Robert Stillwell of Oxford, Ala., grabbed a chair outside the velvet ropes and watched his wife, Johnnie Sue, go to work.
Fans at the Southeastern Conference football media days in Alabama were cordoned off to give coaches and players a clear path off the escalator. They could sign autographs if they chose to do so. Most did, and Johnnie Sue Stillwell’s pen was ready.
“Most people have china in their china cabinets,” Robert Stillwell said. “We have autographed footballs.”
And for the holidays: a Christmas tree with nothing but Crimson Tide ornaments.
This is the SEC, the conference to which Missouri has hitched its future, where devotion to team isn’t simply a matter of showing up for games in gear. It’s proudly displayed in the family room and lit up for Christmas.
After more than a century of contests and relationships with schools in the Great Plains and Southwest, Mizzou shifts to partnerships in the South, where college football isn’t a game but a way of life.
“Well, yes, I’d say that’s right,” Stillwell said.
The new home will challenge the Tigers in the arena — SEC schools won the last six BCS football championships and compete for national titles in nearly sport — and the checkbook. Mizzou’s athletic budget for 2010-11 would have ranked in the bottom third of the SEC that financial year.
On those fronts, Missouri has responded, rolling up its sleeves in recruiting and fund-raising along with aggressive marketing and promotional campaigns since accepting the SEC’s invitation last November.
But no amount of effort can fully prepare Missouri for the world it is about to enter, where life and college football are joined till death do them part, as was the case about seven years ago.
Johnnie Sue’s mother, Jessie, was ill and living at the Stillwell house. Her condition was grave when Robert and Johnnie Sue made the decision not to attend the Alabama-Tennessee game in Knoxville. They watched it at home, and Jessie died 15 minutes after it ended.
“Only game we’ve missed in 31 years,” Robert said.
Not home game, any Alabama game.
“The game matters more to people in the South,” said Keith Dunnavant, author of five books, including a biography of Bear Bryant. “It’s more ingrained in the culture … it’s part of your identity. Being an Alabama fan is the prism through which you view your entire life. That identification is your context for the outside world.”
Missouri says it’s ready, and players, administrators and coaches are stoked for what lies ahead. Same for the fans. In recent weeks larger than expected crowds turned out for Mizzou and SEC events in Kansas City, including a block party at The Brooksider. Fans and alumni from all SEC schools were invited, and nearly all were represented.
Kansas City attorney and lifelong Tigers fan Paul Blackman understands Mizzou is entering a ramped-up sports culture. But it’s not as though Missouri has never been exposed to frenzied fans, or even created a ferocious atmosphere of its own.
“We’re not Idaho State,” Blackman said. “We’re not going in shaking in our boots. We’ve played significant games in a conference that’s not far behind the SEC. Maybe they don’t know what they’re getting in Missouri.”
Nobody in Columbia will forget the electric feeling in 2010 when Oklahoma visited Memorial Stadium for a meeting of top-five teams. The campus and city stood on edge from ESPN’s “College GameDay” broadcast through the Tigers’ victory that night.
On the field, the Tigers’ resume suggests they’ll hold their own. Mizzou has played in seven straight bowl games, and among SEC teams only Florida, Georgia, LSU and Alabama have longer appearance streaks.
As for the NFL Draft, Mizzou has had 19 players selected since 2005, more than Mississippi, Mississippi State, Kentucky and Vanderbilt in that span — and one more than Texas A Arkansas has had 22 players drafted since 2005.
SEC coaches, especially those who have knocked heads against Missouri and A from Big 12 days, don’t underestimate the Tigers.
“To think that Missouri and Texas A are going to come in here and all of the sudden they’re going to have their eyes opened to football, that’s insane,” said Auburn’s Gene Chizik, who prepared for both teams as Iowa State’s head coach and Texas’ defensive coordinator.
A perception persists that Missouri’s offensive philosophy under Pinkel — the no-huddle spread — will be overmatched by the SEC’s defensive speed.
“The biggest adjustment Missouri will have to make is the one all new SEC opponents have to make,” said Tony Barnhart of CBS Sports, a longtime follower of the SEC. “The Tigers will have to find a way to account for the large, fast defensive lineman and the overall size and speed of SEC defenses in general.
“The linebackers are bigger, the safeties are bigger and corners stick to receivers like Spider-Man.”
Bring it on, is the attitude of Missouri’s players.
“People may be saying we’re going to be playing with the big boys now opposed to the Big 12, but we played against some great defensive linemen there,” senior offensive guard Elvis Fisher said. “I know what we do, and it works.”
Much of the South that Fisher and the Tigers will regularly visit was a place once described by author John Gunther as otherworldly as he witnessed abject poverty in white and black communities.
Alabama and the South were torn asunder by the Civil War and its aftermath, and were viewed as a national disgrace to many during the Civil Rights Movement, with images of fire hoses and dogs turned on marchers, a bombed church and Gov. George Wallace proclaiming “Segregation Now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Against these images, the South could turn to football to feel good about themselves. It started with the 1926 Rose Bowl game, when Alabama defeated Washington in the first time a Southern team had played in Pasadena.
“It became a culture milestone,” Dunnavant said. “It was the first time in a long, long time the South could claim national superiority in anything.”
All-white Crimson Tide teams won national championships in 1964 and 1965, and Alabama could have become the first college football program to win three straight when its 1966 team finished 11-0.
But the vote went to Notre Dame, despite the Irish settling for a late-season tie against Michigan State, and the outcome was seen as a referendum against segregation.
College football’s racial barriers finally fell in the South in the early 1970s, and from separate water fountains and restrooms, people found common ground in team success.
Through it all, the excellence of Bryant’s teams sustained a population. Bryant won six national championships and retired in 1982 with the most victories ever in Division I-A.
“I live in Georgia now,” Dunnavant said. “And I run into people here who admire Bear Bryant. It’s across the board.”
How southern is Missouri? The football team broke the color barrier in the late 1950s, but even after Norris Stevenson and Mel West joined the team a fraternity waved a Confederate flag after touchdowns and the band played “Dixie.”
But Missouri, in the middle of the nation, borders eight other states. Missouri political science professor Marvin Overby, who spent nine years teaching at Mississippi, said that diverse influence can explain fan behavior, and separate the Show-Me State from counterparts in the South.
“Missouri really is a place right in the middle, sitting on the fault line between regions,” Overby said.
That makes Mizzou fans, to Overby, less likely to be “all-in” like he’s seen in the SEC.
For starters, professional sports have long competed for Missouri fans’ attention: Chiefs in Kansas City, Cardinals in St. Louis.
“I’ve been to plenty of games at Faurot in September and October and Cardinals fans are scoreboard watching, figuratively,” said Michael Atchison, a Missouri fan and author in Kansas City. “I don’t think that happens in Auburn.”
No, but trees die there, specifically the two cherished Toomer’s Corner oaks that were poisoned by an Alabama fan, Harvey Updyke, two years ago. The Alabama-Auburn rivalry crossed the line then, but typically, SEC antics don’t stoop to such depths and this one angered fans throughout the conference who cherish their traditions.
Calling hogs at Arkansas, ringing cow bells at Mississippi State and the gator chomp at Florida connect fans on game day. If college football is religion in the South, these are the sacred rituals, as is game preparation.
“The games are the focus of a week’s worth of activities,” Overby said. “Fans dress up for games; they just don’t tailgate, they spend days preparing the smoker they’ll take to the tailgate.”
The Stillwells park their RV near Bryant-Denny Stadium and keep it there through the end of the regular season. Robert and Johnnie Sue take their car home after games.
“We just commute,” Robert Stillwell said.
They get to game sites a few days early for a game, and the fun is in the visiting their friends and fans of other teams.
For the Alabama-LSU showdown last season in Tuscaloosa, the Stillwells met some Tigers compatriots. They visited, ate (“Very good cooks, LSU fans”) and talked football and other shared passions.
“We go down to Baton Rouge on Nov. 3 and I’m going to meet up with them, they were good people,” Stillwell said. “There’s kind of a bond. Now, Alabama people just don’t like Auburn and Auburn people don’t like Alabama.
“But I’ve found if you treat people good, they’ll treat you good. I mean it’s college football, and we all love it.”