10 Questions: Matter on Mizzou sports

QUESTION: Ohio State football made its presence felt recently in St. Louis by recruiting a couple of the area’s top players. Barry Odom has his work cut out for him if he has to keep going up against the likes of Urban Meyer. How do you assess Mizzou’s recruiting efforts in St. Louis? Do you think Odom has done a good job? 

MATTER: The record speaks for itself. Missouri’s three recruiting classes under this staff (2016, 2017, 2018) have included five high school players from the St. Louis area, all in 2016: Harry Ballard, Brendan Scales, Jarod Alton, Tre’Vour Simms and Tucker McCann. Alton and McCann committed when Pinkel was still coach. Obviously Mizzou has recruited and offered far more STL players in those three classes.

Ohio State came in and signed two players over the same span, the two CBC receivers, Babb and Brown, earlier this year. Ohio State recruits high-profile players on more of a national level. Meyer can swoop into a market like St. Louis and nab a player or two. Other programs have done that in St. Louis, too. To some degree, it’s hard for Missouri to compete with the Ohio States and Oklahomas when they target a local player and make their sales pitch. Not to say Missouri should wave the white flag when it’s up against a national power, but it’s an uphill climb. What should be more concerning is when programs at a similar level as MU that doesn’t have proximity as a sales pitch comes in and signs area recruits.

But like I’ve said for years, St. Louis is always going to be competitive recruiting territory for Mizzou, whether the Tigers are going 7-6 or 14-0. It’s close enough for coaches in the Big 12, Big Ten and SEC to swoop in and recruit multiple players in the same class. The competition isn’t going to disappear as long as the talent is here.

COMMENTS/QUESTION: I look at the success of Clemson and I wonder how schools that don’t have traditional powerhouse status can raise their program to this level. It always seems with Mizzou, when we get to that level (2007, 2013), we have a major step back instead of using this exposure to solidify recruiting pitches and keep continuity. Mizzou made it pretty darn close to the mountaintop a few times in the last decade. How can they use that as building blocks to stay up there?

MATTER: More than anything, the 2007 and 2013 seasons are proof that it can be done at Missouri. If it only happened once, then, sure, I’ll hear your case that it was a fluke. But on the doorstep of the national championship game twice in seven years in two different conferences? That’s no fluke. Maybe that says more about Pinkel and the teams he built than it does the overall potential of Mizzou’s program.

Then again, I’m not sure Clemson is a good comparison. Clemson won a national title in 1981 and has won 17 ACC championships. It’s a program that’s been far more relevant on a national scale for a much longer time than Mizzou.

I think a better comparison is Wisconsin, a program that like Missouri is in a state that doesn’t have another Power Five school within its border and can’t live off homegrown talent. But still the Badgers have grown from a conference and regional power to a national contender. It’s possible at places like that but it takes the right leadership to build the resources, sustain consistent support and be able to identify and develop talent – because you’re not going to land many five-star recruits. You can’t make the wrong hire at these programs, because it’s so much harder to overcome a few years of irrelevancy. Programs like Wisconsin and Missouri don’t have much margin for error when it comes to building rosters, because the talent base isn’t as rich as it is at places like Bama, Georgia, Ohio State, etc.

QUESTION: What are realistic expectations for Mizzou hoops if Jontay Porter returns?

MATTER: If Jontay comes back — we’ll know for sure by 10:59 p.m. next Wednesday — then there’s no reason we can’t expect Missouri to contend for a spot in the NCAA Tournament in 2019. He’s a first-team preseason All-SEC player if he returns. He’s a legit scorer who does so many things well that he’d make every player on the floor better, from the point guards to the shooters to the other bigs.

Without Jontay, this team will have to overcome a lack of established scoring and size to push for 20 wins and an NCAA tourney spot. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but he’s a known commodity. A lot of the other roster pieces are not.

Follow-up: What is your gut feeling on what Jontay does?

MATTER: I don’t have one. Obviously someone is telling NBA writers that he’s leaning toward coming back to Mizzou. It would seem very intentional for that info to leak to multiple writers who cover the draft closely. (I am not one of those.) It could also be a diversion tactic. I wouldn’t be surprised if he comes back to school, but it wouldn’t shock me either if he has a workout with a team that really likes him and it sways him toward staying in the draft. There are 30 first-round selections, and I guarantee you on May 24 there are twice that number of draft prospects who believe they’re going to be first-round picks.

If the Porters get reliable intel that he won’t be a first-rounder, then he’s got a compelling case to come back to MU, get in better shape, polish his skills, develop a post game and enter a much weaker draft class in 2019. 

QUESTION: Michael Porter Sr said he is definitely returning to Mizzou. Does that surprise you, since Jontay hasn’t officially made a decision yet, or is it an indication that Jontay has already decided he is coming back for another year?

MATTER: “Senior” has said he plans to stay at Mizzou whether or not Jontay is back at MU. Of course he would say that. He’s under contract for another two seasons. I would expect him to say that. Should Jontay stay in the draft I would still be surprised if Senior is part of the Mizzou staff. And this isn’t a hunch or gut feeling. 

Follow-up: One of the Porter sisters (Cierra) is interning with MPJ’s agency this summer. What are the dynamics of Jontay not hiring an agent, but maybe getting feedback via Michael’s agency? Just curious how an agent helps players in the draft process and whether there would be any information exchange.

MATTER: Let’s not overthink this: Jontay has an agent. He just hasn’t signed a contract. Mark Bartelstein and his firm represent Michael. They’re based in Chicago. The Porters have been training in Chicago for weeks. An unsigned prospect can receive guidance from an advisor during this process as long as he’s not taking any illegal benefits. The Porters are getting feedback from teams about both players. One is signed with the agent; one is not. It would be reasonable to expect the info is flowing through the same channels.

QUESTION: Will Missouri play a football game in St. Louis in the future? I understand the commitment to Kansas City, and that the situation is unsettled with the Dome, but St. Louis remains an important city to Missouri’s success. A game in Busch Stadium against a decent nonconference opponent in November would be a blast.

MATTER: The St. Louis Sports Commission is always welcome to host Mizzou for a football game. There have been discussions and will continue to be discussions about moving one or some of the upcoming games against Illinois back to St. Louis, as I wrote back in the fall. Otherwise, I haven’t heard anything of substance about holding a game in STL.

Photo: Missouri’s Jeremy Maclin eludes Illinois kicker Matt Eller (left) and Martez Wilson as he returns a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown in the Aug. 30, 2008 game at the Edward Jones Dome. Chris Lee | Post-Dispatch

QUESTION: Do you keep in touch with Chase Daniel? Would he ever come back as a QB coach or even OC at Mizzou. Seems like an incredible offensive mind.

MATTER: We’ll drop each other a note on social media every so often. He’s a good dude, always has been. I’m not sure he has any ambitions to get into coaching. He’s got a business on the side that he might want to invest more energy in once he’s done playing.

He would be a great coach if he ever decides to pursue that. He hasn’t played a lot of football in the NFL, but he’s sat through countless meetings and gone through countless practices. He knows the game, has played for smart coaches and would be a good teacher if he decides to go that route.

QUESTION: What is your overall opinion of the 2018 Mizzou baseball season? I have become a huge fan of Steve Bieser … The lack of quality depth in the everyday lineup seemed to really catch up to them in the end. I think they will miss Trey Harris, Michael Plassmeyer and Andy Toelken in particular, but I think this can be a better team in 2019.

MATTER: Whether or not MU makes an NCAA regional — book on not — I thought the program showed some growth this year, but the lineup was just so limited. Missouri had great pitching most nights, both from the starters and out of the bullpen. The defense was incredible at times, mostly good all season. I give Bieser credit for trying to create runs knowing that he had no pop in that lineup, especially without Misner. MU was among the SEC’s worst offenses in terms of homers, extra-base hits and slugging … but first or second in the league in walks, steals and sacrifice bunts. He knew small ball was the way they had to score and he tried to manufacture runs as much as possible. He’s not a smallball coach. His SEMO teams could mash. He just didn’t have that kind of power this year. You look at the SEC season and so much was decided by one swing of the bat here, one there. The pitching staff had zero margin for error because of the lineup.

It’s a really hard job. The elite recruits in your backyard are going to more elite programs or straight to the pros. The stadium doesn’t stack up to the others around the league. There’s little fan support. Weather is always a factor.

It’s a brutal conference to try and build from the bottom up. Consider this: Tony Vitello didn’t get the Mizzou job two years ago. Instead, he waited another year and got the Tennessee HC job — and he’s making about $100K more than MU pays Bieser at a program that hasn’t been relevant in baseball in more than a decade. That’s how competitive this league is.

QUESTION: What can Missouri do to improve the softball program? Any coaching candidates known?

MATTER: The program needs some stability, a coach with a proven track record as a head coach or an assistant from a successful staff. I’ve heard some names in the mix but nothing I can report here. I know fans would be happy to see former MU assistant Pete D’Amour get a look. He’s the head coach at Kennesaw State and took his team to an NCAA regional, but I would not expect him to be interested in the job from what I’m told. He was former coach Ehren Earleywine’s longtime assistant and close friend. Also, I’d be surprised if AD Jim Sterk would hire someone with close ties to the coach he fired 12 days before the start of the season.

Photo: Interim coach Gina Fogue coached Mizzou softball to a 30-29 record in 2018. Photo courtesy of Mizzou Athletics.) 

QUESTION: Will AD Jim Sterk (above left) be able to balance the Mizzou budget?

MATTER: You balance the budget my making more money — and you make more money by selling more tickets. Expenses are only up slightly. The problem is revenue has fallen off — and mostly because football ticket revenue has fallen off. MU will see an uptick in hoops ticket sales for this past season, but football has continued to decline the last three years. You can put together the most ambitious ticket sales department and have them work 24-7 on selling tickets to fans, but you need a strong product to sell to get back to the revenue figures that will make the department whole.

Until then, MU will have to tighten the belt in some areas. They’re not replacing a few staff members who have left the administration, and that should free up some money.

QUESTION: Do you feel the South End Zone project at Faurot Field will help Mizzou in recruiting? Also, anything new with regard to Barry Odom and his relationship with the STL media?

MATTER: A shiny new facility won’t hurt recruiting. Recruits want to be impressed on their visits, and the plans for the building are impressive. Will a sparkling new building win over recruits who have legit offers from major college programs? I’m not sure about that. Recruits consider a multitude of different factors when choosing between schools, but most of the time the recruits who have the best offers want to know they’ll play for a winning program that has a clear plan for their role. Strong facilities will help, but rarely do you ever hear a recruit say it’s the No. 1 reason they picked a certain school.

As for Odom and the STL media, I only speak for myself, not others in the STL market. No update here from me. I’m not sure there will be any football coverage until SEC media days in July – unless a player puts himself in the news.

QUESTION: In all of your years covering Mizzou, do you have favorite games that were the most fun or memorable? 

MATTER: I’ve covered far more Mizzou football than hoops, so I’ll stick with football here.

The 2007 MU-KU football game stands out because of the historical context, the high stakes, the fan excitement, the big stage, the memorable performances. Those are the days you feel privileged to be one of the few who get to chronicle the moment (above).

The 2013 SEC championship game had that feeling as well. It was still somewhat surreal to be covering Missouri in that environment, just two years after the school announced it was leaving the Big 12.

My first year covering Mizzou was 1998, so I was around those Corby Jones-Devin West teams as they carved out their part of MU history. That was exciting to watch a generation of players and fans experience football success for the first time.

Follow-up: Can you give your all-time top five Mizzou QBs?

Matter: Chase Daniel, Brad Smith, Phil Bradley, Paul Christman and … Corby Jones over Drew Lock, Terry McMillan, Marlon Adler and James Franklin.

Lock goes into the top three if Mizzou does more than win seven or eight games this year.

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