COLUMBIA — Almost from the instant Missouri’s move to the Southeastern Conference became official 25 months ago, MU athletic director Mike Alden cautioned — or was it touted? — that a 30-month orientation period lay ahead.
By VAHE GREGORIAN
The Kansas City Star
It was if to say, “Please pardon our appearance during construction.”
After all, the shift was momentous following more than a century essentially rooted in one conference despite the comings and goings and upheaval in what had become the Big 12.
At its most basic, MU now had to “meet your new neighbors” and “learn how they operate” and “if nothing more to figure out what hotels you were staying (in), how long the plane flights were, how you were recruiting,” Alden said the Monday after as he sat in the back of Buffalo Wild Wings after appearing on a radio show.
To say nothing of understanding the competition itself.
Even as Alden tried to sustain himself with that longer-term thinking and urge patience that might not have been heeded much in a world that demands instant gratification and insists on rash judgments, Alden acknowledged, “There was a lot of tension.”
So those two forces converged and clashed, even within him.
“You were dealing with that each and every day, knowing that you know there’s light out there at the end of the tunnel. But you’re in the middle of all (the changes) so quickly,” Alden said. “And you’re trying to adjust and orient yourself so quick, while at the same time you’ve got a lot of noise or information on the outside: Where are we? What are we doing?”
The last words inadvertently evoked the image of Rear Admiral James Stockdale in a 1992 vice-presidential debate wondering, “Who am I? Why am I here?”
But they seemed apt, too, since MU’s first year in the SEC particularly was disorienting for its most visible and influential sport, the one that was the impetus for the move: The football team went 5-7 overall and 2-6 in SEC play, failing to qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 2004.
And those who, ahem, initially had questioned Mizzou’s cultural and competitive fit in the league, and perhaps were clinging to the nostalgia of tradition, had a little more fodder to think it was a misguided maneuver.
That all seems like distant history now after Missouri secured the SEC East title last week to enter the conference title game Saturday in Atlanta against Auburn with an outside-but-legitimate chance for a berth in the BCS national championship game.
And with it … validation. Not to mention vindication.
That doesn’t mean it will always be this way, of course.
But it does mean that even as it still was in the throes of shape-shifting, Mizzou has demonstrated it belongs and then some.
Win or lose today, it has this on its resume as an active agent for further growth in everything from recruiting to fundraising.
Not that the sudden turnabout has Alden gloating or inclined to stump for inclusion in the national-title game the way Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs did.
Jacobs has said that it would be “un-American” if the winner of the game, a one-loss team from the conference that has produced the last seven national champions, didn’t play in the title game.
And that’s regardless of whether thus-far unblemished Florida State and Ohio State remain unscathed after their own conference title games Saturday.
While Alden said he “understands where (Jacobs) is coming from,” he made his points more diplomatically.
“We know what the BCS is. … We know what the polls are, we know the human factor that enters in, so we know it’s been tested, tried, examined, picked over for all these years,” Alden said. “At the end of all this, it’s just going to work out how it’s going to work out.”
Then again …
“The SEC is a gauntlet. I mean, it’s a gauntlet,” Alden added. “I don’t know of another league in the country that has the same back-to-back-to-back-to-back, week-in and week-out, top opponents in the country like the SEC.
“And I think when you look at that … (and) try to compare other schedules to the kind of schedule that’s played in the SEC, I’m sure that’s where Jay was coming from. And I think that certainly the SEC can stand on its own merits.”
Regardless of how this plays out, now so, too, can Mizzou.
That includes a boost from what Alden called a significant windfall of financial support reaped from the last few months.
While MU’s budget remains 11th in the SEC, he noted football’s success has been “a catalyst” for growth in annual giving, overall donor numbers and ticket sales. More than 50 percent of the 1,200 premium seats for the impending opening of the east tower of Memorial Stadium, he said, now have been sold.
“That’s a huge thing … and you haven’t even really hit the selling season,” he said.
On another tier of visibility and yet related, MU’s volleyball team was undefeated and ranked fourth in the nation as it prepared to play host to NCAA Tournament games this weekend.
“What volleyball is doing, I think, is really elevating the awareness that Mizzou is a broad-based program for the most part,” said Alden, particularly alluding to Mizzou’s men’s basketball, wrestling and the women’s softball programs, among others. “For the most part: I understand we’ve got a lot of work to do in a lot of other areas. But you’re not looking at just one or two sports programs at Mizzou that have a chance to compete at the elite level.”
Still, as the frenzy of realignment settled once and for all, it’s football that drives all in college athletics. And reaching the SEC title game in just its second season in the conference is an epic breakthrough for MU.
“I do think really it lends … a high, high level of credibility for the institution,” Alden said, adding, “While you still have that anxiety about what are you going to do and how you’re going to do it and how you’re going to continue to improve, I think you’re going to do it with a higher level of confidence because you’re beginning to start understanding what type of pace and what type of stride you’ve got to have when you’re in this league.”
Of course, Alden knows competition always is in flux. So rewarding as this moment might be, it is only … this moment.
“The reality of that is, so how do you capitalize on this and be able to build off these types of opportunities?” he said, adding, “We don’t want anybody to step back and say, ‘Hey, look at this: we’re here.’ Uh-uh. We’ve got a long, long ways to go, and this is a constant and continuous (competition) in this league.
“It’s as good as there is. So if you’re not getting better every day, then you’re falling behind.”
But for now, anyway, MU is on an accelerated timetable. Progress as promised that’s all the more impressive because of what it all looked like 12 months ago.