COLUMBIA — Missouri softball coach Ehren Earleywine had just finished reading "Bark, George" to a group of children and their parents at the Columbia Public Library on Tuesday night when he heard the news.
He was told the UM System Board of Curators had opened the door for MU Chancellor Brady Deaton to explore conference affiliations other than the Big 12. Earleywine slightly raised his brow and nodded but continued toward the door holding the hand of his 6-year-old daughter, Duran.
Missouri did not rule out staying in the Big 12 Conference, but with Deaton resigning as the chairman of the conference board of directors, it looks increasingly likely that Missouri could be headed for the Southeastern Conference. Texas A&M was added as the SEC's 13th school last month and Missouri might fit as the league's 14th program.
Maybe it was the calming isolation of the green spherical reading room at the library or that a stack of children’s books had replaced scorebooks. But Earleywine, who was at the library as a replacement for Missouri Athletic Director Mike Alden, sounded convincing when asked how he felt about everything going on out there.
“I’m six to one, half a dozen to another,” he said. “I’m indifferent.”
Football has dominated the conference realignment talk. That is, after all, where the money is to be made, especially in the SEC.
The past five national champions in football have come from the SEC, and recent years have seen the conference's championship game serve as a default play-in for the BCS National Championship.
A move to the conference would create an elevated level of competition for the Tigers, who have racked up wins in recent years as a member of the Big 12.
But a conference switch would also impact the other athletic programs at Missouri. The so-called non-revenue sports would see dramatic changes in their level of competition as well.
What would it mean to Earleywine?
Every SEC school except Vanderbilt plays softball, and the conference has had an increasing level of success at the Women’s College World Series. Although no SEC team has ever won a national championship, the conference’s teams have made more and more appearances in the tournament recently. Florida finished second and Alabama third nationally last season.
Earleywine said there was at least one nice thing about possibly joining the SEC. There would be easier logistics for recruiting visits.
“Columbia has direct flights into Memphis, so that would be so, so good,” he said. “The recruits would be pumped to hear that because they wouldn’t have to drive two hours from the airport.”
If Missouri joined the SEC, the Tigers' baseball team would be joining one of the most powerful baseball conferences in the country. The top-25 highest-attended on-campus college baseball games of all time have taken place on SEC campuses. Additionally, the past three College World Series champions have been from the SEC, including back-to-back championships for South Carolina.
The SEC has seven gymnastics programs, compared to the Big 12’s three. Because of Nebraska's departure from the Big 12, Missouri now competes with Iowa State and Oklahoma as the only Big 12 gymnastics programs. Georgia, an SEC member school, is a powerhouse in the sport, as is Alabama. The two schools have combined for half of the women’s gymnastics national team titles since 1982, including a run of five consecutive championships for Georgia between 2005 and 2009. Missouri defeated Georgia in the 2010 NCAA Regional meet in Columbia.
The SEC boasted seven schools in the men’s swimming and diving top-25 rankings this March. Auburn has won two of the past five national championships. Similarly, six schools were in the women’s swimming and diving top-25 rankings this March. SEC schools have captured two of the past five national championships.
Then there is basketball, a subject of interest to a few other guests at the library Tuesday night — Missouri players Laurence Bowers, Kim English and Jarrett Sutton.
Unlike football, the SEC is not one of the nation’s premier men's basketball conferences. There has been success over the course of the previous decade, highlighted by Florida’s back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007, but the SEC does not have the same winning reputation as conferences such as the Big East, the ACC and even the Big 12.
Former Missouri coach Mike Anderson now coaches for the Arkansas Razorbacks — an SEC member school. A move to the SEC would set up yearly meetings between the Tigers and Anderson.
Bowers said the Big 12 was a strong conference in basketball, but that whichever conference Missouri ends up in, he would be OK with it. He is from Memphis, and after tearing his ACL on Monday, he will redshirt this season and be around for the 2012-2013 season, by which time Missouri might be playing in the SEC.
“It’ll definitely give me a chance to go play closer to home,” Bowers said. “And to get to play against coach Anderson, that would be pretty cool. If that all works out, then I don’t think it would be a bad thing.”
Before he left, Earleywine didn’t waver from his position of indifference. But he thought of another reason why the SEC wouldn’t be so bad, especially early in the softball season.
“I like the warmth,” he said. “That would be a great option. But if they keep the Big 12 together, I’m cool with that, too.”