Last summer, we dove into the expansion game with a series of reports called “Expounding on Expansion.” We compared 18 different SEC schools in a number of categories — athletic budget, bowl and NCAA tourney bids over a 20-year period, academic rankings and AAU status, population base, television markets, etc. We then ranked all 18 schools according to those hard and fast figures.
The number two school on our list of “good” expansion moves for the SEC was Texas A&M, just behind Texas. And if there were a way to take points off for ego and an inability to get along with others, we have no doubt the Aggies would have bumped the Longhorns from the top spot.
Missouri — a school NO ONE was talking about as an SEC candidate last summer — came in right in the middle of our rankings. The Tigers bring in everything that everyone has now come to realize matters: big TV markets, a big population base, solid athletics, and a good academic standard to please the presidents doing the voting.
But Missouri angled loudly for a Big Ten berth last year. No wonder. A university president would love to partner his institution with an academically-respected conference. And for those who still don’t get it, the Big Ten’s various academic partnerships (learn more here) enable the average Big Ten school to grab about $500 million per year in research funding. That’s about five times more cash than the biggest athletic budget in the nation. So, yes, academics matter.
This summer, there are still many Mizzou fans and administrators who’d like to wait around for a Big Ten berth that may someday come. Meanwhile, MU chancellor Brady Deaton is serving as the chair of the Big 12′s board of directors and he’s reportedly become the key man in trying to hold the Tigers’ current league together. And at the same time, Deaton and the MU administration have supposedly been chatting with Mike Slive and the SEC, too… to the point that the school received an informal “if your league blows up, come join us” offer for SEC membership. The Tiger fans on this site — probably because it’s a site covering the SEC — claim that the majority of Tiger fans want Mizzou to move South, not North in the expansion game.
As we’ve stated, if Missouri does eventually land an SEC bid, it would be the first school to enter the league without offering a full-throated “Hurrah!.” See Texas A&M if you want an example of what a conference wants to hear from a potential new member.
Trying to gauge Mizzou’s interest in the SEC (and Big 12 and Big Ten) is tricky business. Luckily, Mike Mitchell — my partner here at MrSEC.com — and our weekend and occasional “Overtime” contributor is a Show Me State product. Asked why his home state seems so divided, Mike made it clear that that’s always been the nature of Missouri.
I asked him to put his thoughts — as a Missouri native and as someone who still lives part-time in that state — into a quickie post for the site. Here’s his take on the mixed messages coming from the MU fanbase and administration:
Where does Missouri fit in all this expansion talk? Just about anywhere. And nowhere. Maybe because it borders so many states (eight), there’s no consensus in Show-Me country where the Tigers fit best.
Go to the western part of the state and the rivalry with Kansas dominates. On the eastern side, Illinois is a natural rival. Where I grew up in the Missouri bootheel, the television market features a CBS affiliate in Missouri, an ABC station in Illinois and the NBC affiliate broadcasts from Kentucky. As a child, I watched a lot more Kentucky and SEC basketball games than I ever did of the Missouri Tigers and the old Big 8 (the Paducah, KY station used to pre-empt Saturday Night Live to show tape-delayed broadcasts from Rupp Arena). In this part of the state, proximity to SEC country is closer than you think. From the bootheel town of Sikeston – population of about 20,000 – you can be in Oxford, Mississippi just as fast as you can drive to Columbia, Missouri.
For that reason, I suspect many fans in southeast Missouri are sympathetic to a move to the SEC. Ditto for the southwest part of the state where Springfield (the third largest market in the state after St. Louis and Kansas City) is only about 150 miles from Fayetteville, Arkansas.
But go north of there and attitudes change. St. Louis media cover Illinois sports. Each year, Mizzou and Illinois play a basketball game in St. Louis. The Illini represent Mizzou’s biggest non-conference rival.
About four hours west in Kansas City, the rivalry is different but the passions are even deeper. Disagreements between Missouri and Kansas go back to Civil War days and William Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence. On the football field, the Missouri-Kansas game is the oldest major college rivalry west of the Mississippi. I suspect many fans on the western side of the state are more interested in preserving an old rivalry than expanding to new territory.
I was in college at the University of Missouri in 1985 when the St. Louis Cardinals played the Kansas City Royals in the World Series. Because Columbia is roughly equidistant from the two cities, Sports Illustrated sent a writer to campus. I recall a quote from a sociology professor who said something to the effect that, “St. Louis looks to the east. Kansas City looks to the west.” It’s as true today as it was then.
The baseball teams remind me of another complicating factor in all of this: Unlike many SEC states where professional sports only arrived in recent decades, Missouri is dominated by pro sports teams. Both Kansas City and St. Louis have MLB and NFL teams. The Cardinals have been a part of the National League since 1892. If there’s a fan base in Missouri that can rival the passion of SEC football fans, that’s the group. In St. Louis, college sports receive second tier status. The Cardinals consume much of the media oxygen.
If you’re expecting consensus from the Missouri crowd on what conference is best, you’re going to be disappointed. For reasons of history, culture and geography, it’s a divided state on so many issues. Always has been and, I suspect, always will be.