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Mizzou AD Desiree Reed-Francois leaving for Arizona -Dispatch

Mizzou AD Desiree Reed-Francois leaving for Arizona -Dispatch

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COLUMBIA, Mo. — University of Missouri athletics director Desiree Reed-Francois is leaving to take the same job at the University of Arizona.

It’s a shocking loss for MU, where Reed-Francois helmed the athletics department for less than three years.

Since taking the job in August 2021, she has been widely credited with generating considerable momentum around Mizzou athletics. Reed-Francois hired coaches including Dennis Gates, Dawn Sullivan and Kerrick Jackson, spearheaded a plan to renovate Memorial Stadium, and brought in a record $62 million donation to the athletics department.

But recently, university leadership established an oversight committee to monitor the athletics department, a possible point of friction between Reed-Francois and upper-level administrators.

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Mizzou has tapped senior associate athletics director Marcy Girton as the interim AD. She has overseen the Tigers football program and special projects since her hire in May 2023.

Girton has 30 years of experience in college sports, ranging from a stint as Auburn and South Carolina’s chief operating officer and as a football administrator at Auburn and Texas A&M — also working as the latter’s deputy AD. Girton has also consulted around the topic of name, image and likeness, or NIL, compensation for athletes, bringing familiarity with that hot-button realm.

MU will begin its search for a permanent replacement immediately.

Reed-Francois leaves for Arizona, a school migrating from the Pac-12 to Big 12 that is also struggling with its finances. While the shift from a rising Southeastern Conference program to one in need of a rebuild could be seen as surprising, Reed-Francois has ties to Tucson, having graduated from Arizona’s law school.

There, her salary will reportedly be $1 million per year with an increase to $1.2 million in the fifth year of her new contract. It’s a pay cut from the $1.25 million she was making under the terms of a contract extension signed with MU.

Missouri will be due a buyout worth approximately $2.5 million.

“My heart is filled with gratitude and nostalgia, reflecting on the incredible journey we’ve shared together at Missouri, as I embark on the next step in my journey,” Reed-Francois wrote in a statement posted to X, formerly known as Twitter. “Leaving behind such an amazing fan base is not easy, but as I embark on this new chapter back to my alma mater, I carry with me cherished memories of our time together.”

She will start at Arizona on March 3, according to a news release from the Arizona athletics department.

“There are very few institutions that would entice me to leave an SEC athletics department with strong momentum,” she said in a statement circulated by Arizona. “The University of Arizona has tremendous potential and is an institution — and an athletics program — on the rise, and I want to be a part of shaping that future.”

Desiree Reed-Francois gives a high-five to mascot Truman the Tiger on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, as she is introduced in as the University of Missouri’s athletics director.

Christian Gooden, Post-Dispatch

Reed-Francois, the first woman to be Mizzou’s athletics director, led the department to a financial surplus and kept it in the black, albeit marginally in the most recent fiscal year.

During her tenure, she fired men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin before hiring Gates, who guided the program back to the NCAA Tournament in his first season. The football team, led by Eli Drinkwitz, whose arrival in Columbia predates Reed-Francois, finished its season with a top 10 ranking and Cotton Bowl win.

Improvements to the fan experience at Memorial Stadium — plus the football team’s success — saw five consecutive sellouts during the 2023 season. As a result, Reed-Francois secured the first stage of approval for a renovation of the stadium’s north concourse.

On Feb. 8, the UM System Board of Curators established the Mizzou Intercollegiate Athletics Special Committee, which is charged with overseeing the athletics department.

“Particularly at this critical moment in the evolution of key programs and with major planned investments in MU Athletics imminent, accountability to the Board and the State through this new committee is more important than ever,” read a Board of Curators document explaining the need for the committee.

Finances are a the core of the committee’s charge after the athletics department finished in the black by a single dollar in the 2023 fiscal year, balancing the books in part because of direct support from the university. The new oversight group will have the power to “obtain, monitor and gather all information the committee deems necessary to assess progress of athletic funding, efforts and results of funding.”

Perhaps Reed-Francois’ highest-regarded hire was Gates, who, despite this season’s struggles, found first-season success and has secured a reputation as an excellent recruiter.

Gates congratulated Reed-Francois on her move at the start of his previously scheduled Monday news conference, thanking her for the opportunity to coach at MU and her support. Reed-Francois was with the men’s basketball team in Oxford, Mississippi, for its Saturday game.

“I look at ADs who are supportive. We have one — and had one — who was very supportive,” Gates said. “She was just on the trip. That’s how I look at it. I don’t look at the tomorrows and the yesterdays. Here we are today, and we have a situation where we have an AD opening. … You have to understand, we’re in college athletics. (It’s) a transitional career. You never know when opportunities are going to come.”

He advocated for Mizzou’s coaches, athletes and other administrators to continue the advances made under Reed-Francois in her absence.

“You don’t look at the back of a person when they’re in transition from one job to the next,” Gates said. “You look at the mark that they’ve left, and she’s done a tremendous job, and I just hope everybody applauds what she’s done and continue the momentum because everybody has to roll their sleeves up. No different than she was here. … This institution is not built on the back of one person. It’s collectively on our fans, our tradition, our history but also our students, our student-athletes.”

University of Missouri gymnasts Amari Celestine, first, and Jocelyn Moore, second, practice vaults at Mizzou’s training facility in Columbia on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. Celestine is a 2022 NCAA vault silver medalist and two-time All-SEC Team member. Moore is the 2023 SEC vault champion and recorded a perfect 10.0 vault against Auburn in February 2023.

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