THIS IS THE first day, Missouri, of the rest of your life. Are you ready? No, nobody could be. Not for what’s coming.
Today is your first official day in the SEC, the biggest and best league in college sports. They don’t just win national titles; they collect them. The past six football champions. Three of the past seven men’s basketball titles. Three of the past four College World Series winners. Yeah, that baseball tournament you flipped past on TV last month. You’re an SEC team now. “Omaha” means more than the zoo and those annoying commercials. It’s a destination and a hope, and if your baseball team falls short frequently, your coach isn’t doing his job.
The stadiums are bigger. The crowds are crazier. If tailgating were an Olympic sport, they’d hold the trials in Athens, Ga., and Oxford, Miss. Thank goodness you know how to smoke a pork shoulder — better, if you ask me, than anyone in the country. Yes, even in the South, where I was born, raised and educated. Take that knowledge with you. It’ll help you fit in. They grill gator in Athens, roast boar in Starkville, and when a little hound dog trots by in Gainesville wearing Tennessee colors, they run toward him and scream obscenities.
Today is Day 1. The next 364 or so will be about adjusting to an environment that, at least for a while, will seem over the top and strange. Maybe even a little intimidating.
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“All the other fans — Auburn fans, Alabama fans, everybody, Tennessee, Georgia, right down the list — they’re looking at them, going, ‘What are these guys doing here?’” says Paul Finebaum, a radio host who has refereed SEC sports discussions for around 30 years. “Come on over here and let us indoctrinate you into the world of the SEC.”
You got yourself into this, Mizzou.
Alex Holmgren got himself into it, too. He was born 38 years ago in the Kansas City area, and he enrolled in college at Auburn. Met a nice Auburn girl while he was there.
So when the time came for Holmgren to pop the question in December 1997, there was a problem. Holmgren’s fiancee wanted a wedding late the following year. In the SEC, the only thing more sacred than a wedding is a football Saturday.
“We had friends that got married around that same time,” says Holmgren, who now lives in Atlanta. “It just kind of (ticked) you off.”
Being a nice Auburn girl, Holmgren’s fiancee understood, although her mother did not. All this for a football game? They planned delicately, aiming for the first Saturday in December. But that was the date of the SEC championship game. Auburn wasn’t supposed to be good that year — indeed, the Tigers went 3-8 in 1998 — but what if the team pulled a surprise? Life turns on a dime in the SEC. So they pushed it back a week, just to be safe, and were married Dec. 12.
Years later, Holmgren received a friend’s wedding invitation. Florida was playing Auburn that weekend. Holmgren had tickets. When the RSVP came, he responded with his regrets. Yes, around here football is as important as life, because around here, life is football. If Holmgren sounds like a nut, consider that he’s more the norm than the exception — and that some fans even plan the births of their children around the SEC schedule. If there’s a surprise, pray to the heavens and Bear Bryant that the due date falls in a bye week.
Now that you know that, Mizzou, know this: You are entering their world now.
The biggest crazies are the ones who take a job coaching in the nation’s toughest league. Mike DuBose did it 15 years ago, when he took over at Alabama. He thought he was ready, too. DuBose had been an assistant coach in the NFL. How much tougher could it be?
“It’s just different,” says DuBose, who was hired in 1997, won SEC coach of the year and the conference championship in ’99, and was fired in 2000 after a 3-8 season.
The talking is finished now. Like a job interview or an election, there comes a time for the chatter to stop and the work to begin. And there’s been more than enough talk about this move, dating back more than a year.
Finebaum says Mizzou was given a “gift” football schedule, with Georgia and Alabama coming to Columbia and three home games to begin the season. But the time will ultimately come for the Tigers to hit the road and be the new kid in one of those SEC cathedrals. The first is at South Carolina, my alma mater, and the 80,250-seat Williams-Brice Stadium, which the fans pack beyond capacity whether the Gamecocks win 11 games, as they did last season, or zero, as they did in 1999.
It’ll all feel new, Mizzou, and because of the hasty push to leave the Big 12, your old rivals won’t be there to lend a hint of familiarity.
So, how will the fans respond. Will they travel? Will they cheer like an SEC crowd?
Nothing will prepare Mizzou like the reality, though, and that reality begins today. Finebaum says he was in New York recently with a friend, and while they were walking, the friend kept looking upward, in awe of the tall buildings. Sometimes you can’t help yourself. But whether it’s in New York or Gainesville or Baton Rouge or Tuscaloosa, finding yourself overwhelmed by the grandeur is a good way to get hit by a bus.
So stand tall, Mizzou. Shoulders back, eyes forward. There might be some hazing, and there won’t be much fun in that. But you belong here.
Ready or not, welcome home.