(MrSEC.com weekend writer Mike Mitchell made a trip back to his home state of Missouri this past weekend. During the height of expansion mania, he was at ground zero watching the Tigers fall to Oklahoma State in Columbia. He filed this report on the many differences he noticed between SEC fans and Mizzou fans.)
The headline read “2 cities, 2 very different takes on revered game.” The topic was baseball and the story focused on the cities of St. Louis and Dallas and their reactions to the World Series. But the article in the Sunday Post-Dispatch could just have easily described college football, with a comparison between Columbia, Missouri and any tradition-rich SEC town.
“There is just a different feel here,” a Missouri baseball fan was quoted as saying about baseball in the Lone Star state. “The excitement isn’t the same.”
As someone who’s spent the vast majority of his life living in Missouri and Tennessee, I know the feeling. The Missouri Tigers may very well become the 14th member of the Southeastern Conference. But what separates Columbia, Missouri from Columbia, South Carolina is more than just driving distance.
I’ve spent the last few days in Missouri, with time in both St. Louis and Columbia as the Tigers seemingly inch closer to the SEC. Here are a few things I’ve noticed from my travels.
Friday: I’m in St. Louis and watch a live video stream of the announcement by the University of Missouri Board of Curators giving Chancellor Brady Deaton permission to talk contracts with other conferences. Just a few minutes later, I’m in my car and tune in local sports radio to gauge the reaction. One station was discussing Sam Bradford’s injury and whether the Rams quarterback would answer the bell at Dallas on Sunday (he didn’t). Another station was talking Cardinals baseball and whether they could bounce back in Game 3 of the World Series after a tough loss at home in Game 2 to the Rangers(they did).
In the 20 minutes I’m tuned in, I hear no discussion of Mizzou.
Saturday: I head to Columbia for an early game against Oklahoma State. It’s a picture-perfect fall day, temperature in the 50’s at kickoff and steadily rising throughout the game. Despite great weather and an undefeated and highly-ranked conference foe in town, the game is not a sellout. The crowd of 64,000 is about 7,000 short of capacity.
There are little things you notice as well. Not only are the crowds smaller and not as loud, neither are the bands. SEC marching bands look like an invading army – covering the field from end zone to end zone. Marching Mizzou started and ended at the 10-yard lines and looked thin and stretched out in doing so. During games, it seems like an SEC band is a constant presence following nearly every single play. Here, it’s more sporadic, not as loud, less intimidating.
Whether it’s the band or the crowd, intensity seems the biggest difference. When I’m at an SEC football game, I get the sense it’s the culmination of a week of planning by players, coaches and fans. What is about to transpire on that football field is THE focus of the weekend. At Mizzou, the people are friendly, supportive, turn out in their black and gold and cheer on the Tigers. But when the game ends, they move on with the rest of their day and the rest of their lives. In SEC Country, a loss stings and lingers. Here, it tends to quickly evaporate.
I can engage an SEC fan in a conversation about a game and I wouldn’t be surprised to get a lengthy reply on the strengths and weaknesses of an opposing team’s particular offensive or defensive coordinator.
I’ve never heard a similar discussion regarding Mizzou football. I know I couldn’t name a single non—Missouri coordinator in the entire conference but I could easily rattle off a half-dozen or more from the SEC. Those types of conversations are part of the DNA of SEC football.
Sunday: I catch an interview with Mizzou Tigers play-by-play announcer Mike Kelly on St. Louis radio. He’s asked about what he’s hearing from fans regarding the move to the SEC. He says there was very little chatter the previous weekend at Kansas State about the potential move and on Saturday in Columbia, he heard from one fan about it as he departed the stadium following the game. One.
On Saturday, I chatted with a couple of people about the Tigers and conference realignment. Each time, I had to raise the issue. Didn’t hear anyone else discussing it. (For the record, one opposed it, citing tradition and the other supported it – citing the outsized influence of Texas and league instability).
Anecdotal evidence? Sure. Sweeping generalizations? You bet. Are there hardcore college football fans in Missouri? No doubt. Just as there are casual fans in the SEC. But the larger truth holds. As one small gauge of intensity, go to Facebook sometime and check out fan pages for various universities and their sports teams. Most SEC schools will have hundreds of thousands of fans – one Florida Gators group has more than 700,000 followers. The largest Mizzou group I can find has 198,000 members.
These observations come from years of first-hand experience. I grew up in Southeast Missouri, spent four years in Columbia and have spent the last two decades moving back and forth between St. Louis and Knoxville, Tennessee.
I’ve always found fascinating the differences in the two sports cultures. You can always tell the dominant sport in a particular region by the year-round chatter on sports radio. In February in Knoxville, the talk is the most recent signing class and its impact on the Vols roster in the fall. In February in St. Louis, the discussion centers on the most recent free-agent signings and the impact on the Cardinals roster that spring.
Which brings me back to where I started. Can Mizzou, like the Texas Rangers, find championship success without tradition? Can a football-first Southern culture be transplanted to Mid-Missouri? Can the SEC tide lift the Tigers boat?
I don’t know the answers to those questions but from all indications, it sounds like we’re about to find out.