COLUMBIA — Frank Haith broke up with the Missouri Tigers by text message.
That’s how Missouri athletic director Mike Alden said he learned Friday morning that Haith had accepted the Tulsa men’s basketball coaching position.
No matter, the focus for Alden has shifted to finding Haith’s successor, a process into which he offered little insight Friday in a news conference at Mizzou Arena.
Alden refused to discuss specific candidates or a time frame, though he praised two coaches.
Calling him a “heck of a basketball coach” and a “heck of a guy,” Alden said associate head coach Tim Fuller will serve as interim coach, a position he also held during Haith’s five-game suspension to start the season.
Alden also said Central Missouri coach Kim Anderson, a Sedalia, Mo., native who last month guided the Mules to the NCAA Division II national championship and played under Norm Stewart, “has done a magnificent job,” but wouldn’t say if he is a candidate.
“As far as talking about who those candidates will be out there or whatever, I’m just not going to get into that,” Alden said.
Missouri’s job is vacant with the spring signing period underway and another Southeastern Conference team, Tennessee, also looking for a new coach. Still, Alden is confident that interest in the Tigers’ job will be high because of their facilities and the league, which is set to launch the SEC Network in August.
“I think that we’re positioned to be a much stronger program today perhaps than we were three years ago,” Alden said, adding that Missouri will not act hastily.
“When you have other vacancies out there, certainly you’re aware of that. You’re knowledgeable about that, you’re cognizant of that, but ours is clearly focused on just at Mizzou and what do we feel like the best fit will be.”
Alden said Haith called him Thursday morning about his interest in talking to Tulsa, and Missouri granted permission for the two sides to speak at that time.
But Haith, who was introduced Friday afternoon in Oklahoma, said Alden called him Thursday to say Tulsa had requested permission to speak with him. Haith also said he tried to call Alden on Thursday night to say he was leaving but didn’t connect, so he texted in the morning.
Haith was joined in Tulsa by MU assistant coach Dave Leitao and strength coach Todor Pandov, who are taking the same positions with the Golden Hurricane.
“I’m going to try to bring as many guys on my staff at Missouri here and then I will visit with some folks,” Haith said.
ESPN reported that Tulsa had offered Haith a seven-year contract worth an average of $1.85 million per season. He was scheduled to make $1.7 million this season at Missouri, which is owed $500,000 from Haith for terminating his contract early.
“What a whirlwind,” Haith said. “It’s Good Friday. I’ve got a lot of things to be blessed for.”
Haith thanked Missouri and said Alden was “incredible to me” during three years in Columbia. He also thanked the student-athletes and said the Tigers’ fans were “really good to me.”
“That was the toughest thing for me — to leave those young men,” Haith said.
Missouri’s players were caught off guard by the move. Sophomore Ryan Rosburg said he had no idea Haith was considering a move until rumors began circulating Thursday and a team meeting was called.
“We didn’t really get a definite answer what was going to happen,” Rosburg said of the Thursday afternoon meeting before Haith boarded a flight for Tulsa. “Basically, he just told us he would call us whether he decided to take the job or not.”
Instead, Haith sent a text message to the players Friday morning saying he was taking the Tulsa job. Alden also met with MU coaches, staff and players Friday morning.
“Everyone’s just shocked,” Rosburg said. “Everyone doesn’t really know what to expect. This is the last thing that I thought would happen. … In hindsight, some things kind of were signs. Certain things at the banquet (on Wednesday). Not exactly a certain thing that was said, but it was more a recapping as opposed to talking about the future and what was next.”
He said Haith was under pressure last season as the Tigers’ bid for a school-record sixth straight NCAA Tournament, but “there was pressure on all of us,” Rosburg said. “We were a fringe NCAA team, so there was a lot of pressure on us to make it. … Everyone has high expectations for us, which they should. We’re the University of Missouri.”
Rosburg refused to bash Haith for leaving.
“You can’t judge a man,” Rosburg said. “You have to provide for your family. You don’t really know what was driving him to do what.”
He also said he thought Missouri would reel in another great coach. Alden is searching for his fourth coach at MU and third since 2006.
“I have a lot of faith in Mike Alden,” Rosburg said. “I know he’s going to make a good decision. It’s a prestigious job I would say, so I think we’ll have a lot of good guys try to get it.”
Asked what he was looking for in a new coach, Rosburg said, “A strong leader and someone who’s going to take us back to the NCAA Tournament and win championships.”
Rosburg said he wasn’t going to leave the Tigers.
“I’ve been a Mizzou fan my entire life,” Rosburg said. “This morning, with everything going on, I looked through my closet and I was proud to put on a Missouri shirt.”
Rosburg, who averaged 4.8 points per game, and Johnathan Williams III, who averaged 5.8, are Missouri’s two leading returning scorers. Williams’ father said his son also planned to stay at Missouri, according to Gary Parrish of CBS Sports.
Meanwhile, State Fair Community College guard Kevin Punter, who committed to Missouri on April 4, said he had not decommitted despite the fact that his coach, Kevin Thomas, said Thursday that Punter was reopening his recruitment.
“There’s a lot going on and a lot of craziness, but, as of right now, I’m still committed,” Punter said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, so I’m trying to lay low and see what Mizzou’s next move is and who they get as a head coach. Then. I’ll pretty much go from there.
“I don’t want to wait too long. I am entertaining some other schools to save myself in case the whole staff ends up leaving, but in terms of decommitting from Mizzou, all these rumors out there are wrong.”