COLUMBIA | With the morning sun bearing down and a smile creased across his lips, Mike Alden addressed the crowd, three flags flapping behind him in the breeze.
Monday marked the University of Missouri’s first business day as an official member of the Southeastern Conference, and this small flag-raising ceremony – held for athletic department staff and campus administrators right outside Mizzou Arena – was the department’s first official event as a full, card-carrying member of the SEC.
The occasion, Missouri’s athletic director said, also doubled as a moment in time to remember. “Today gives us an opportunity to recognize another moment in our history where we’re going to have a chance to move forward,” Alden said.
He then asked the crowd to think back to 1839, when the University of Missouri was founded, and how athletics has been woven into the fabric of the university since then. He urged them to think about all the coaches and athletes and staff members over the years, each of whom individually pushed their school forward – to this exact moment – because of the cumulative effect of their efforts.
As he spoke, two school workers stood at one of the flagpoles, slowly lowering the black flag bearing the school’s Tiger head logo. Underneath it, they placed a white flag bearing the blue-and-yellow logo of their new conference, and slowly raised both until they were set firmly into place at the top, each flying high directly next to the American flag.
“I can guarantee you this – based upon what I’ve seen on that chain, that flag ain’t going anywhere,” Alden said to a scattering of laughter. “It looks like it’s pretty secure.”
Much like Missouri’s future, Alden hopes. Despite college football’s ever-changing landscape and a football-crazed culture – “My gut tells me that we probably haven’t seen like anything we’re going to see on Sept. 8,” Alden said of the conference opener against Georgia – SEC schools aren’t looking to go anywhere, thanks to several lucrative deals bargained by perhaps college football’s most respected commissioner, Mike Slive.
Under Slive, the SEC has also risen to the top of the nation’s conference hierarchy in competitiveness. This school year alone, the SEC has won national championships in nine sports, with the most high-profile being football, where Alabama clinched the conference’s sixth consecutive national championship in that sport.
“It will be different for us to go to Columbia, S.C, or Knoxville, Tenn., instead of Ames, Ia., or Manhattan, Kan.,” Alden said. “But…that difference, while something that you think about, is also pretty exciting. There are new venues, new opportunities and we’re going to challenge ourselves at the highest level.”
So yes, while Alden reiterated several times Monday that making to adjustment to their new conference won’t be easy – “It’s going to take us several years to really feel like we’ve oriented ourselves to the SEC,” he said – he remains confident that the University of Missouri is ready to rise to the occasion.
“As an institution, as an athletic program, what it means is that we’ve now stepped into a league that is regarded as the strongest in the country,” Alden said. “We’re going to have our plate full every day…and certainly, there are a lot of challenges ahead. But it’s going to be pretty exciting.”
Especially with the graciousness of the SEC officials, who he says have been right there, helping them every step of the way.
“Their willingness to always answer our phone calls, to always respond to the questions we may have, it’s been really impressive,” Alden said. “And I know that doesn’t end today. That’s going to be the experience we’re going to have throughout our tenure in the SEC.”
Alden pointed to all the hard work that has been done over the last nine months as proof of the school’s commitment to “stepping up.” Whether it’s been replacing the signage at the Hearnes Center (also done Monday), taking a closer look at the recruiting budgets or planning the expansive, $200 million athletic facility upgrades that were announced last week, preparing for the move has been a daily effort.
The work, however, really begins now, though it will be a different type of work than the kind he and his staff put in for much of last year, when they felt the need to explore every possible avenue in hopes securing the school’s athletic and financial future.
It is, to be sure, a similar predicament some of his fellow athletic directors across the country find themselves in right now – hence the ongoing chatter about conference realignment that Alden doesn’t see going away any time soon.
“If you take a look at the landscape out there and now the formatting as far as a playoff for college football, I wouldn’t say that that’s over,” Alden said. “There may be a lull, as there was before, for a little while. But I think eventually we’ll see some other movements.”
Alden added that he had nothing to base that on, other than his gut. But while uncertainty figures to grip other schools in the coming year, Missouri’s athletic leader couldn’t be happier to know that with his school now an official member of the SEC – as the pristine, white flag now flapping outside Mizzou Arena clearly indicates – he need not worry about that stuff any longer.
“(Realignment talk) is over for Mizzou, that’s for sure,” Alden said with a laugh. “We’ve got a great home…we’re looking forward to being a proud member of the SEC for a long, long time.”To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.