COLUMBIA — A series of surprises led to Missouri’s Big 12 tournament title last week in Oklahoma City.
Kansas and Oklahoma failed to win a game. Missouri didn’t have to play a team seeded higher than sixth. And the Tigers didn’t self-destruct away from Mizzou Arena.
But the biggest surprise may have been that Missouri actually won the title.
Since the creation of the Big 12 in 1996, Missouri has the fewest conference and division titles - six. Texas has the most - 104. Missouri would have to win the conference title in every sport in which it competes for the next four years to pass Texas.
Missouri is the only school that hasn't reached double digits in number of Big 12 titles. And MU is 24 titles behind Baylor, which sits in the middle of the Big 12.
But Missouri’s basketball team winning the conference tournament last Saturday is part of a new trend in MU’s athletic department. Missouri’s teams, which traditionally have been good at being mediocre, are starting to flirt with conference supremacy.
More than half of Missouri’s teams have been ranked in the top 25 at some point in 2008-09. MU’s football and basketball teams are among the Big 12’s best in the same year, both finishing in the top four of the conference for the first time in a decade.
Along with the football and basketball teams’ success has come more exposure. Half of the football team’s games were televised nationally. The basketball team has played 14 games on national TV.
ESPN SportsCenter anchor John Anderson, an MU alumnus, said Missouri is finally fulfilling the potential it has had for so long.
“We’re at a point where the university’s athletic department is being what everybody thought they could always be,” Anderson said. “For 25 years I heard about the whole sleeping giant. ‘Oh, Missouri’s a sleeping giant,’ especially in the football side…So I think that’s really come to fruition.”
Anderson is as excited about Missouri’s success as any Tiger fan. And he even benefits personally from Missouri’s emergence on the national scene.
“I like it because I get patted on the back all the time like I might’ve had something to do with it,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Dude, I just went to school there.’”
When Anderson and ESPN.com senior writer Pat Forde were MU students in the mid-80's, they were a lot less demanding than some of today’s fans.
“I think expectations have changed dramatically,” Forde said. “I think that there were always hopes going back to when I was in school in the 1980s that Missouri could compete with Oklahoma and Nebraska and maybe win a Big Eight title at the time, but realistically everybody was willing to settle for a heck of a lot less. A winning season would have been fine when it came to football.”
As Missouri’s football team went 103-120 through the ‘70s and ‘80s, Norm Stewart and Missouri basketball kept MU relevant.
“That program by itself carried this athletic program for many years,” said Mike Alden, Missouri’s athletic director. “…If not for the success he (Stewart) had in basketball, even though the forum wasn’t huge, you wouldn’t have had a national platform for anything.”
Stewart won seven Big Eight regular season titles during the two decades, and one more in the 1993-94 season.
Department in disarray
When Alden arrived in July 1998, he quickly discovered the department was in such bad shape that even Missouri’s basketball team, with its national reputation, was years behind in resources.
Alden said the team’s video editing equipment consisted of six VCRs stacked on top of one other. Even Southwest Texas State, where Alden was athletic director before coming to Missouri, had more advanced equipment.
“What I found interesting was that for our marquee sport, the one that had been in the national spotlight, we didn’t have the resources to provide suitable teaching tools,” Alden said. “I mean, they were in a closet.”
It seemed like his office was too.
“When I first came here, it was a challenge just to find where the athletic director’s office was,” he said.
It was clear that building a successful athletic department wouldn’t come easily or quickly.
When Alden arrived in 1998, Missouri basketball had missed the NCAA Tournament three years in a row. The football team had finished higher than fifth in the conference in just three of the previous 15 years.
Alden walked into his first athletic department meeting and was taken aback, to say the least.
He recalls someone wearing a T-Shirt from another college. A few people wore hats with NFL team logos, and others were dressed in clothing that Alden deemed unprofessional.
“In that very first meeting, it was as simplistic as reminding people what time we needed to come to work and what time we left at the end of the day, and what we needed to wear at work,” Alden said.
Other problems were more difficult to solve.
Chad Moller, assistant athletic director for media relations, said the department was territorial before Alden took over.
“Whether it was marketing or development or tickets or whatever, you were on an island,” he said. “You did your job. You didn’t worry about anyone else. You went home at the end of the day.”
The department also lacked the money to be competitive.
“We didn’t have the financial resources to provide full scholarships for all of our student athletes, to pay our coaches competitive wages, to try to do some things with paying our staff to recruit on a national basis,” Alden said
Although major problems existed when Alden arrived, dealing with inadequate resources was nothing new for Missouri athletics. Stewart, Missouri’s legendary basketball coach, remembers when MU’s baseball, basketball, football, track and wrestling teams shared Brewer Fieldhouse for practices.
“We were all concerned about standing still too long and getting hit by a pigeon,” Stewart said. “That would have been the most embarrassing thing for a player or a coach, to have a pigeon hit him.”
Pigeons would fly into players and coaches or hit them with bird droppings, said Jim Whitaker, an all-Big Eight defensive back at Missouri under coach Dan Devine in 1966.
Brewer Fieldhouse was just one of the sites the track and field teams used. They didn't have a full-sized track on campus until Walton Stadium opened in 1996.
“We did have what looked like a track in the football stadium,” said Joe Castiglione, MU’s athletic director from 1994-98. “…If you were to take a regular track and eliminate the inside four lanes, that’s what you had.”
In order to practice on a full-sized track, the teams would load up in a van and travel to a high school in Hallsville, half-an-hour northeast of campus.
When recruits came to Columbia, coaches didn’t even show them MU’s makeshift track.
“They’d get to the end of the visit and they’d go, ‘Oh no, we need to get you to the airport. We’re gonna be late. We’re gonna have to show you the track when you come back next time,’” said Castiglione, now Oklahoma’s athletic director.
Castiglione started working in Missouri’s athletic department in 1981. The department went through budget cuts throughout the ‘80s, leading to the elimination of the men’s and women’s tennis teams.
But Castiglione laid the foundation for the department’s turnaround by focusing on facilities. He devised a master plan for facilities, which started with construction projects in 1995 and led to the Sports Park at Mizzou, MU’s current athletic complex. Under Castiglione’s watch, Missouri built Walton Stadium (soccer, track and field), Devine Pavilion (football), and renovated Memorial Stadium and Faurot Field (football).
After Castiglione left for OU, Alden continued overhauling facilities.
Since 1998, Missouri has built Taylor Stadium (baseball), Mizzou Arena (basketball), Mizzou Aquatics Center (swimming and diving) and Green Tennis Center; renovated the Memorial Stadium press box (football) and University Field (softball); installed FieldTurf at Faurot Field and Devine Pavilion and a scoreboard on the south end of Faurot Field; expanded the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex; and resurfaced the track at Walton Stadium.
“You go around to different places, and the big-time athletic programs have big-time facilities, and that’s not a coincidence,” Forde said. “They help attract players and athletes.”
Forde has seen Missouri’s facilities and said they are reasonably close in quality to facilities at schools in the SEC, where “everybody has every bell and whistle.”
“There are a lot of things they’ve made major improvements on that they probably were 10 to 15 years behind some other schools in doing,” Forde said. “Now, I think Missouri has caught up with a lot of other places.
Unwilling to sacrifice one success for another
When Alden came to Missouri in 1998, the athletic department’s budget was almost $14 million. Eleven years later, the department’s budget has more than tripled and is now almost $48 million.
“I think the field was very fertile at Missouri for some fundraising, and when you added Mike’s knowledge of how to put together a good team to go out and get that money, it kind of just took off and went to the roof,” said Mario Moccia, who came to MU with Alden and worked in Missouri’s athletic department for eight years.
Many applaud Alden’s ability to run an efficient department and raise money. Alden helped secure a $25 million donation from Bill and Nancy Laurie for Mizzou Arena.
“I consider him to be a wonderful business manager,” said Richard Wallace, MU’s chancellor when Alden was hired.
Alden has drastically grown the athletic department’s budget and improved many of MU’s facilities. But he has also been caught up in controversy.
Three years ago, Alden’s job was in jeopardy after his handling of Quin Snyder’s resignation was criticized.
Chancellor Brady Deaton supported Alden in the wake of the Snyder resignation, when Alden hired Mike Anderson.
But a year-and-a-half later, the department was back in the midst of controversy. Basketball players Stefhon Hannah and Jason Horton were arrested after an altercation outside Athena nightclub. Hannah, Horton and three other players were suspended.
The players’ behavior was disappointing to Missouri fans, just like the football team’s inability to capitalize on a chance to play for a national title two months earlier.
“To be ranked No. 1 and to be right there and not win it, that one stung a little bit more to me,” Forde said. “I think I probably joined most Missouri alums in having low expectations going in this year against Oklahoma.”
The team failed to win the Big 12 championship the past two years. But for some, just contending for the conference title is good enough.
“I’ve always said Missouri is one of those schools, we want to win, but we don’t want to win at all costs,” said Gary Smith, MU’s registrar, director of admissions and athletic certification officer from 1970-2000. “We want to win 9, 10, 11 games, go to a good bowl game and have a clean program.”
Last year, Missouri ranked No. 1 in the nation in Academic Progress Rate among public BCS schools. MU also led the Big 12 in eligibility, retention and graduation rates of student athletes.
“You don’t have to be first,” Smith said emphatically, almost angrily. “You just have to be good and represent the institution well.”
“Winning is obviously the most important thing (at schools like Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska),” said Whitaker, who was on MU’s search committee that selected Alden. “I think that the experience that those student athletes have is inferior to the experience that student athletes at Missouri have.”
ESPN’s Anderson, who was a high jumper on Missouri’s track and field team, said he’s proud of the attention MU coaches give their players.
“If that means people think, ‘Well, we’re not a win-first institution,’ I can live with that,” Anderson said. “I would make the case that we care about our kids and care about the students far more than other institutions.”
Not sold on MU
Missouri’s athletes might get a well-rounded college experience, but MU’s teams are at a competitive disadvantage compared to schools like Texas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Missouri does not pour as much money into its athletic department as the Big 12’s top schools. Even with increased fundraising in the last decade, MU’s athletic budget is still almost $80 million less than Texas’.
Some Missouri coaches like it that way.
“I don’t think we need to be the school with the biggest budget to be successful,” said Bryan Blitz, Missouri’s soccer coach since 1996. “We know we have to work harder. I think we feel we’re not spoiled; we’re not entitled. I think the people that work here know that they have to do more with less, and I think they enjoy doing that.”
Missouri’s coaches have always had to make the most of the resources available, going back to the days when a handful of teams crammed into Brewer Fieldhouse.
“The amazing thing about it was we made it work and we had competitive teams and everybody got along,” Stewart said.
When Alden started at MU, his goal was to make Missouri’s teams competitive. All he wanted was for MU to finish in the top half of the conference.
Now, being in the top half is no longer acceptable.
“We think now that we should be a program that should be in the top three to four in the league,” Alden said. “Every sport, that’s what the goal should be.”
But Missouri must add to its small number of conference titles to convince skeptics that it’s a legitimate athletic program.
“I think there’s still some wait-and-see. Attitudes don’t change overnight,” Forde said. “So Missouri has to stack up success year after year after year for people to really buy into Missouri as a big-time athletic program.”