Missouri stepping up in class with move to SEC
e_SDLqSome people in the state say Missouri, some say Missou-rah, but they all say Mizzou. That’s the one thing we do know.” MIKE ALDEN, Missouri athletic director
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Just outside the gates of Missouri’s football stadium stands a statue of Don Faurot, the godfather of Mizzou athletics.
The field behind him — the one he snuck onto as a child, helped sod as a student, played and coached on — bears his name, and the entire athletics department carries his imprint.
Faurot accomplished plenty in more than 30 years as a three-sport athlete, football coach and athletic director at MU, including the invention of the Split-T offense and reviving a downtrodden football team.
But perhaps his biggest contribution was pulling a debt-laden athletic department into financial security by taking on tougher opponents in football. Or, as the inscription on his statue puts it, Faurot “manfully over-scheduled on the road for bigger receipts.”
Today, more than 50 years after Faurot hung up his whistle, Missouri is manfully taking his vision to the next level.
Effective July 1, the Tigers are leaving behind the Big 12, a league they had been part of under various names since 1907, in search of stability and prosperity in the bigger, tougher Southeastern Conference.
It’s the dawn of a new day for Missouri, the SEC and fellow newcomer Texas A&M. And while Mizzou may be looked at by many as a puzzling addition, there’s no question the Tigers are arriving with the enthusiasm and determination to make themselves fit.
“I think it’s got a phenomenal upside for the university and state of Missouri,” athletic director Mike Alden said. “We’ve moved to the neighborhood, and we want people to get to know us a bit better, just like we want to know them.
“As far as proving ourselves, it’s not about that. It’s about just becoming good neighbors and letting them know we’re going to be a valued member of the neighborhood.”
Right now, Missouri is looking like that neighbor that’s always hammering, sawing and tinkering away.
Football coach Gary Pinkel made his thoughts on the move clear in an interview with ESPN this spring. Moving to a conference that doled out a record $18.3 million to its members last year is great, but there’s a difference between showing up for the check and competing.
“My big thing when our administration made a decision was that if we’re going to do it, be a player and be committed,” Pinkel said. “You don’t walk into this league and sit back and say we’re going to give it a good try, because you’ll just get mauled.”
Clearly, the commitment is there.
Alden said he and his staff have been working seven days per week since the move was announced in November, spending countless hours fundraising, planning the program’s new travel, increasing marketing and working on facility improvements.
It’s part of an adjustment period he expects to last five years until Mizzou is completely comfortable in its new digs.
But on Tuesday, the school took a major step forward by unveiling the first phase of a plan that will deliver $200 million of improvements over the next decade, beginning with a $72 million facelift for the football stadium, baseball, softball, tennis and golf.
Changes to Memorial Stadium include renovations and adding an upper bowl that will increase capacity to 75,000. The current max is 71,004, which ranks 10th out of 14 SEC venues, but future plans could expand that to 80,000.
There will also be a revamped press box, expanded concourse, new weight room and 100-yard indoor practice facility — all part of a vision to make sure the Tigers are equipped to run with the big dogs in the SEC.
“We believe we’ve done a really good job in our facility improvement in the last 10 to 12 years, but we recognize we need to continue to move that forward, and we will be doing that,” Alden said.
That won’t amount to much if the school’s marquee programs don’t deliver, but the football and men’s basketball teams will enter the league at high points in their history.
On the gridiron, Pinkel has guided the Tigers to at least eight wins in each of the past six seasons, making them one of only six schools from BCS conferences to accomplish that feat. Just one SEC team, LSU, is in that group.
Missouri has also posted 10 wins or more in three of the past five years, including a 12-2 mark in 2007 that saw them reach the No. 1 ranking and fall one game short of playing for the national title.
They also snatched up the nation’s top recruit this year, landing Springfield (Mo.) Hillcrest High receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, and they may have a budding star at quarterback in James Franklin, who is coming off a shoulder injury.
But Pinkel isn’t kidding himself.
Competing in a conference that has won the past six national titles will require a new approach from top to bottom — from improved facilities to attract recruits to beefing up the rushing game.
Just up the hill from Faurot Field, coach Frank Haith will enter the SEC as one of the top programs.
Haith led the MU men’s basketball team to a 30-5 record, Big 12 title and No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament in 2012, and the team’s gorgeous Mizzou Arena will already be one of the top venues in the conference.
That, along with A&M coming in, has SEC coaches hoping the league will break its record of six NCAA tournament teams in one year.
Also of value to the SEC will be the nearby television markets of Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri’s standing as a top school academically, and a softball program that had reached the Women’s College World Series three straight times before LSU snapped the streak this year.
But for many fans in the southeast, Missouri will just be “the other Columbia” and “the other other Tigers.”
During the slew of conference realignment speculation, Missouri was rarely a top name thrown around for the SEC. Schools like Clemson, Georgia Tech and Florida State seemed to make more sense, if simply by virtue of actually being in the Southeast.
But now that Mizzou is joining the club, one of the top priorities is increasing awareness of the university and its athletic program in the South, an especially important step to establish a recruiting foothold in the region.
To do this, MU rolled out a branding plan in March, including thousands of pieces of direct mail, television ads that ran during the SEC basketball tournament, and a billboard campaign throughout Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas.
They’ve also gone to digital platforms, which allow them to target specific demographics.
The message, Alden said, is that Missouri is a state full of likeable, hard-working people who want to contribute to the SEC.
But describing the state to an outsider can be tough, especially because it has its own identity problems.
“It’s right smack in the middle of the country, and there’s something of everything,” said Woody Cazod, a lobbyist and MU grad who was on the school’s board of curators during a previous flirtation with the Big Ten Conference. “It was a bloodbath here during the Civil War between the Northern and Southern sympathizing parties.
“It’s a really mixed culture that’s hard to get if you’re not from around here.”
Southern parts of the state bear a Southern influence, while St. Louis on the eastern side fits more with the Midwest. Kansas City would seem more akin to Denver.
The Tigers got their name from a Union militia unit in the Civil War, a group formed to fend off a feared Confederate attack on Columbia. Yet, a stone later sat on the MU campus to commemorate Confederate war dead (and has since been removed), and football games in the late 1950s included the band playing “Dixie” while a fraternity waved rebel flags.
And then there’s the name: Missouri or Missou-rah?
“People will tell you that it depends on what part of the state you’re in, but that’s not true,” said Cazod, who pronounces it both ways. “Nobody is able to explain why that’s the way it is.”
Alden, who is of the Missou-rah persuasion, kept it simple when speaking with SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, telling him, “Some people in the state say Missouri, some say Missou-rah, but they all say Mizzou. That’s the one thing we do know.”
Perhaps it’s fitting then, that the school from the state with the identity crisis is making the geographically bewildering move to the SEC East.
Only two teams — Arkansas and A&M — are situated west of Missouri, meaning that when the Tigers travel to face division opponent Florida this season, they will fly past five SEC West schools to get there.
Mizzou fans didn’t spend much time pondering the map or the logic of the move.
There was too much excitement for that.
Alden said the school has seen a 15-18 percent spike in season ticket sales for football (including the first-ever waiting list), a similar increase in donations, and the athletic department recently unveiled its largest gift ever: a $30 million private donation from a group called the Kansas City Sports Trust.
That last bit was particularly surprising, because Kansas City — a Big 12 hub that benefits greatly from the Missouri-Kansas rivalry — stands to lose much in the move.
Resentment toward Mizzou for leaving the conference has killed the series between the Jayhawks and Tigers, sounding the death knell for a long-standing rivalry.
Venture to the back of Tiger Spirit, a shop that sells MU gear in downtown Columbia, and you’ll find a clearance rack full of shirts lampooning KU, Oklahoma and Texas.
“My guess is, we’ll always hate Kansas regardless. We didn’t move states,” said Steve Dillard, the store’s owner and an MU season ticket holder. “I don’t think we’re going to have a big demand for shirts that make fun of Kansas, because if we never play them, it’s really not a big deal. I think they would still sell, but right now we’re dedicated to things that say Mizzou and SEC.”
Sales of those shirts, such as the one showing the “MIZ-SEC” chant that became popular with fans last season, have taken off, Dillard said.
But settling on a new rival will be a bit trickier. For now, it’s designated as Arkansas, which borders Missouri to the south, and fellow newcomer Texas A&M would figure to be a fit as well.
“They’re trying to talk us into doing a rivalry shirt, like the good, the bad and the ugly, but I just don’t think we’re ready for that, because we don’t know anybody,” Dillard said. “They’re trying to make Texas A&M the ugly. It isn’t working for me right now.”
The loss of Big 12 tradition and rivals was a tough pill to swallow for many Mizzou fans, and Alden said that was a daily consideration when the school began looking at the SEC in September.
The yearly meetings with alumni from other Big 12 schools, the established road trips and the familiar venues would all be gone.
“You’re making decisions with your head, but you need to do them with your heart as well,” he said.
Don Walsworth, an MU grad and former president of the board of curators, admits he was bittersweet about the shift at first. But the fact that Texas and Oklahoma entertained talks with the Pac-12 Conference meant the Big 12 was on very shaky ground, and Missouri needed an escape route.
“We were not as stable as we would like in the Big 12 and had no guarantee that our presence would continue,” Walsworth said. “If you take Texas and Oklahoma out, then there’s going to be a chaotic situation.”
Outside of some early unease, the move has been welcomed with open arms, and the university and city are preparing for a flood of SEC fans this fall.
According to Don Laird, president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, a recent study found that Mizzou athletics make a yearly impact of $147 million. With names like Georgia and Alabama on the docket for football season, Alden is expecting a spike in 2012 and 2013.
“We know that number is going north,” he said. “There is no question.”
It may take a few years for the school and city to seamlessly pull off an SEC game day atmosphere, but the first attempt is underway.
The “Tiger Town” initiative intends to create a unique experience by blocking off parts of the picturesque downtown area and relaxing alcohol laws to allow for concerts and other events leading up to kickoff.
Inside Memorial Stadium, the allotment of tickets for visiting teams is being increased from 3,800 to 6,000.
And at Harpo’s, the iconic sports bar in Columbia where MU football fans traditionally carry the goalposts after big wins, a new sandwich is on the menu: the SEC, with brisket and pulled pork piled onto a bun.
Harpo’s co-owner Chuck Naylor, an MU grad, said the sandwich was added as a nod to the excitement buzzing around Columbia these days. He’s among those pumped for the move, as he’s had a chance to experience SEC traditions while his daughter attends Alabama.
“Nick Saban is on her iPhone,” Naylor said. “It took about a nanosecond for her to become a huge Alabama fan.”
“I love the fact that we took control of our own destiny and went to the SEC,” he added. “We are fully embracing it.”
That’s the mood among many Missouri fans, who grew weary of sitting in the shadow of Texas and Oklahoma.
With the Big 12 facing an uncertain future, why not channel the spirit of Don Faurot, take on the toughest competition and climb to the most stable ground in the game?
“I love all the traditions that we’re walking away from, and I’ll miss them, but joining the Southeastern Conference is saying we want to try for all of it,” Cazod said.
“It’s long past time that Missouri did that, and I’m awful glad they did. I’m proud of them for having the gumption to go for the brass ring.”