COLUMBIA — Wednesday’s “SEC Summit” was held in the new Tiger Performance Complex, home of the gymnastics team and the Golden Girls. It was such a blatant bit of boosterism that the Missourian didn’t assign a reporter. I don’t mind a little boosterism in a good cause, and I thought there might be food, so I joined the hundred or so of my fellow fans for a healthful buffet and an even more satisfying pep talk/warning.
Athletics Director Mike Alden gave one of his better performances. He and his warm-up act, Gary Link, extolled the many achievements of Missouri athletes and emphasized the phrase that has become a sort of mantra since last November: “We’ve got to step up.”
Gary, whose unfailing enthusiasm for our alma mater seems genuine, recited recent triumphs. The football team has been to seven consecutive bowl games. The men’s basketball team won 30 games and its final Big 12 tournament. The baseball and wrestling teams duplicated the latter feat. The softball team came within a game of the college world series.
Then he offered the first hint of just what “stepping up” is likely to mean. The Tiger Scholarship Fund, of which I’m a low-level member, has 7,733 contributors, who give $7.5 million to $8 million a year. Pretty good, you might think. Among the 14 SEC schools, we rank 13th.
He passed the mic to his boss. I’ve been a Mike Alden fan since his early days on campus. When I was the Missourian’s managing editor, he won my heart by calling and volunteering to come over to get acquainted. Ever since, he has run a clean and increasingly successful athletics program. I’ve always liked the fact that, unlike most of my faculty colleagues, he regularly attends the semiannual meetings of the general faculty.
He understands and regularly says publicly that his department isn’t the most important on campus. He describes its contribution to the academic enterprise as being the “front porch” that most outsiders encounter before they know anything about the History Department or even the Missouri School of Journalism.
Beginning July 1, when our SEC membership becomes official, our nice little front porch is going to look awfully modest in the company of those palatial southeastern verandas.
Take, for example, the Tiger Performance Complex itself and the gymnastics team it houses.
Before the summit, I wandered down to the training room and was admiring the facility when a stocky, gregarious fellow offered to explain what I was looking at. He turned out to be Rob Drass, the gymnastics coach.
I asked whether this really is an SEC-quality gym. He said it is. Then he commented that Georgia also has a new training center for its gymnastics team. That one cost about $25 million. Mike Alden later said the price tag on ours was $5.6 million. Georgia, which has won five national titles in gymnastics, isn’t even the best in the SEC. Alabama and Florida finished No. 1 and 2 nationally this year, Coach Drass said.
He has a perennial Top 20 team, but he expects to be “in the middle of the pack” in the SEC.
That may be a reasonable goal for some sports but ambitious for others. In football, for example, we’ve never been to a BCS bowl, while Alabama beat LSU for the national championship this year. In baseball, three of the eight teams in the College World Series are from the SEC. Softball: Our team was knocked out by an SEC team. Track and field: Florida won the men’s national title; LSU the women’s. And let’s not mention swimming or tennis.
Of the 20 varsity sports in which Missouri competes, the only one sure to be unequaled in the SEC is wrestling. None of the our new siblings offers it.
Mike promised us an exciting announcement within the next couple of weeks about facility upgrades.
At that point, his performance became passionate. He made clear that the most important “stepping up” we’ll have to do is financial.
The Tiger Performance Complex and the newly laid $1 million synthetic turf on the football field were paid for with private donations, he said. Those will amount to a small down payment on the cost of the football stadium expansion, the new softball stadium and the other expensive enhancements that are rumored to be in the works.
“We have to broaden our base of supporters,” he said. The goal for scholarship donors is a minimum of 10,000.
Mike said he’d be happy with new donors at the minimum level of $50. I’m pretty sure he was lying about that. Sure, he welcomes us low-dollar supporters. But we’re not the ones he really needs.
We’re in the big time now. That means big bucks.
In the coming athletics competition for dollars, it’ll be step up or get stepped on.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.