A sense of belonging swept over Columbia on Saturday.
Missouri students wore SEC shirts. Cars and RVs flew SEC flags outside Memorial Stadium. Brian Partlow of Kansas City bought his SEC flag from an online outfit in Tennessee and had to purchase a stronger pole to fly two, along with his black and gold flag.
“The guy was really nice,” Partlow said. “He said, ‘Welcome to the SEC.’ ”
Tailgating on Saturday before Missouri’s inaugural Southeastern Conference game against Georgia was about more than dining. This felt social in a glad-to-be-here, happy-to-have-you way.
When the matchup was announced in February, Ben Halter of Atlanta got tickets for him and his dad, Steve, originally from St. Louis. They didn’t want to miss this occasion.
“I did not expect quite the tailgate scene here,” Ben Halter said. “I’ve been impressed by that. I don’t know if it’s standard or not.”
He has plenty of friends from other SEC schools. The ones whose teams are playing in Columbia this season, like Alabama, have Columbia on the can’t-miss list.
“Everybody wants to see what Columbia is like,” Ben Halter said. “In the SEC, that’s what fans do.”
But he saw something on Saturday hadn’t seen attending games in Athens, Ga. — fans wearing conference gear. Even parking attendants had SEC logos on their on their bright yellow shirts.
“You can't walk five steps downtown without finding an SEC logo,” said SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, who was part of pregame ceremonies at Texas A&M and Columbia in their league openers on Saturday.
Another unusual sight: Two hours before kickoff, a line of students waiting to get into the stadium backed up across the street to the Hearnes Center.
Also, the SEC requires home team to offer as many as 6,000 tickets to visiting teams, and Georgia snapped up every bit of that and then some to help fill all of Memorial Stadium’s 71,004 seats. Red-clad fans — they looked like Nebraska supporters — occupied the familiar southwest corner of the end zone and smaller portions on both north sides of the stadium next to the hill. Pockets of red shirts were visible throughout the stadium, including the hill.
Christopher Maher noticed the difference a month ago. He’s the general manager of the Wingate Inn in Columbia, and on the day the schedule was announced his phone rang off the hook.
“I’ll sell out all the games in advance in any year,” Maher said. “But when the SEC schedule was announced, we were sold out that day for Georgia, Alabama and homecoming (Kentucky). That day.
“I love the SEC. I’m very happy to have them.”