Back in the not-so-distant past when Missouri's football team was truly dreadful, the story was told of a man who bumped into an old acquaintance, a passionate football fan, whom he hadn't seen for years.
"Where have you been?" the first man asked.
"Oh, I had a heart attack. My doctor told me to stay as far away from big-time college football as possible. So I moved to Columbia, Missouri."
Not any more. On Sunday, the worst-kept secret in the state became official when MU Chancellor Brady Deaton and Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive embraced embraced at a news conference-cum-gala in Columbia: Missouri, a charter member of the Big 12 and its predecessor athletic conferences, next year will join the powerhouse SEC as its 14th member.
We're glad this long-running soap opera is over, but probably not as glad as Deaton. An agricultural economist by training, much of his time since becoming chancellor in 2004 has been absorbed by various athletic department dramas.
But once you decide to go big on sports, as Missouri did in the last decade, you have to do whatever it takes to stay big. In that regard, Deaton and the UM System Board of Curators made the only decision they could.
But in doing so, they've gotten on a merry-go-round that's hard to get off. Last spring, a majority of the presidents of universities with big-time football programs admitted that they don't feel like they can control their athletic departments.
"Presidents would like serious change, but don't see themselves as the force for the changes needed, nor have they identified an alternative force they believe could be effective," concluded a report from the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.
In abandoning the financially shaky Big 12 — the University of Texas won't share its loot — Missouri joins the far more stable SEC, with its rich TV football contracts.
Being in the SEC will earn the university more money, but to compete in the SEC will cost more money, too, for things like upgraded training facilities, recruiting better athletes and bigger salaries for coaches.
If that's how the university's boosters and alumni choose to spend their money, that's their business. But given the federal budget deficit, Congress might want to review the tax deductibility of donations to athletic booster clubs.
Also: At least eight of Missouri's new friends in the SEC subsidize their athletic departments from student activity fees — $5.2 million a year in the case of Auburn University. Missouri doesn't do that now; we trust that won't change.
None of this has much to do with educating Missouri's future workforce, except as successful sports teams sometimes translate to more giving to the rest of the university. With important matters now settled, perhaps the curators will finish hiring a new president for the university system.
A generation from now, most Missouri fans won't remember when the Tigers weren't members of the SEC. The Tigers' days in the Big 12 will seem Precambrian, like leather helmets and Pitchin' Paul Christman or the days of the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
By then Missouri will have embraced the southern football culture in all of its glorious excess.
Maybe the Tigers will play Kansas, their old rivals, in a non-conference game each year. Maybe they won't.
One thing we've learned: If the money's right, Missouri's is in.