COLUMBIA — As he watched his assistants raise the MU and Southeastern Conference flags together for the first time Monday in front of Mizzou Arena, Mike Alden cracked a long-awaited smile.
Alden smiled, but he didn't sigh. Relief might be for those merely content with joining what he called the best league in America, but not for Alden, whose goal of moving forward has already lived beyond one confetti-filled celebration in early November.
“As an institution, as an athletic program, I think what (today) means is that we’ve now stepped into a league that’s regarded as the strongest in the country, and that we’re going to have our plate full every day and we’re going to be challenged every day to try to improve our program," Alden said.
The raising of the flag, which took place in what Alden called "Southeastern heat," came a day after MU officially traded out its Big 12 Conference logo for an SEC one. Alden said at the moment the transition became official, midnight Sunday, he was enjoying "Saturday Night Live" with his family.
The process has been a lengthy one for Alden, stocked with the highs, lows and uncertainties that come with changing conferences. The journey included the unrealized possibility of the Big Ten Conference in summer 2010 before striking gold with the SEC on Nov. 6, 2011.
Alden said the trip now moves not just southeast, but up the ladder of the league that has produced the past six national champions in football.
“I think you’ve got to sharpen your saw a little bit," Alden said, citing last week's $30 million donation to the program's $102 million plan to renovate facilities as examples of attaining an appropriate quality life in the SEC.
Although he lauded the efforts of SEC commissioner Mike Slive and the league's members for their warm welcomes, Alden said settling into SEC culture will take time.
"This is going to take us several years to really feel like we've oriented ourselves to the Southeastern Conference," he said.
Alden said he expects the atmosphere at Faurot Field to be unlike anything he's ever witnessed when reigning SEC East champion Georgia visits the Tigers on Sept. 8. He added that he knows acclimating the fan base and university to the game's premier conference will be a challenge.
But as Alden reiterated on multiple occasions Monday, raised stakes have served as his motivation all along the rocky road to a new conference home. He said they consistently fueled the department's major moves, such as the renovations plan and even small day-to-day tasks, such as changing banners in the Hearnes Center.
They might have even had something to do with that smile he flashed Monday as he watched the SEC flag fly high amid SEC-like heat.
“The SEC is our home, and we’re looking forward to being a proud member of the SEC for a long, long time," he said.