Ten years ago next month, then-Mizzou athletic director Mike Alden sat in the stands overlooking Memorial Stadium in a relatively calm moment of the realignment bedlam.
Even with Texas A&M on the brink of leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference, Alden was asked as he watched a football practice if Missouri officials had been in contact with the SEC. He repeatedly and emphatically said no.
Mere moments later, ESPN’s Doug Gottlieb tweeted that a “high-ranking” source at A&M had confirmed the school indeed was moving on … and that Clemson, Florida State and Missouri also were “likely to join.”
When that was instantly conveyed to Alden, he seemed more perplexed than angry and reiterated, “There’s nothing … No, no, no.”
“It just threw me,” Alden said with a laugh on Monday.
And that was just one glimpse into those hazy, crazy days of mixed-up confusion and shenanigans and doomsday scenarios that loomed large for months and months before MU formally joined the SEC in November 2011.
“You’re worried that you’re going to get left out,” then-Mizzou football coach Gary Pinkel recalled in a phone interview Monday. “Back and forth, and people don’t trust anybody with what’s going on. I just remember it was kind of a scary feeling just because you had no idea (where it would end) … and you could be sitting here left alone with nowhere to go.”
Between Texas running roughshod over the administration of the conference and the final catalyst of then-Oklahoma president David Boren’s infamous “wallflower” remark (we’ll come back to that), any tenuous remaining trust had disintegrated.
So “Mizzou had to take care of Mizzou,” as Pinkel put it.
And did it ever, jumping at a ripe opportunity.
Of course, the move to the SEC continues to present abundant competitive challenges perhaps amplified again on Monday when the university announced that after five years on the job athletic director Jim Sterk would be stepping down once a new leader is found.
But more notably, the move also left MU with a recurring financial windfall, equal representation at the league table and the prevailing sense of a forever home that can be appreciated anew in the wake of recent events:
Oklahoma and Texas’ impending move to the SEC, which, alas, could be a crushing blow to the future of the Big 12 and thus casts Kansas and Kansas State into limbo.
“You would not have known that for sure 9 or 10 years ago, but it certainly shows today that we’re in a much, much more secure place,” said Alden, who retired as MU AD in 2015.
Crediting a cohesive system-wide effort for the shrewd and even vital maneuver, he added, “I’m so glad we’re in such a solid place today and not having to worry about all these other dynamics that are taking place throughout the country.”
To say nothing of the potential dynamics ahead as we’re all left to wonder how much further the SEC aims to take this plan for global domination — just as a 12-team playoff format is on the horizon and with the matter of name, image and likeness resetting the landscape in ways we can’t even project yet.
But whatever the end game is, you can bet the SEC will be, or already is, at the epicenter. That reflects the savvy of commissioner Greg Sankey but also a visionary culture that Alden astutely noted durings MU’s first trip to SEC spring meetings in 2012.
“What I love about it is these schools, they don’t talk about just living in the moment. They talk about what’s good for the league a decade from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now,” he said then in Destin, Florida. “And I’m not used to that. We’re used to being in reactive mode vs. being in proactive mode. And I don’t say that negatively. That’s a fact.”
And whatever the end game, Pinkel figures the 12-team playoff notion has had an impact on SEC thinking (or, we might wonder, is it the other way around?) … and on OU and Texas wanting in.
Everything from dominance of the competitive landscape to the recruiting advantages entwined with it makes for “stuff starting to add up,” Pinkel said.
Including the ultimate add-up stuff that the last monster wave of realignment taught us with no doubts: Absolutely all of this is about the television rights and money that college football commands.
Oklahoma and Texas are “just on the outside looking in, watching our league,” said Pinkel, who retired in 2015. “And we just signed a million, million, million, billion, billion dollar deal.”
More formally, as The Associated Press put it, “The SEC signed a new $300 million deal with ESPN last year that gives the network rights to all SEC football games starting in 2024 and is expected to bump the conference’s annual distribution to its members to about $68 million. The Big 12 distributed $34.5 million per school recently, down over the previous year because of the pandemic.”
To what degree all of this contradicts the fundamental notion of why our institutions of higher learning exist and even how desirable it is to continue shedding and shredding the traditional rivalries that long have been the pillars of college sport is another topic in itself.
But certainly we know some of the immediate implications and concerns, particularly to Kansas City, to which the Big 12 (and its predecessors) have been crucial.
“If you’re the Big 12 right now, you’re just scrambling,” Pinkel said. Administrators at member schools “have to be just shaking their heads.”
Ten years ago, it would have been head-shaking to picture that the schools whose actions were most responsible for MU’s departure now will essentially be following in its path.
“Maybe we were trendsetters, you know, leaving the Big 12, and maybe that opened the door and gave them courage to try it, too,” Mizzou football coach Eli Drinkwitz playfully said at SEC football media days last week in Alabama.
But Pinkel, who made no secret of his anger with Texas’ domineering ways before MU left, noted that Texas in particular will be ceding something in the SEC.
“When Texas goes into this league, they’re going to be just like everybody else; I guarantee you,” Pinkel said. “You think (Alabama coach) Nick Saban will let them have more of whatever? …
“They’re not going to get a pencil more than anybody else.”
Back in the day, and even in the years since, traditionalists like me lamented the move. And other than the SEC divisional titles Pinkel’s teams won in 2013 and 2014 (making good on the strength of Pinkel’s program that was instrumental in Mizzou being attractive to the SEC), Missouri hasn’t enjoyed much SEC success with its most visible teams.
It might also reasonably be wondered to what degree the impending arrival of OU and Texas contributed to the seemingly sudden change of AD at MU as the bar to compete just got raised and brings new urgency with it.
Just the same, it’s not like MU faces relegation for that.
And it’s easy to see now how much more sound a situation the school is in for having made a move that it came to feel forced to do.
Even given MU’s distrust and resentment of Texas, which Alden said cast a “shadow” over the league that left all with the sense that they weren’t really in it together, even considering the upheaval and uncertainty captured in that August day in Columbia 10 years ago, MU might not have left if not for what came only weeks later.
Days after the nine remaining schools pledged loyalty to the conference mission, Boren blurted out that OU wouldn’t be a “wallflower” in the realignment world.
Less memorably but more to the point, he added that “there is no school in the Big 12 more active than we are now,” in terms of considering a change as new reports suggested Texas, OU, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech were potentially headed to the Pac-12.
“That was a seismic quote,” Alden said, “and really a tipping point for lots of things that took place.”
Most immediately, it led a day later to Alden convening a momentous meeting on the roof of the Memorial Stadium press box as MU was opening the 2011 season with a 17-6 victory over Miami (Ohio) University. Boren’s words were the focus of the gathering among
Alden, chancellor Brady Deaton, interim system president Steve Owens and interim general counsel Phil Hoskins, as first reported by PowerMizzou.com and confirmed Monday by Alden.
“The question was then, ‘could we effectively make a go of it with the Big 12?’ ” Deaton told Power Mizzou’s Gabe Dearmond in 2016. “We said, ‘No, we cannot.’ ”
Never mind that MU had played a role in the destabilization of the Big 12 with its overtures to the Big Ten in 2010 after then-commissioner Jim Delany launched the hysteria by saying the conference was exploring expansion. Until Boren’s statement, Mizzou was more likely than not to have stayed.
And because of his statement that suggested the Big 12 was on the verge of its demise, the SEC looked closer at Mizzou.
Behind the scenes, the SEC had been reluctant to consider another Big 12 school after Texas A&M; it didn’t want to be perceived legally or ethically as the reason for the demise of the Big 12 after the league already had lost Colorado and Nebraska in the musical chairs.
Now, that notion seems to just matter less to the league that likes to trumpet that “it just means more” to.
That’s a brutal shame for KU, K-State, Iowa State and the more remote others left to find their way in the Big 12 or elsewhere now.
But it’s to the everlasting credit of Deaton, Alden, Pinkel and MU curators of the time that this new wave and its ripples present no issue for Mizzou.
“As you look back at it now,” Pinkel said, “it’s incredible.”