COLUMBIA -- Jim Sterk and Scott Stokes have been best friends long enough – since seventh grade – that Stokes recognizes the tone Sterk gets in his voice when he’s about to drop some big news.
Sterk had that tone when he called Stokes around this time a year ago.
“I always kid him and say, ‘OK, should I sit down? You’re moving again, aren’t you?’” Stokes said.
Sterk was, indeed, on the move.
It hadn’t been announced yet, but he was accepting the athletic director position at Missouri and leaving his post at San Diego State to do so.
Stokes reacted on the phone the way some others did after Sterk’s hire became official.
“I said, ‘You’re leaving San Diego to live in Missouri?’” Stokes said.
Yes, Sterk was leaving a beach city with glorious weather to come to Columbia. He’d checked out Missouri and liked what he saw.
“He said, ‘It’s my kind of place,’” Stokes said. “To hear him talk about it, I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s much more like your kind of place.’”
Wednesday will mark the one-year anniversary of Sterk’s hire.
During that time, he’s overseen the best fundraising year in the athletic department’s history, put the Memorial Stadium south end zone project back on the table and engineered a coaching change that resulted in a surge of momentum for the men’s basketball program.
He’s also settled into a community that, albeit 2,100 miles away from where he grew up, feels like home.
“I’ve really enjoyed meeting the people of Missouri,” Sterk said.
It’s technically accurate to say Sterk is a West Coast native. After all, his hometown of Nooksack, Wash., is 20 miles from the saltwater shoreline of Birch Bay.
But Sterk’s hometown doesn’t match the image many have of the West Coast.
Nooksack is a small town about 5 miles from the Canadian border, tucked into the northwestern pocket of Washington. Sterk lived in Nooksack until his father, Martin, bought a dairy farm just outside of town when Sterk was in grade school, and the family moved to the farm.
Sterk lived the farm lifestyle of helping milk cows, baling hay and shooting hoops in the hay loft.
“Looking back at it, it was a great way to grow up,” Sterk said.
Granted, Sterk wasn’t overly interested in milking, which the family did by hand in those days.
“We all joked that he didn’t put in a pipeline until all of us were through high school and his guaranteed labor was gone,” Sterk said of his dad with a laugh.
Sterk played football, basketball and baseball at Nooksack Valley High School. In football, Sterk played quarterback, and Stokes was the center.
Sterk and Stokes decided to stake out for college together. They stayed within the Whatcom County and attended Western Washington, which was then an NAIA school.
Stokes remained an offensive lineman, and Sterk became a four-year starter on defense. He set the school record with 164 tackles his senior season, when he helped WWU reach the NAIA District I championship, played at the Kingdome.
“He had leadership skills, and people followed him,” said Paul Madison, WWU’s longtime sports information director and now the school’s athletics department historian. “He had a knack of getting everybody together.”
Sterk’s knack for rallying people hasn’t faded.
Missouri’s athletic department experienced record fundraising in the 2016-17 fiscal year, bringing in $50.7 million for the Tiger Scholarship Fund. That more than doubled the amount raised in the previous fiscal year.
“He has that way with people,” Madison said, when told of Missouri’s fundraising success in Sterk’s first year on the job. “He comes over to people well, and it’s not just a certain group of people. He gets on well with everybody.”
One fundraising attempt in Sterk’s younger days, though, wasn’t as successful.
Sterk was a senior at WWU in the spring of 1978 when he and some friends living in a home dubbed the “White House” for its color and columns out front decided to throw a party with a fee to raise some living money.
“We didn’t realize they would drink us out of house and home,” Sterk said. “Within a couple hours, we were through so many kegs, I knew we were going to lose money. Luckily, the police came. We actually called them” to disperse the crowd.
So much for that idea.
Sterk had more success at a boxing smoker that was a fundraiser for WWU’s baseball team.
Most of the bouts were boxing matches between local bigwigs or students. Sterk’s crew went for a different approach. He and two football teammates challenged three baseball players in a riff of All-Star Wrestling.
“We did the whole airplane spin and the cigar in the eye and against the chair and all that stuff,” Sterk said. “We had it all scripted out, and it brought the house down. It was a funny one.”
Everybody in the gym laughed so hard they were “holding their sides,” Madison said.
“It was just amazing the things they were able to do,” Madison said. “They had really choreographed it just perfectly.”
That wrestling spoof, Madison said, epitomized how there was more to Sterk than just star linebacker.
Madison recalls another time when Sterk sang in a musical, “The Student Prince,” at Western Washington.
Sterk also sang at his 2010 WWU Athletics Hall of Fame induction.
“We’ve never had anybody else do that,” Madison said with a laugh.
After Sterk graduated from Western Washington, he didn’t immediately enter a path toward athletic administration. He briefly sold insurance and then became a teacher and a high school coach for a few years. While a teacher, Sterk worked summers as a seasonal customs officer guarding the U.S.-Canadian border.
“It was a good summer job – perfect for teachers,” Sterk said.
But you had to stay on your toes.
During one shift, Sterk was working the line when two guys rolled up in an El Camino. The FBI had told the customs officers a couple weeks earlier that El Caminos had a lot of compartments in which to hide stuff. The men in the car avoided eye contact with Sterk, and they were evasive when he questioned them. Sterk’s alarm went up.
He asked them to pull over and told his fellow customs officers that he had a potential load car. They searched the vehicle and found a sack containing large bills totaling a quarter-million dollars. The men were drug dealers heading across the border to buy some supply.
The customs officers dispatched for agents from Seattle to arrest the men and called the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to come down. The RCMP informed the customs officers that one of the men was a dangerous fellow. All was well until that man needed to go to the bathroom... and Sterk was selected to take him.
“It was a deserted building, upstairs, no one around, and I’m thinking, ‘He’s going to take my gun and kill me,’ ” Sterk said. “I was totally the Barney Fife. I had my hand on my gun, and I’m walking six steps behind this guy. … It was a scary deal.”
Ultimately, the man didn’t make a run for it.
Another time, Sterk searched a storage compartment above the wheel well of a van and found it full of clothes – and a head. The other customs officers told him it was probably a mannequin, but then Sterk saw the Adam’s apple move.
“The mannequin’s alive,” he told the other officers.
Buried under the clothes was a man trying to smuggle his way across the border.
Sterk gave a fleeting thought to becoming a full-time customs officer, but other officers cautioned that he’d probably get sent to work the Mexican border, so he instead opted for graduate school at Ohio University to pursue a master’s in sports administration.
A career that started in the ticket office at North Carolina took Sterk to Maine, Seattle Pacific, Tulane, Portland State, Washington State, SDSU and now Missouri.
“I just kept giggling going, ‘Unbelievable,’” Stokes said of his friend’s rise. “None of us would’ve predicted this, but I’m also not surprised, because cream rises to the top.”
As Sterk climbed the ladder, Stokes said, he never changed who he is.
“He doesn’t have an arrogant bone in his body,” said Stokes, who is a school counselor in Marysville, Wash., and remains in regular contact with Sterk. “What you see is what you get. He comes from good stock, as the old small-town country expression goes.”
Sterk uses the word momentum a lot when describing what he sees occurring within MU’s athletic department.
There’s a photo in his office that shows a rendering of what the Memorial Stadium south end zone project will yield.
Sterk hadn’t even been on the job for a month before restoring the south end zone project. The project was proposed during the Mike Alden and Gary Pinkel days. Sterk’s predecessor, Mack Rhoades, scrapped the plan during his tenure in favor of his own plan, one that would instead renovate the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex.
Missouri football coach Barry Odom favored the south end zone project, and Sterk revived it, calling it a win-win that also would free up space in the MATC for Missouri’s other athletes.
Plans call for construction to begin after the 2017 season and to be completed by the summer of 2019.
Fundraising for the project, which has an estimated price tag of $96.7 million, has exceeded $50 million. Sterk hopes to soon secure final approval for project from the University of Missouri Board of Curators. The board previously approved the project’s architect.
Missouri is coming off an athletic year in which its football and men’s basketball teams had a combined winning percentage of .273. Sterk notes that Missouri’s nonrevenue sports had a historic year, which helped MU place 33rd in the Director’s Cup, the highest spot it has ever achieved, but he also acknowledges the need for improvement in the revenue sports. He helped create some positive buzz for the men's basketball program by hiring Cuonzo Martin, who brought in the nation’s No. 1 recruit, Michael Porter Jr.
When Sterk took the reins last August, he inherited an athletic department that had endured a chaotic year, which included a football player boycott, Gary Pinkel’s retirement, self-imposed men’s basketball sanctions and a softball player protest.
But Sterk saw an opportunity at Missouri. Twelve months into his tenure, he’s helped provide steadiness for an athletic department that needed it.
“You never know when you go into a new place what’s going to happen, but I had studied the place. Mizzou had had success,” Sterk said. “I felt like I could come in and help stabilize and help move forward. I think we’ve been able to do that with a lot of help. We have some really good momentum, and I’m excited about it this year almost even more than last year.”