By Matt Norlander
He was in West Lafayette, Ind., on that Sunday, making the move from his old job to his new one. Then the texts began to beep from his phone. They were from friends in Joplin, Mo., telling him about the tornado that bore down on his former town. It was May 22. A day that began full of happiness, promise, potential and eagerness for a new job and lifestyle ended with worry and concern for first-year Missouri State coach Paul Lusk.
Lusk, 39, was hired away from Purdue, where he was an associated head coach the past three years. He was once an assistant at Division-II Missouri Southern, which is located in Joplin. He was there for three years, from 1999 to 2002. His wife worked at the junior high in town. They still have plenty of friends there, those who still work with Missouri Southern, and others who don’t.
Upon hearing the news and seeing the horrifying video that dominated mainstream media coverage over the next 72 hours, Lusk made calls and sent text messages to find out if all those people he knew in town were OK. They were.
“Every one of our close, personal friends were accounted for and really didn’t lose anything, thankfully,” said Lusk, adding that there were a number of Missouri Southern boosters who “lost a lot.” One of his wife’s really good friends lost his church.
“I still haven’t been to Joplin yet, but [my friends] tell me, ‘You can’t believe the damage until you see it,’” Lusk said.
After he settled into his new home in Springfield, Mo., Lusk (above) wasted no time in doing the obvious: attempting to schedule an exhibition game with his former school. He soon found out the University of Missouri was planning to do the same thing. The tricky part was convincing the NCAA to allow Missouri State to schedule another exhibition. Since it was the same situation Mizzou was in, initially, there was some concern over the NCAA allowing both of these games to be held.
Fortunately, after a few forms were sent and some finagling was done (Missouri State had to move an exhibition against D-II William Jewel), the NCAA allowed both schools to play road games at Missouri Southern.
Missouri State’s game is schedule for Nov. 5. Like Missouri, Lusk’s team will make the 50-minute drive west on Interstate 44 and play the game for the benefit of the Joplin community, all proceeds from the game going to the Missouri Southern Foundation's Tornado Emergency Relief Fund. Lusk has already had help from within the Missouri Valley, too, as fellow league coach Ben Jacobson of Northern Iowa sent T-shirts and other goods directly to Joplin.
Lusk has also been in frequent contact with his former mentor, Missouri Southern coach Robert Corn. There’s been a definite reconnection there, though Corn’s always been a part of Lusk’s life since he left the school for a head-coaching job at the University of Dubuque in 2002. Lusk and Corn are already preparing for the exhibition, the biggest challenge being selling out the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center — and doing it a week after Missouri comes to town.
“The most important thing I’ve been trying to sell is trying to have as big of a crowd as we can,” Lusk said.Missouri Southern could provide a real challenge for the Bears, by the way. Corn's crew went 26-5 last season, and the head coach was named a finalist for national coach of the year in D-II. Missouri State went 26-9 last season and won one game in the NIT tournament.
The Bears have no players on its team who are from Joplin or bordering towns. This exhibition is happening not only because it’s the obvious, right thing to do, but because Lusk feels a connection to the town because of this tragedy. In a way, the tornado has forced him to come full circle in his early career.
This could also be the start of an annual exhibition meeting between the two schools.
Photo via Missouri State athletics