Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel sat at a podium Tuesday in Hoover, Ala., wearing a tie with black and gold diagonal stripes. Behind him was a dark blue backdrop with an emblem stamped repeatedly in bold gold type.
More than one thousand media personnel packed into the Wynfrey Hotel for the start of Southeastern Conference Media Days on Tuesday, with Missouri as one of the first of three teams featured.
Pinkel, as well as receiver T.J. Moe, offensive tackle Elvis Fisher and cornerback E.J. Gaines, made the trip, soaking in the mass hysteria of the SEC for the first time.
As SEC Commissioner Mike Slive addressed the hoards of reporters to signal the beginning of festivities, he made it clear that the conference was embarking on a new era.
While Missouri and Texas A&M are only the third and fourth new teams to be added to the conference in its nearly 80-year existence, their ideals fit with those of the other schools, Slive said.
“They support exceptional broad-based athletic programs with passionate fans and wonderful traditions,” Slive said on a video stream of his talk at the SEC website. “They fit. We welcome them into the conference family.”
Pinkel, seated in front of a crowd of skeptical SEC followers in the late afternoon, answered a question that Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin had also addressed earlier:
Can you compete?
“We have a system in place where we do what we do,” Pinkel said on the video stream. “Are we changing the way we recruit? No. Are we changing the way we train our players? No. We believe in what we do, and certainly we’ll get tested."
"That’s fine. That’s the way it should be.”
Sumlin, in turn, left little doubt about his respect for his new conference mates, as well as the uphill battle his team will be facing.
“What's my assessment? It's a pretty damn hard league,” he said. “How is that? That's my assessment.”
Reporters laughed. Aggies fans squirmed.
Of course, those who question the newcomers’ resumes heading into the new SEC season need only reference the six straight BCS Championships that rest inside their conference’s trophy cases. Pinkel says his team won’t enter that atmosphere feeling intimidated or scared.
The Big 12 Conference might not have the recent success of the SEC, but that doesn’t mean it should be taken for granted.
“You get a lot of ‘We're playing in the SEC now, this great league.' I've got a place down in Florida. I go down there sometimes, and people act like we've been playing a bunch of high school teams,” Pinkel said. “We've played in a pretty big league.”
Missouri, which finished 8-5 in 2011 and won a bowl game for the first time since 2008, will open the 2012 season Sept. 1 against Southeastern Louisiana. Pinkel said that this season Missouri is doing something a little out of the ordinary — looking past its first opponent.
“I think that the Georgia game is big. Normally, you never talk about a game other than your first game, ever. But we also understand that historically, for the University of Missouri, it’s going to be a big game,” he said. “It’s going to be the first SEC home game for our university.”
Going into that game and the rest of the SEC season, Pinkel knows his team has a lot to prove. Junior James Franklin will be 100 percent for the opener, the coach said. Fisher will be back after missing the entire 2011 season, and freshman wideout Dorial Green-Beckham will lead a deep core of receivers.
“The only way you're going to get respect is winning games, OK? That's the way it's going to happen,” Pinkel said. “I’ve got no problem with that. You have to prove yourself.”
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.