- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 3, 2011

MENDON, MO. (AP) - Taking over a successful college basketball program as the new guy is never easy. Competing with live coverage of the NFL draft when your new school has two top 10 picks? More like downright unfair.

That’s the scenario new Missouri basketball coach Frank Haith found himself in during a recent visit with Tiger boosters at the Mizzou Caravan’s annual pork-chop dinner and Chariton County whistlestop of Mendon, population 208.

His brief remarks were cut short by raucous cheers from the TV-watching crowd when the Jacksonville Jaguars selected former Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert. That was moments after the San Francisco 49ers selected Aldon Smith, Gabbert’s former teammate.

Haith didn’t seem to mind. The former Miami coach _ whose hiring was greeted with disappointment by Missouri diehards hoping for a bigger name _ realizes that he has plenty to prove after seven seasons in Coral Gables with just one NCAA Tournament berth and a losing Atlantic Coast Conference record.

“People want to know who you are, how you are going to do things and what’s in your character,” Haith said in an Associated Press interview. “That’s the passion I felt … I got the message _ they want to win big.”

Haith has spent most of the past month on the road, from New York and Massachusetts to Washington, D.C. and North Carolina, hustling to fill three available scholarships for next season and gain verbal commitments for 2012, when six roster spots will be open.

He’s also focused on recruiting a fan base, with recent trips to alumni and fan clubs to places as disparate as Chicago and Mendon.

His life story is one that resonates among Missouri fans who still revere Norm Stewart, the Shelbyville native who coached Missouri for 32 years after starring for the school’s baseball and basketball teams.

Haith, 45, was born in New York City, one of 10 children, but raised by his grandmother in Burlington, N.C., beginning at age 5. His mother died when Haith was 12, and his father remained distant. Three younger siblings later joined Haith and older sister Patricia in North Carolina.

Encouraged by a Pop Warner coach who was also the school’s athletic director, Haith remained in Burlington to attend Elon College, at the time an NAIA school. An injury during the summer of his freshman year derailed his plans to play football.

He instead found an identity in the coaching fraternity, filled with the father figures he lacked. Haith became a student assistant at Elon, living in a gym janitor’s closet when his scholarship couldn’t cover more traditional student housing.

“As I look back on it, I learned and grew from that experience,” he said. “It’s a big part of who I am.”

He soon followed the peripatetic life of a college assistant coach, relocating every few years while learning from more established basketball minds, from Dave Odom at Wake Forest to Rick Barnes at Texas. Two other former bosses are now top NBA executives: Tony Barone Sr. (Texas A&M), player personnel director for the Memphis Grizzlies; and Kevin Eastman (North Carolina-Wilmington), a Boston Celtics assistant.

Haith’s humility won over the Mendon crowd of Missouri farmers, teachers and small-town bankers.

“I’m thrilled,” said Paul Steele, a former University of Missouri curator and Chillicothe farmer. “I really believe he has the integrity that we in Missouri expect in our coaches.”

Story Continues →