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November 14, 2013
The head and the heart
BALLWIN, Mo. -- The change is subtle.
The neighborhood, an idyllic slice of surburbia with winding roads, white columns and brick houses, remains the same. It's an area removed just far enough from St. Louis that deer mill around in backyards which buffer up to lines of trees.
The change is subtle.
Kids still play along the street, even as night falls on a Sunday, riding a hot pink Power Wheels down a lawn but knowing enough to turn it onto a sidewalk before going into the road.
The change is subtle, so subtle that it goes unnoticed at first. The house at the end of a cul-de-sac now sports a small Mizzou flag and lawn ornament, just to the right of a two-car garage.
It changed during the first week in November, after Andy Bauer quietly flipped his commitment back to the in-state school.
FROM MISSOURI TO MISSISSIPPI AND BACK AGAIN
On April 7, 2012, Bauer -- then a sophomore at DeSmet Jesuit High School -- made a surprise early commitment to Missouri. At that time, Bauer was in demand, already holding offers from Notre Dame, Auburn, Ohio State and Michigan, among others.
That day, however, Bauer just had Missouri on his mind. He unzipped a jacket to reveal a shirt that read "Forever a Tiger" and announced his commitment to the Tigers' coaching staff.
The interest didn't cease, however, and that summer was a turning point for Bauer. He said it seemed like the entire SEC offered, including Alabama, LSU and Georgia, in addition to Ole Miss. Verbal offers rolled in before then, but that torrid pace over the summer made Bauer -- not even a high school junior -- hesitate.
He had a conversation with his recruiting coach at Missouri, now current offensive coordinator Josh Henson, about his feelings.
"I kind of hinted to Coach Henson that I committed a little too early and all that," Bauer said. "I wasn't going to de-commit during my season or anything like that. Then I wanted to take some visits and everything. I wanted to make sure because it's a big decision.
"Mizzou's always where I wanted to go, but I had to make sure that ... I wasn't selling myself short, or I wasn't taking advantage of every opportunity."
So Bauer began to look. Eventually, it got to the point where Bauer realized that using the term committed wasn't sincere.
"I didn't think it was the right thing to do," he said.
On November 7, 2012 -- seven months after committing to Missouri -- Bauer announced his de-commitment. The offers continued. The visits picked up, as the then-junior traveled to Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Gainesville, Fla. But it was a late-January trip to Oxford, Miss., that signaled the next big shift in his recruitment.
"I loved it down there," Bauer said, remembering the trip to Ole Miss. "I've been down there three or four times (since). It was a really cool place. I really enjoyed it."
Already on his radar before the visit, Bauer cited his relationship with Rebels' offensive line coach Matt Luke as a big reason for why Ole Miss became a priority for him.
"I just had good relationships with the people down there," Bauer said. "I knew a lot of the players and everything. It was a good place.
"I thought it was the right fit and everything."
Bauer committed to Ole Miss on March 18, 2013. He announced his decision on Twitter.
At that time, the "Forever a Tiger" shirt was put away. It wasn't forgotten. Bauer cites a big reason for his decision to move on from Missouri at that time. It wasn't that his love for the program -- a team he's rooted for his whole life -- faded.
On the field, Bauer was a stable centerpiece for his team's offensive line. Off the field, Bauer craved that same stability. A 5-7 season from Missouri didn't provide what he desired.
What made it more difficult, Bauer said, was the fact that the surrounding community didn't seem to publicly support Missouri's coaching staff after a season decimated by injuries.
"Being in St. Louis, you heard everyone saying, 'Get rid of the coaching staff,' and that's kind of uneasy," Bauer said. "Even though it's a school you really love, it's an uneasy feeling knowing that you could go to the school you've wanted to go to, but then coaching staff... I mean, it's not guaranteed anywhere that the coaching staff's going to be there, but the imminence of people saying, 'Oh, we want them gone' and that stuff. That's not something you want to play around with."
Bauer said Henson was upfront with him about the staff's standing -- "We got to win some games," Bauer remembers Henson saying. But it went further than that, as Henson showed the same confidence that his boss has shown since last season.
As the public thought things were falling apart in Columbia, Gary Pinkel always stayed true to his philosophy as a coach, not making any sweeping changes, save for promoting Henson to offensive coordinator after David Yost resigned.
With confidence in that process, Henson called his shot with Bauer.
"He would always tell me, 'We're going to win some games this year and you're going to come to Mizzou.'"
Those conversations between Henson and Bauer never stopped. It's a key look inside the recruiting game, especially among the nation's elite talent. A de-commitment doesn't often turn a coaching staff into a spurned lover. There's no cleansing process, there's no avoidance to help those wounds heal.
Relationships don't just end because of a de-commitment.
So Henson and his staff continued to plug away with Bauer, talking as much as the four-star recruit wanted. In August, Bauer discovered he would have to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right hip, cleaning out a bone spur that had bothered him for years to avoid any future problems. It ended his senior season before it began.
Bauer said Henson was one of the last people he talked with before entering surgery. Later, he holds up a letter from Gary Pinkel, with a simple message of "Get Well Soon" that was sent the same day as the surgery.
"He always had my back in things," Bauer said about Henson. "The injury really didn't affect any recruiting at all, to be honest with you. Not that big of a deal. Two little scopes, arthroscopic. I was walking a couple of days after. Good to get it fixed now, as opposed to later."
As Bauer healed from the procedure, Missouri's season took flight. The Tigers ran out to a 7-0 record before a late-game slip up against South Carolina tarnished their record. Bauer visited for Missouri's following game against Tennessee, but in reality, he had already decided his commitment would return to Missouri.
"I had actually told them before that, Coach Pinkel and Coach Henson and the coaches, that I was going to come before that," Henson said. "So they already knew (before the visit). I had to talk to Ole Miss.
"It was tough. It was really tough. I have nothing but respect for them. I wish them the best of luck. They're great guys. I love Coach Luke, he's awesome. He spent a lot of time recruiting me. I have a really good relationship with him.
"There's some understanding that I wanted to be closer to home."
When Bauer publicly announced, there wasn't any pomp and circumstance. There were no hats or TV cameras or a national audience. He released a 246-word statement, typed and printed out that he took a picture of and sent on Twitter, simply with the qualifier: "Here is my statement."
The key part of that statement, according to both Bauer and his parents, was this:
"Almost my entire family has attended Mizzou and it is tradition for me, my heart has always been there."
PAVING THE WAY FOR THE FUTURE
Bauer will always have relics of his days as one of the most sought-after recruits in the country. In his bedroom on the second floor, the meticulously organized senior has a low metal filing cabinet with two long drawers in the corner, by his closet. On top of the cabinet are three cardboard filing boxes. In his closet is one more large plastic bin.
Each is packed full of his recruiting letters. There are too many to count quickly. Off the top of his head, Bauer guesses that there are close to 1,000 letters from the University of Alabama alone.
After some discussion with his mother and younger brother, Rob, Bauer said the first true, personalized recruiting letter he received came from the University of Georgia. He doesn't remember when. Most of the letters are unopened.
Alongside the filing cabinet are over a dozen large envelopes, coated with shiny gold material. They are all from Missouri. He takes out the letters that arrived in those envelopes. His picture has been photo-shopped onto fake covers for Sports Illustrated and ESPN.
"Tiger Nation Roars" reads the Sports Illustrated cover.
Another letter has Bauer's picture front and center, along with images of Sheldon Richardson, Jeremy Maclin and Blaine Gabbert superimposed over a background of the St. Louis skyline and Arch.
"From the Lou to the Zou," it says.
But his favorite letter from Missouri -- or any college, for that matter, is a simple one. It has an image of Columbia, a college town like so many. Above it, a short message:
"Andy, come run this town."
Andy Bauer always wanted to end up in Columbia. In the end, Missouri's strong season gave him the confidence that the coaching staff he grew close with will remain in Columbia for the foreseeable future.
In a decision of head and heart, Bauer got the assurance he needed that he could trust both.