COLUMBIA — As I stood in the back of the crowd Sunday and listened to the love fest marking our university’s abandonment of a century of tradition, I found it almost impossible to maintain my skepticism about the new union with the Old Confederacy Conference.
Almost impossible, but not quite. I couldn’t help recalling the old saying, be careful what you wish for.
The excitement was certainly compelling. There on the temporary stage in the recently remodeled student center was my boss, Chancellor Brady Deaton, acting as ebullient as I’ve ever seen him.
This marriage made in Birmingham was “appropriate, timely and headed in the right direction,” he enthused. It was the result of “a thoughtful and deliberate process.”
A little later, when the celebration gave way to a press conference, he answered a journalist’s question by explaining that MU was “looking for long-term stability and financial security.” His tone switched from excited to regretful when he noted the “continuing instability” in the No Longer Big 12.
He might have added, I thought, that our athletics department was sick of playing third fiddle to Texas and Oklahoma. He might have said the last straw for him was being talked over and pushed around by OU President David Boren.
Senator Boren didn’t make it to Sunday’s symbolic exchange of football helmets; but University of Florida President Bernie Machen did.
He’s also chairman of the Southeastern Conference, as the Old Confederacy prefers to be called. Welcoming and gracious, he dismissed any speculation that Missouri’s culture wouldn’t fit with the culture of our new playmates.
That’s what has me at least a little worried. The culture of the SEC, when it comes to sports, is fanaticism. Did you see that Alabama-LSU game on television last week?
Remember when an Alabama fan deliberately poisoned the iconic trees on Auburn’s campus? And speaking of Auburn, you probably recall how the father of that star quarterback tried to auction off his son’s services before the lad led those Tigers to the national championship last year.
Have you ever seen the world’s largest outdoor cocktail party, aka the Georgia-Florida football game?
These folks make our little Border War with KU look like a quick game of patty-cake.
Which brings to mind another old saying: When they say it’s not about the money, it’s about the money. In this case, we’ll be talking serious money.
When it comes to academics, we can hold our own with any SEC institution except maybe Vanderbilt. In fact, a former student consoled me this week with the observation that while we may get whipped on the playing field, we’ll be No. 1 in journalism schools. Of course, Florida might dispute that, but never mind.
In funding for athletics, it’s a different story. We’re near the bottom of the pack.
As you’ve probably heard, our university is quietly preparing for a fundraising drive with a goal somewhere north of $1 billion. The number most often mentioned as the athletics department’s share has been $160 million, but an insider tells me that’s far too low.
Mike Alden, our perpetually optimistic athletics director, said Sunday that the new membership will require MU “to step up our game.”
He didn’t mean only recruiting stronger, faster athletes. He meant, I’m sure, recruiting stronger donors who’ll be faster in coming across with big – really big – bucks.
We’ve got to have new luxury boxes above the east stands of the football stadium. That’s just for starters. The real resource gap is in the nonrevenue sports.
A friend who raises money for MU predicts there won’t be much competition for funds between the athletics and academic arms. The big sports donors are in it for entertainment, he said, while the significant money for academics is more philanthropic.
Most donors to athletics are delirious about the change of allegiance, but there’s major “fence mending” to be done among the Kansas City-area philanthropists, he added.
I hope you see, and some of you may even share, my concern. Big-time college athletics is already more influential than it should be. Mike Alden likes to describe our athletics program as “the front porch” of the university.
In the SEC, athletics is more like the front lawn, complete with Olympic-sized swimming pool and a BMW in the four-car garage. Inside the academic house, however, the roof is leaking and the sheriff is hauling off the furniture.
Our former conference home was no paradise. As a loyal alum, I hope this is a move in the right direction. I’m just not as sure as our leaders seem to be.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.