Five years ago, Missouri was a curiosity at its first SEC Media Days, where Sheldon Richardson’s brash talk about old-man football stole the headlines in what amounted to the school’s introductory news conference.
Fans openly championed the addition of Texas A&M — which raked in more revenue in 2015-16 than any other public university, according to USA Today’s research — but seemed wary of the Tigers.
During the last half-decade, fans at the Hyatt Regency-Wynfrey Hotel have come around on Mizzou, which proved its worth by winning consecutive SEC East Division football titles in 2013 and 2014 and this year posted the program’s best finish in the Learfield Directors’ Cup standings.
Once-skeptical fans no longer view the Tigers, who are slated to appear Wednesday at SEC Media Days, as outsiders.
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“Even though they’ve only been in it five years, I think they’re just as much a part of it as anyone else,” said Alabama fan Greg Skipworth, a retired Navy veteran and school teacher in Athens, Ala.
Perhaps that wasn’t always the case, but it’s water under the bridge five years after severing ties with the Big 12.
“It took some time (for SEC fans) to warm up,” said Richard Grant, a lifelong SEC fan who now lives in Chicago and made the 660-mile trek to SEC Media Days. “They looked at it as a package deal. They got Texas A&M, which I think they really wanted, and I think Missouri was an addition that they had to have to keep an even balance.”
But back-to-back SEC Championship Game appearances provided credibility — “You just don’t sneak into Atlanta,” SEC Network college football analyst Marcus Spears said — which helped changed hearts and minds in SEC country.
“What I’ve seen from Missouri fans involving themselves in the SEC culture, they want to fit in and they want to think that they matter,” Skipworth said. “My suggestion to Missouri fans is accept it and embrace it. The easiest way to be part of it is to win. … Being a part of the SEC is just taking the ball and running with it, literally.”
Spears, an LSU graduate and nine-year NFL veteran, said Columbia and College Station, Texas, expanded the SEC footprint without sacrificing the passion that makes the conference special.
“Our first year (of “SEC Nation”), they were right in the mix,” Spears said. “They understood the culture. They understood what it was like with the fanfare. They’re still rolling today.”
He recognizes that fans initially had trepidation about Mizzou and its fit, but also believes it’s no longer an issue.
“I don’t think they thought that before,” Spears said. “When they went to back-to-back SEC Championships, I still think a lot of SEC fans thought it was a fluke … but winning is the cure-all to everything. When you have success as a program, it tends to shift people to say these guys are playing well, they do belong. … Football is obviously king in this conference and, when you have success, it gives your school more visibility and notoriety.”
While those football division titles provided a toehold for Mizzou, it also helped open fans’ eyes to the school’s wider value.
“Missouri is not just a one-trick pony coming into the conference,” Skipworth said. “They’ve had a wonderful basketball team, good baseball teams, strong track and field. Every team is going to have peaks and valleys, especially in football, but I think they bring a rich history that can be welded onto the current SEC that it’s part of and it will blend in. It’s already assimilating, so eventually you won’t even be asking those questions in another five years or so. It will just be like an old hat for Missouri people.”
And for SEC traditionalists.
“It’s getting better,” said Grant, who attended the Tigers’ 2014 win against Central Florida at Memorial Stadium. “… (Fans) are warming up to it. It’s taken a little while, but they’re warming up to it.”