By R.B. Fallstrom
The Associated Press
Daryle Bascom, director of Facilities and Events for the University of Missouri, hangs a banner with all 14 SEC conference team names just before the announcement of MU joining the SEC.
Perhaps the only downer in Missouri’s jump to the Southeastern Conference is the indefinite interruption of the feisty border conflict with Kansas.
Left behind in the Big 12, the Jayhawks were left feeling abandoned, jilted. Men’s basketball coach Bill Self said several times last season that he couldn’t see scheduling the Tigers anytime soon.
There seem to be no hard feelings anywhere else, including the big city just down the road that used to benefit from the Missouri-Kansas rivalry. Missouri athletic director Mike Alden took delight this past week announcing that a $30 million gift that jump-started the school’s $200 million facilities facelift came from Kansas City.
“I thought it was pretty special to know that coming straight out of Kansas City was the second-largest gift to ever be made in the history of the University of Missouri,” Alden said. “Certainly the move to the SEC was something that created quite a bit of enthusiasm and support.”
Missouri’s move to the SEC is official on Sunday, ending an association with the Big 12 and its previous incarnations dating to 1907. There’s no looking back. An SEC logo already adorns midfield.
The campus is sleepy this time of year. Yet, there’s unprecedented excitement about the inaugural year in a league that has recently dominated the top tier of college football in particular.
A Tiger Town initiative endorsed by the Columbia Tribune proposes closing downtown to vehicles and relaxing the city’s open container policy to accommodate “increasing hordes of Southeastern Conference visitors” and create a “pedestrian downtown party zone.” Tickets are scarce for the inaugural SEC game against Georgia in September, just the second meeting between the schools. Alabama comes to Columbia in October.
Season ticket holder David Branom of Kirkwood, Mo., is anticipating making mini-vacations out of “some great road trips.”
“I did not want Missouri to leave the Big 12,” Branom said. “And I have always thought the SEC thought a little too highly of itself. But now we’re a part of it, so I need to change my attitude.”
During a summer men’s basketball teleconference several days ago, the new guys had the welcome mat out.
“Clearly, last year they were one of the top five teams from start to finish,” Florida’s Billy Donovan said of the Tigers. “Some of them are gone but others are coming, and I’m a big, big fan of Phil Pressey.”
John Calipari, coach of national champion Kentucky, believes the new SEC, which is also adding Texas A&M, will send half of its teams to the NCAA tournament.
“And that’s going to be from here on out,” Calipari said.
So rather than Oklahoma and Texas, the top-end competition in football will be Alabama and LSU. Or Arkansas, where there is also an attractive rivalry possibility in men’s basketball given that Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson led the Tigers for four seasons.
“Now it’s just gotten a little more interesting,” Anderson said. “They bring a great deal to the league. The whole athletic program, what Mike Alden has done, has been tremendous. and I’m proud to have been a part of it.”
Football coach Gary Pinkel has characterized the move as “mammoth.” He is fired up about a renovation project that will add 6,000 seats and luxury suites, along with other improvements that should make it easier to sell high school prospects that Missouri is a destination school. The boost in attendance to about 76,000, in anticipation of increased demand relating to the move, would still be ninth in the SEC. But it makes a statement nonetheless.
“It’s great for many reasons but it’s also huge for recruiting,” Pinkel said. “Players want to go to a place where they’re going to be the best, where they have excellent facilities, as good as anyone in the country. That’s what we’re going to have.”
What Missouri had before now was instability and a feeling of second-class citizenship in a conference dominated by Texas. Missouri and Texas A&M are leaving one year after Colorado and Nebraska jumped ship. The Big 12 is adding TCU and West Virginia to remain at 10 members.
The Tigers will compete in the East division along with Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
The huge benefit to the convincing case for switching is an influx of cash. The SEC distributed a record $18.3 million to its 12 schools last year.
Missouri is spending in anticipation, pouring money into improvements, with the initial round also including facility upgrades for softball, baseball, tennis and golf.
“We made a commitment early on to be the best in all that we could be, academically as well as athletically,” Chancellor Brady Deaton said. “It’s a proud moment when you can hold your head high and say we’re doing it right at Missouri in every day.”
Both major sports appear ready for the move.
Pinkel has taken the Tigers to a bowl game the last seven seasons, and eight times overall, most in school history. Last year’s senior class finished with the highest four-year victory total in school history, and there’s been a solid run of first-round NFL draft picks in recent years including Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert and 49ers defensive end Aldon Smith.
Haith’s first team was the surprise of the Big 12, and the victory total the last four seasons is another school best. Haith played at Kentucky and Mississippi State when he was at the University of Miami, so he has a bit of familiarity with the new league.
One of the downsides for the northernmost SEC member is an increased travel budget. No more going Greyhound.
In Haith’s first season here, there were five bus trips. In season two, there will be none.
“We’ve got a little bit longer distance to go where we’re playing, and they’re really good,” Haith said.
*Associated Press writer Alan Sher Zagier contributed to this report.