Quin Snyder’s career veered off track at Mizzou. Now he’s nearly at the NBA’s pinnacle

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Interviewing the winning coach was part of Jon Sundvold’s duties as an ESPN analyst calling the Missouri-Kansas game at Hearnes Center in 2000.

Smiling after a 22-point triumph, Quin Snyder was dripping in perspiration.

“He was emotional and sweating but on cloud nine,” Sundvold said. “I remember the excitement of that day.”

Snyder’s early years at Mizzou were filled with passion and possibilities. From blowing out the Jayhawks in his first Border War encounter to an Elite Eight appearance three years later, Snyder was everything Missouri could have hoped when he was hired over then-Tulsa head coach Bill Self to replace Norm Stewart.

From there, it wasn’t impossible to see Snyder eventually coaching an NBA team, even a playoff favorite with the league’s best record. That’s where Snyder is today, guiding the Utah Jazz to a 2-1 series lead over the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals. Game 4 is Monday in Los Angeles.

If only the path had been that easy.

The Jazz are in a solid position to win their first NBA title, but no matter what happens in the playoffs Snyder has already written an improbable chapter, approaching the pinnacle of the sport 15 years after his coaching career could have been derailed by how things ended at Missouri.

There was one more NCAA appearance, in 2003, to make it four in Snyder’s first four seasons after being hired off the Duke bench. The Tigers had won five NCAA Tournament games under Snyder.

But when the corps of Kareem Rush, RIckey Paulding and Arthur Johnson moved on, the talent pipeline dried up.

Mizzou also had to operate in Snyder’s later years with NCAA sanctions because of recruiting violations, and the embarrassment of the Ricky Clemons saga that included but was not limited to recordings of Clemons to the wife of the university president while he was in jail.

Losses piled up. In his final two full seasons in Columbia, Snyder went 32-31 overall, 16-16 in conference play, and failed to reach the NCAA Tournament. That and the off-court drama set up a prove-it seventh season for the coach. A popcorn shower from a fan as Snyder was leaving the court after a blowout loss to Illinois in St. Louis provided an ugly snapshot.

The breakup came after a 26-point loss to Baylor, and even that was messy.

Snyder was informed that the end of his Missouri tenure was near, but it wasn’t MU athletic director Mike Alden who delivered the news. The coach and AD had a tense relationship. The news was delivered by radio analyst Gary Link.

Snyder resigned the next day.

“It ended so oddly, you weren’t sure what would be next,” said Sundvold, a former Mizzou guard and ESPN analyst who lives in Columbia.

The easy choice could have been seeking refuge at Duke, or landing in the Mike Krzyzewski coach-placement program. Instead, Snyder embarked on his own reconstruction project. There would be no more college basketball.

After a year outside the game, Snyder’s next job was as head coach of the Austin Toros of the NBA’s G League (then known as the D-League), a team associated with the San Antonio Spurs. In three years, Snyder won more games and sent more players to the NBA than any other coach.

He spent three of the next four years as an NBA assistant, and one year as an assistant for CSKA Moscow of the Russian Professional League.

“It’s a huge credit to him,” Sundvold said. “When you take the path he took there’s a passion to want to be great at your profession. Now, had tutelage under Coach K, and under (Greg) Popovich, and that matters. But he put in the time, and it’s a road not traveled by most.”

In June, 2014, Snyder became a head coach again, in Utah. After three years, the Jazz returned to the playoffs ... and they haven’t missed them since. Donovan Mitchell is a star. Rudy Gobert is the league’s top defensive player. It’s a terrific offensive team with beautiful ball movement. The Jazz went 52-20 during the regular season and set an NBA record with an average of 16.7 three-pointers per game.

“When you watch the Jazz play, and I saw it here, players love playing for him,” Sundvold said. “That’s not the entire battle, but if your players like what you’re about, and you’re all on the same page, then you’ve got a chance. They’ve built something special.”

In interviews about his career arc, Snyder rarely mentions Missouri. During a 2018 playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Snyder spoke generally about learning from his errors in a story that appeared in The Oklahoman.

“You make mistakes,” Snyder said. “You make mistakes in the D League, no one knows about them. So you learn as a coach. And I’ve been fortunate that the players that I’ve had a chance to coach have really helped me grow as a coach. I’m just trying to do the best job I can. There’s nothing special about where I’m at. My road, my path, has been different than some, but it’s been a good one for me.”

Going from an assistant’s job on the Duke bench to Missouri’s top position was the biggest adjustment of Snyder’s career. From private to large public university, and all the responsibilities that come with representing the school and state; from often coaching several NBA-bound starters each year with the Blue Devils to coaching a total of four — Rush, Keyon Dooling, Linas Kleiza and Thomas Gardner — in his six-plus seasons in Columbia.

Ultimately, Missouri and Snyder weren’t the right fit.

But after his biggest career stumble, and years of address changes, Snyder now has a chance to be the last coach standing.

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