Maybe you’ve seen the billboard depicting a Mizzou football player catching a pass and proclaiming the school … KANSAS CITY’S COLLEGE TEAM.
True as that might be for University of Missouri graduates and diehard fans, though, it’s a hollow statement that maybe has never been less the case in terms of MU athletics’ visibility and presence here.
Five years ago this month, Missouri made its football debut in the Southeastern Conference, bringing to stark reality its decision to turn away from the epicenter of Big 12 synergy in Kansas City and cast its gaze south and east.
The move has been prosperous for the school in many ways, including financially and with eye-opening SEC divisional titles in football in 2013 and 2014 that demonstrated the Tigers could be competitive in the most rugged league in the nation.
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But an undesired — albeit easy to anticipate — consequence has been a diminished profile in a metro area where Kansas has nearly double the number of alumni (more than 57,000 to MU’s 25,000-plus).
Despite MU’s stated intention then to explore playing an annual football game against a “traditional rival” at Arrowhead Stadium and conjuring an annual holiday basketball tournament in KC with other rivals, the Tigers have managed to play just one football game at Arrowhead since — against decidedly untraditional opponent Brigham Young — and four men’s basketball games at Sprint Center.
Starting his second year on the job, MU athletic director Jim Sterk knows something of all this, and that’s part of why he visited The Star the other day during a trip to speak at the Tiger Club of Kansas City.
“It would be crazy not to” try to bolster Mizzou’s profile here, he said, noting generally he’d like to see more MU basketball in town and specifically that he’s speaking with the Chiefs about adding other football games here before the next scheduled one in 2024 against Boston College.
One complication, of course, is “you have to have two people willing to play.”
Which takes us to the matter of a particular traditional rival that would create a certain buzz to play but that evidently remains unwavering about not resuming competition.
In fact, the message as Sterk interpreted it from Kansas to MU seems to have gone from “maybe someday way down the road” to infinity and beyond.
Sterk had floated the idea publicly a few weeks ago, and he has since called KU AD Sheahon Zenger to feel him out.
From Zenger’s end, the phone call apparently resembled the old New Yorker cartoon of a businessman on the phone looking at his calendar and saying, “No, Thursday’s out. How about never — is never good for you?”
Or “foreseeable future,” as KU spokesman Jim Marchiony said Zenger put it.
So as both schools in their Saturday football openers hold reunions to celebrate the 10th anniversary of incredible seasons that peaked with their meeting as highly ranked rivals at Arrowhead, a reunion of hostilities between their marquee teams seems at least that many years away, if at all.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Sterk said.
“I don’t know. I can’t predict that,” he said, later adding, “There are reasons why they feel (that way), and I respect that. And we’ve moved on, and they’ve moved on.
“And we definitely have enough on our plate playing in the SEC. So … yeah, it would be great for the people of Kansas City. But overall, we’re playing Florida and we’re playing Kentucky and we have Arkansas and all those folks coming in. So we’ve got enough on our plate.”
Beyond rotating in for the CBE Classic roughly every four years in men’s basketball, then, MU will have to seek other partners to play games in Kansas City.
And it remains to be seen just how much of a priority that actually becomes.
But there’s another avenue toward raising interest here, too.
It’s worth noting that Sterk’s remarkable fundraising has led to unprecedented donations for MU athletics — including from the Kansas City Sports Trust — and recent Board of Curators approval of a $98 million Memorial Stadium project.
That speaks to renewed overall faith and commitment from MU’s followers and, naturally, better resources with which to compete.
And MU will be more front-and-center everywhere in the state if it improves in football after Barry Odom’s first team went 4-8.
Sterk is pleased by what he saw Odom learn last year, in terms of more delegation and trust in his staff … though he laughed when asked to put a number, in terms of wins, on what success would mean.
Most of all, Mizzou will be of major interest if it can get close to fulfilling the near-hysteria over Michael Porter Jr. and basketball coach Cuonzo Martin’s first season.
Disappointing as it is that they don’t have a game scheduled in Kansas City this season, Sterk is right when he says “that all came together and has turned into a big snowball rolling down the hill.”
For that matter, Sterk seems to sense that in multiple ways for MU.
He believes, for instance, that there has been significant healing from the racial protests of 2015 that made for reduced attendance and school applications in the aftermath. The athletic department’s re-energized fundraising and improving student-retention rate seem to reflect that.
Healing with KU is another matter, though, leaving Mizzou with a lot of work to do to try to validate the “KANSAS CITY’S COLLEGE TEAM” billboard — or at least have a more consistent presence here after long having a constant one.