By The Associated Press
ATLANTA — It’s not often Texas A&M fans in Georgia have the chance to pose for photos with Reveille, the collie mascot.
It’s a similar rarity to see Missouri mascot Truman the Tiger high-stepping through the halls of an Atlanta hotel. LSU? Auburn? No, this is a different cat.
Reveille and Truman have a new conference home, and introductions were in order on Wednesday night.
Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive and the SEC held an official welcoming party for Missouri and Texas A&M, only three months before the Tigers and Aggies open their first football schedules as members of the conference.
Slive noted that Atlanta hosts the SEC championship game. He said for one night, the city “is Missouri and Texas A&M and we welcome y’all to Atlanta and the Southeastern Conference.”
Among those attending the event were Missouri chancellor Brady Deaton, Tigers football coach Gary Pinkel, Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin, and Aggies football coach Kevin Sumlin.
Missouri’s first SEC game will come at home on Sept. 8 against Georgia.
“It’s going to be mammoth,” Pinkel said. “It’s going to be very historic. It will be our first SEC game and our first SEC home game that we play. It will be wild.”
For Missouri fans in SEC country, this new relationship is a dream come true.
“Thrilled. It was a wild ride,” said Jon Smalley, a 1991 Missouri graduate who lives in Alpharetta, Ga., near Atlanta and attended the party with his 8-year-old son, Wyatt. Each wore Missouri shirts.
Smalley said he worried as he heard rumors about Missouri joining other conferences.
“We were supposed to be going to the Big Ten,” Smalley said. “Then we didn’t know where we would end up. Mountain West? It was scary. Then boom, we ended up in the SEC. I was thrilled. And the SEC East is great, especially, living in Atlanta.”
Loftin said Texas A&M’s academics will gain more attention through the publicity generated by competing in SEC athletics.
“We haven’t had a good national stage so one of the drivers for me was the recognition that the SEC provides a lens through which the world can see Texas A&M, not simply for athletics, but for its many dimensions,” Loftin said. “We think this is going to be a great boost for the brand, if you will, for Texas A&M and puts us on a national stage like we haven’t been before.”
Loftin said the second major motivation was to enjoy equal financial footing in the SEC, which he said the Aggies lacked when competing with Texas in the Big 12 and the old Southwest Conference.
“The SEC has always been a conference where everybody shared equally and everybody had the same voice,” Loftin said. “That wasn’t always the case in the Big 12 or before it, the Southwest Conference. We find this to be the way to achieve long-term stability. The SEC is an old conference and it’s going to be around a long time longer.”
This is the second time Texas A&M women’s basketball coach Gary Blair has been part of a transition to the SEC. He was the Arkansas coach for 10 years, beginning in 1993, when the Razorbacks were new to the SEC.
“There’s not a team in the country that could come in and dominate the SEC because the league is so strong in every sport,” Blair said. “You try to come in and blend in and be in the upper echelon of the SEC in every sport.”
Pinkel said he is bracing for the challenge at Missouri.
“People ask me about the SEC. I just say they have a lot of great teams,” Pinkel said. “It’s like the NFL, you have to play your best every week and be able to finish games if you want to win. I think no one could argue, no coach in America could argue that.
“I understand everyone is going to want to watch how A&M and Missouri do, coming from the Big 12 into this league. My big thing, when you’re new like we are, you’ve got to earn respect. That’s what we’re going to try to do.”