In a sport where strange offseason moves and storylines have become so frequent that very little tends to shock anymore, Frank Haith has become the exception. Nothing about who he is, what his career path looks like or the list of accomplishments on his résumé makes much sense. He is college basketball's "Czar of Bizarre."
Haith's hiring by Missouri three years ago was so stunning that I actually remember exactly where I was when I found out the news. His seat had been one of the hottest in college basketball after coaching Miami to just a 43-69 ACC record over seven seasons. He had been to just to one NCAA Tournament, in 2008, and the Hurricanes had gone 60-41 since. Haith was expected to either be fired in the coming weeks, or be given one final season to accomplish something significant.
And then he was thrown a lifeline. Only the lifeline didn't lead to a pity job offer or a low-major simply looking for a name to make their program somewhat relevant, it led to a superior program. Tiger fans' response to the news was predictable, and their hissing grew louder four months later when Haith's name was featured prominently in the NCAA's investigation of Miami. Still, the brass at Missouri stood behind their fresh hire.
That faith was rewarded months later when Haith guided Mizzou to 30 wins, a Big 12 Tournament title and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Much of the shine of those accomplishments was washed away when the Tigers became the first team in 11 years to lose to a No. 15 seed after being stunned by Norfolk State in the round of 64. Still, Haith was named as the Associated Press National Coach of the Year, and acknowledged the controversy surrounding his hire as he accepted the award.
"My landing in Columbia wasn't greeted with a lot of yeas and congratulations," Haith said. "But I wasn't disappointed, rather encouraged because that showed me passion. And I wanted that, because that kind of passion means you have a chance to be successful."
The "yeas and congratulations" that came as a result of Missouri's 2011-12 run would prove to be short-lived. The Tigers were a massive disappointment the next season, going from preseason top-15 to a No. 9 seed bounced in their NCAA Tournament opener for a second straight year. In Haith's third season, the Tigers failed to make the big dance entirely and played a brand of basketball that led to constant complaining in Columbia.
This all leads us to Thursday's news that Haith has accepted an offer to become the new head coach at Tulsa. Like most things with Frank Haith, it was not expected.
In the world of college basketball, there are typically only two formulas for coaching changes:
1. Coach is told to go -- fan base happy -- coach sad -- coach heads to inferior position
2. Coach leaves on his own -- fan base sad -- coach happy -- coach heads to superior position
Photo credit: Andy Lyons
The Haith to Tulsa move (Coach leaves on his own -- fan base happy -- coach happy -- coach heads to inferior position) is about as much of a deviation from both of those formulas as possible. On his own accord, Haith is choosing to make a move to a program that, despite its imminent move to the AAC, is obviously less prestigious than Missouri. In doing so, he's giving himself more job security and pleasing both a large chunk of the fan base he's leaving and coming to.
Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the move that the only major player viewed as taking a risk in all of this is ... Tulsa. The same Tulsa that has been to the NCAA Tournament exactly once over the past 11 years, but that just managed to hire the 2012 National Coach of the Year away from the third or fourth best program in the SEC.
"We want somebody who has been successful, first of all," Tulsa AD Derrick Gragg said two weeks ago as he was beginning his search to replace Danny Manning. "Head coaching experience is always a plus, but it's not an absolute. And I like somebody who has pretty much toed the line NCAA-wise. I'm a compliance guy."
Head coaching experience? Check. Success? Ehhh. Toeing the NCAA line? Big ole Red X.
This combination has left plenty of folks questioning the first major hire by Gragg, who just took the athletic director job with the Golden Hurricane 13 months ago. Hiring Haith would be a fairly bold move for any program at this point, but it's especially brave when you consider that Tulsa's previous AD was fired for gambling.
Nothing about this -- the major players, the reactions or the move itself -- seems to make any sense, but that's life with college basketball's most unpredictable character. There's no telling what happens next.