Jim Sterk Q&A: Mizzou AD reflects on a challenging year, promising future

Dave Matter
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk: "Delaying the season's start, kicking back the championship game a couple weeks gives us flexibility to deal with things that may happen during the season."

Jim Sterk is wrapping up his fifth year as Missouri's athletics director, a challenging year unlike anything he's faced in more than three decades in college athletics. The coronavirus put a stranglehold on revenues and emptied stadiums and arenas while other seismic changes in college sports are now forcing ADs to reorganize, reprioritize and rethink how their departments function on a daily basis. 

But Sterk, 65, is up for a good challenge. Before a much-anticipated football season kicks off this fall, Sterk and his wife, Debi, will hike a part of the Appalachian Trail, which might seem easy after navigating a $100 million department through a global pandemic. First, though, he sat down in his Mizzou Arena office to discuss a wide range of topics. The following has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: The name, image and likeness issue, how much of your time does that consume right now? 

A: Probably some of my staff more than me, but it had been there for a while. The (NCAA) was looking at it and then it took a backseat when everything happened (with the pandemic). But it was always there. And so after the first of the year, it really became a focal point. Then with the NCAA not taking action, it became, OK, how are we going to navigate this? There's really the states, Congress, you've got the Alston case with the Supreme Court, and then you've got the NCAA. So what was the best way for us? We felt there were folks within the state (legislature) that would support the Missouri bill. I think it ended up working out really well. The governor has yet to sign, but I think that puts us in about as good a place as we can be. We had already taken steps by hiring Opendorse last fall, just trying to be ready and have student athletes signed up. I think over 150 or so have signed up on Opendorse within our 550 athletes to be evaluated and utilize that space. But we've continued education. We have a working group that's looking at everything from the tax implications to education. There's a lot of things we still don't know where they'll end up. 

Q: I know that the conferences seem to prefer a uniform national model, but that doesn't seem very feasible at this point with some state laws going into effect July 1. Do you feel fortunate to be in a state where NIL (name, image, likeness) legislation has been a priority? 

A: Yeah, I think we're appreciative of that. About two or three years ago, Donna Shalala, the former president (at the University of Miami) but then served in Congress, she goes, "I'm not sure you guys want (Congress) to be in your business." But I think they almost have to be because there's a leadership vacuum, if you will, in that space of what to do. I think that's because the NCAA felt they couldn't do (NIL laws) legally. Legally, there might have been ramifications if they did something before the Supreme Court ruled. So I think it was a bit of wait and see by a lot of people. 

Q: Looking at things fiscally, can you see some light at the end of the tunnel as far as your revenues after going through the pandemic last year? 

A: Yes. One, I think the university overall has come out of it strong. And the support of the legislature, the federal support that streams through the states for higher ed, I think has helped. That's beneficial. From our standpoint, I think that the (NCAA) regional in softball gave me the most hope that there's pent-up demand, that there's people who were excited to be there. I think we can have a heck of a fall, barring any setbacks as far as the pandemic. People are optimistic. We've got a lot of returners on the football team. Eli (Drinkwitz) is doing a great job of engaging the community and the state. We're excited. 

Q: Speaking of football at this point, do you still anticipate full capacity for home games this fall? 

A: Yeah, we do. Actually, our new (season ticket) sales are significantly up. We started later, as far as renewals, but we're in good shape there. Looking at where we were in 2019 and where we can be for 2021, I think we can be ahead (of those sales.) 

Q: I assume you're already tracking athletes as far as who's been vaccinated for COVID? How does that process work? 

A: I don't have any clear numbers yet. In fact, we raised it with our repopulation group that started way back when we had to start bringing people back. That group is looking at what are ways that we can encourage and motivate so that by the time fall comes we're at 85% (vaccinated) so we don't have to do the contact tracing that the SEC medical task force has recommended. Some teams are there (at 85%) from what I hear, but I haven't seen it on a sheet of paper. It's more word of mouth. Eli has said (the football team) is a ways away from that. They've got to do that. I think it's part education, part motivation for what we can do. 

Q: Is that a concern with the football team? Or is there plenty of time before the season? 

A: There's plenty of time to do it, but I think it's time to really start focusing on (vaccinations.) ... It's a mixed bag with different teams, so we're going to make a concerted effort to really address concerns, encourage them to do it, because I think it'll benefit them in the long run. 

Q: As far as your expectations for what this football season could be, not just how many fans you can have in the crowd, but from talking to Eli, could this be a breakthrough year? I don't know if that's the right word, but are you feeling positive? 

A: Yeah, I do. I think it could be a really, really fun year. Steve Wilks has brought a different look to the defense. I think they're picking up the pieces of where they thought they had holes and signing some grad transfers and some transfers that can be immediately eligible. I'm excited really to see Eli's offense after a spring where he had a full spring and Connor (Bazelak) set at quarterback. I think the pieces are there to have a really fun year. An enjoyable year. 

Q: Moving to men's basketball, how do you feel about the state of the program right now? 

A: I was just looking down there (at practice) as I'm walking around the concourse. One, I have a heck of a lot of faith in Cuonzo (Martin). He's excited about his team. And I think he's excited about shaping a group of guys that he feels could even be better than what he had this past year. Him being optimistic and excited about his season lends me to think the same way. It's different. We're going to have to really work at educating people on who the team is and engaging the community and fans and students, because they could be really fun to see. 

Q: Were you alarmed with all the player movement this offseason? Or is that on par for what's going on in college basketball right now? 

A: I think it was probably a combination of a lot of things. The transfer portal is something new. As we looked at it, we weren't any different than most of the teams in the SEC. I think it's kind of a new day. Basketball's probably even more dramatic than football as far as the movement. Although there's movement there as well. But I think it's a combination of, one, being immediately eligible to play somewhere else. In basketball, there's only five that play. And then if they're coming in as someone that is expecting to play right away and they didn't, then they're going to say, 'OK, I need to go somewhere else.' Cuonzo has really embraced the transfer portal so that it can be really good for us. The number of high school kids that he's going to recruit may be reduced. He'll track them and watch them, but then they may go somewhere to another school and then he'll say, 'OK, I watched that kid in high school, recruited him, but I really like what he's doing now.' And he'll invite him to be on the team. So it's almost like the junior college route of the old days, if you will. It could be like that. I don't know if it'll slow down. 

Q: What were those two NCAA postseason softball weekends like for you? I know you wanted to win the super regional, but to have everybody rally around that program, I'm sure was rewarding. 

A: Yeah, it really was. Larissa (Anderson) took over a program where there were issues, and she addressed them up front with the culture on her team. And then we had the NCAA (sanctions), probably the worst decision in history on the postseason (ban), especially with softball. There was one person, one class, and then that person (transfers) and plays but we can't go to the postseason. I know people have used that as an example of things that (the NCAA) has to get right. So, she took all that and worked through that and then started off last year, it was going to be a great season and then unfortunately got cut short. But she's talked from the start about being able to host a regional and then you have a great opportunity to host a super regional. Just one game away. 

In 2019, the NCAA hit Mizzou with one-year postseason bans in baseball, football and softball for academic misconduct violations, after which the one softball player implicated in the violations, Amanda Sanchez, transferred to LSU where she completed her career and was allowed to play in the NCAA postseason. 

Q: What's it going to take to get the baseball program more competitive in the SEC? It appeared to be on track before this season. 

A: Yeah, this year was surprising. Just like in softball, it's pitching. I think Steve (Bieser) addressed that by making a (pitching coach) change. We're excited to have Brian (DeLunas) here, and just his wealth of experience, the ability to engage, will really help the current players and then attract a higher level of player as well. That'll really help Steve a lot. It was a tough year for them. And he's his worst critic. So, I expect better things. 

Q: In this league, baseball is such a priority but it hasn't always been here at Missouri. Is that still an adjustment? 

Well, I think the biggest thing is in the SEC the average athletics budget is $145 million. We're at $110 million. That difference allows you the flexibility to invest in all your sports. So I think baseball is no different from the standpoint of your facility. But it also starts with the peo