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Preseason hype readies fans for MU football action

Wednesday, August 27, 2008 | 11:08 p.m. CDT; updated 9:11 a.m. CDT, Monday, June 8, 2009
Two-year-old Tiger fan Savanna Hazelrigg and her grandfather Ray Hazelrigg spend time together at the Faurot Field pep rally on Wednesday evening. While many fans waited in line for autographs, others were watching magician Joe Meyers as he performed a variety of tricks during the rally.

COLUMBIA - Jacqueline Farley senses a fall spice in the air. It's a little after 8 on the college football season's first Monday morning of game week, and the MU junior has witnessed mid-Missouri arise from summertime slumber. A steady pace of fans come, greeting her at the Mizzou Arena ticket office window eager to claim their slice of the most anticipated MU football season in decades.

"It's really exciting for us," Farley said, smiling behind a glass pane. "When people come up to the window, you can tell they're excited about Illinois.

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"Everybody's hoping that we do really well. ... Everybody that comes up to the window has been, ‘Go Tigers!' Everybody is really excited about it."

A summer of Sports Illustrated covers, national newspaper centerpieces, Heisman predictions and possible Big 12 and national title aspirations is almost complete. Preseason buzz has injected Columbia with a rush of anticipation for Saturday's season opener against Illinois that city leaders and business representatives say they haven't experienced in recent memory.

Fall wasn't always welcomed. During the 1960s, under legendary coach Dan Devine, MU was the only team that never lost more than three games each year. But when Devine left to coach the NFL's Green Bay Packers in January 1971, the Tigers began a descent toward mediocrity. Over the next three decades, five MU teams were able to win as many as eight games in a season (in 1973, '78, '80, '81 and '98).

It took time, but MU recovered under Gary Pinkel. After he was introduced as coach in 2000, he finished his first two seasons with a combined record of 9-14. Then dynamic quarterbacks Brad Smith, now a wide receiver for the New York Jets, and current senior Chase Daniel attracted renewed attention to the program. Following a 12-2 finish and Cotton Bowl title last season, MU's best mark since 1960, businesses anticipate the continuation of a positive trend.

"For the past four or five years, I've seen the atmosphere continue to change," said Lorah Steiner, executive director of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It just keeps getting better. There was a time where there didn't seem to be anything distinguishing a football weekend from any other weekend.

"Over the past few years, the color and the excitement and the activity at the field, around the field and everywhere in Columbia has just been amazing. This year, wow, it will probably be an absolute explosion because there is so much excitement around this program."

That excitement impacts the area economy. In recent years, business representatives say they have noticed an increase in overnight stays on football weekends. Consequently, some hotels are beginning to reach capacity for smaller-profile nonconference games that occur during the season's first month, unlike past years when MU struggled to become bowl eligible.

"It's unlike anything I've seen since being here," said Bob McDonald, general manager of the Courtyard by Marriott, who has been involved with hotel management in Columbia since 2001. "It has brought the whole community to a new level.

"It brings in more people to the city during the entire fall season who need to stay the night and use our restaurants and buy retail. It's good for the overall business community for the team to do well."

Mike Geiss, owner of Campus Bar and Grill, said, "There is definitely a buzz going around. People were excited for school to start back up for the first time in I don't know how long because that meant football games were starting.

"I've lived in this town for almost 10 years now, and it's fun being a fan of the Tigers because of everything that's going on."

University officials have noticed the change. Following the Cotton Bowl, MU Alumni Association representatives have listened to graduates eager for kickoff.

Before this summer, officials said fans contained tempered expectations due to past letdowns, such as a Week 2 defeat to Troy that spoiled a promising 2004 season when MU was ranked No. 19. With 16 starters back this year, including Daniel as a returning Heisman Trophy finalist, officials say fans have embraced this season's prospects with confidence.

"Working here, I haven't seen it like this, that's for sure," said Todd McCubbin, executive director of the MU Alumni Association. "It seems the football team has high expectations every year, but now we have some substance behind that based on the breakthrough year we had last year.

"It's just great to see people satisfied because for so many years we just couldn't get to where people thought we could."

Pinkel stresses that the Tigers' prominence could be fleeting. Win, and they will continue to reap victory's spoils; the 2008 team will attempt to give the program eight victories or more in three consecutive seasons for the first time. Lose, and the positive buzz that filled Columbia will fade as a footnote to history.

"It can go (away) real fast," Pinkel said. "You take care of your business, and these things (will) continue to happen. For those people who can't, those things can go away.

"It's great for all Missouri fans ... but there's a responsibility that goes with that, and that's to play well."

Columbia wants them to. A storm of anticipation that gained strength over the summer prepares to commence.

"I've seen long periods of drought, but I've seen some pretty great times too," said Mayor Darwin Hindman, who has been a Columbia resident for 73 years. "But of course, the scale (this year) is just larger. There are just more people.

"It's a really exciting time in Columbia."

 

 


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