University of Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk stepping down after five years

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune
Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk talks to the media during a November 2019 press conference at Kansas City's Sprint Center.

Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk is stepping down upon his replacement being hired, the university announced Monday night.

Sterk has been the Tigers' athletic department leader since 2016, taking over for Mack Rhoades, who left for Baylor. 

“We are grateful for the dedicated leadership Jim has provided over the last five years to position Mizzou for even greater success,” UM System President and MU Chancellor Mun Choi said in a news release. “We recognize his many contributions and appreciate his continued role as we search for the next leader of Mizzou athletics.

Missouri head football coach Eliah Drinkwitz, left, answers questions from the media alongside athletic director Jim Sterk on Dec. 10, 2019, at the Show-Me Club in the South End Zone facility at Memorial Stadium.

“We now begin a national search for a visionary athletics director who will develop a strategic plan for Mizzou to achieve exceptional success in the SEC and to navigate a bold path in the rapidly evolving world of collegiate athletics.” 

Sterk's legacy with Missouri still has large pieces yet to be written, as he hired Eli Drinkwitz and Cuonzo Martin as the school's head football and head men's basketball coaches, respectively, during his tenure.

Sterk also hired head softball coach Larissa Anderson and head volleyball coach Joshua Taylor in his time as athletic director. Both programs have made multiple postseason appearances under Sterk's watch.

Previously:Mizzou athletic director Jim Sterk says he's not leaving for same spot at UCF

“I am grateful for the hard work of our amazing staff, coaches and student-athletes, as well as the generous support of our alumni and friends during my tenure as athletics director,” Sterk said in the release. “I believe that Mizzou athletics is well-positioned for future success, and I wish our coaches and student-athletes well in their continued quest for academic and athletic excellence."

There's been turbulence in Sterk's five-year tenure atop Missouri's athletic department too. 

In February 2018, South Carolina head women's basketball coach Dawn Staley sued Sterk after comments he made on a local radio show about a recent Tigers vs. Gamecocks women's basketball game. 

Sterk accused Staley of promoting a hostile and negative atmosphere and said Missouri players were spit on and had racial epithets hurled at them by South Carolina fans. That Jan. 28 contest is also well-known for an on-court altercation between the teams just before halftime. 

Staley called Sterk's comments "false, defamatory and reckless." The case led to a $50,000 settlement.

There were also NCAA sanctions for past academic fraud that involved MU football, baseball and softball that preceded Sterk's time in Columbia. The litigation and appeal of sanctions took place with him at the helm and were ultimately unsuccessful in overturning the penalties in November 2019. 

Less than a week after the appeal of sanctions were officially denied by the NCAA, Sterk fired head football coach Barry Odom after a 6-6 season that included a season-opening loss to Wyoming and a five-game losing streak in Southeastern Conference play.

Sterk had extended Odom's contract less than a year earlier, on Dec. 5, 2018, through the 2024 season, as well as finalizing a $600,000 increase in his annual salary.

Less than a week after Odom's firing, Sterk's initial list of finalists for the vacant football gig was effectively rebuked by the MU Board of Curators for being lackluster and diminished his hopeful bubble of privacy.

That pushback eventually led to Sterk finding Drinkwitz. The bulk of candidates hasn't been much remembered by Tiger fans because of Drinkwitz's quick advancement of the program. 

Should Tiger football continue to be successful, how those in Columbia remember Sterk will likely be directly tied to those results. 

Sterk, 65, the 20th athletic director in MU history, led the progress of new facilities, fundraising and increased academic and athletic success.

“I am grateful for the hard work of our amazing staff, coaches and student-athletes, as well as the generous support of our alumni and friends during my tenure as athletics director,” Jim Sterk said via news release.

More:Tiger Scholarship Fund raises record $55.5 million in 2020-21 school year

Missouri football's $98 million South End Zone Facility opened in the summer of 2019, and ground is scheduled to be broken this fall on a new $34 million indoor football practice facility located southwest of Memorial Stadium.

During Sterk’s tenure, 18 of Missouri's 20 programs made at least one postseason appearance, a period which also produced seven individual NCAA championships and 11 conference team titles.

Sterk's contract ran through 2023, still part of his original seven-year deal for $700,000 per year. It was not immediately clear whether he's retiring.

Missouri should attract a strong candidate pool to replace Sterk, with several Division I athletic directors, including North Texas' Wren Baker and Louisiana's Bryan Maggard, having ties to the school

Sterk's departure comes 16 months after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which caused changes galore for the athletic department.

The college sports landscape is also evolving with name, image and likeness laws being passed around the country and conference realignment talk buzzing.

Prior to his arrival in Columbia, Sterk served as the athletic director at San Diego State for five years. 

Sterk came to San Diego from Washington State, where he served as athletic director from 2000-10. He was also the athletic director at Portland State from 1995-2000, overseeing the Vikings' transition from D-II to D-I.

Before becoming the Tigers' athletic director, Sterk had never worked in Columbia.

He graduated from Western Washington University in 1980, after playing football and basketball for the NAIA school. Sterk was inducted into the Western Washington Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010.

Sterk's status as Missouri athletic director came into question once before, in February, when reports linked him to the same role at Central Florida. 

UCF president Alex Cartwright served as Missouri chancellor from 2017-20 and was Sterk's direct supervisor. Sterk addressed the speculation at the time, denying interest, and the Knights wound up hiring former Arkansas State athletic director Terry Mohajir.

Contact Eric Blum at eblum@columbiatribune.com. Follow @ByEricBlum on Twitter.

Follow Mizzou football with the Tribune’s Tiger Extra newsletter. For more of the Tribune's preseason coverage, purchase a digital subscription.