest. "That's one of the questions people enjoy batting around. But we want to win. That's the bottom line. We've won an average of 20 wins, gone to the Elite Eight, played for the Big 12 championship two years ago (in the tournament). Our thing has been the off-court adversity. We've handled it as best as we could and learned from it and corrected whatever issues were there."
Alden said the Missouri fan base has high expectations, but is patient, noting the fans are smart enough to recognize that "after what we've gone through last year, you can't just pop up and go back to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight and have a Final Four type of team."
He said, however, "Our fans recognize that we built the finest on-campus facility in the country and over the course of time, people will expect us to have a product that reflects that."
Snyder couldn't agree more. And now he's got new life to continue to prove this is where he belongs. The NCAA still has to hand down its penalties. No one here thinks Missouri will get nailed. If that's the case, then Snyder has survived and appears better off -- as long as his team can continue to make the NCAA tournament. All indications are that he's on that path.
1. Jason Horton still needs to get his timing in order: Horton isn't trying to look like Allen Iverson. The long, black sleeve he's wearing is a necessity to help his circulation. Horton was cleared late last month after having two surgeries in the spring, one for a blood clot in his shoulder and the other to remove a piece of his rib that was pushing on his vein, according to Horton.
"I feel like everything is getting back to normal," Horton said. "There are few timing issues with my game and a few conditioning problems, but I'm moving forward."
When the freshman point guard gets back his timing and is in shape, he'll likely be the starting playmaker. He' can make a difference for this squad, which needs direction and balance. Having Horton at the point, sharing it with Spencer Laurie, allows Jimmy McKinney and Thomas Gardner to be natural wings and Jason Conley to settle in at small forward.
"The biggest thing for Jason is his timing," Snyder said. "He played every day his whole life and then the last six months, he didn't play."
Horton is the highest-profile name among a group of freshmen that should be the anchor of Missouri's program for the next three to four years. Forward Marshall Brown is one of the most athletic players on the team and will have a hard time not getting on the court. Glen Dandridge is a wiry wing who has been a sleeper so far, and forward Kalen Grimes is being billed as the strongest player on the team and will fight for starter's minutes.
2. Is Conley ready to bust out this season? Conley was put in a tough spot by getting eligible mid-season. He struggled to find his role and averaged 7.6 points after averaging 22.2 points at VMI in the first 10 games of his sophomore season. He led the nation in scoring at 29.3 points a game as a freshman.
That won't happen again. Conley is confident, but he's not going to be a scorer like that at Missouri.
"The level changed a lot for him defensively," Snyder said. "It knocked him back a bit. If he takes good shots and generates offense and guards, then he'll have a really good year."
3. Linas Kleiza is better than ever: Kleiza was looking like a national freshman of the year candidate with his 11 points and 8.4 rebounds a game. But a shoulder injury cut short his freshman season after 16 games. He played in only six Big 12 games before he had to shut it down.
He's back, healed and is the focal point of the Tigers' low-post offense. He said he was cleared to go five-on-five in June and hasn't taken a step back since.
He spent most of the summer in Lithuania, working with the national team and returned in tremendous shape.
"My whole game has improved," Kleiza said.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.