The date was April 26, 1997. The Big 12 Conference was a mere nine months old, and Missouri softball pitcher Barb Wright had just led her Tigers to a doubleheader sweep of Kansas and the school’s first Big 12 championship.
A week later, Mary Babb hit two home runs to help the Tigers win the Big 12 tournament title, making MU’s early tally of Big 12 championships two.
But for MU, that was as good as it got. None of the 20 Tiger teams have won a Big 12 title since then.
Now, as the Big 12 approaches the end of its ninth season of winter sports, the Tigers’ two conference championships lag far behind the 68 of Texas or Nebraska’s 54. Two is the fewest championships of any Big 12 school.
In athletic director Mike Alden’s seven-year tenure, no MU team has won a conference title.
Alden would not comment for this story, but spokesman Chad Moller said the athletic department was “painfully aware of that.” Said senior associate athletic director Mario Moccia: “Obviously, we would like to win as many championships as possible.”
Reasons for lagging behind
The next-lowest total of Big 12 championships belongs to Kansas State, which has six. An even share of titles for all 12 teams would be about 20.
Moccia said one of the reasons for MU’s lack of production since the Big 8 Conference added Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor in 1996 is the quality of the opposition.
“The movement to the Big 12 has taken us to another level from a competitive standpoint,” he said. “I think you can pick out each individual sport that we offer and find a national caliber (team in the Big 12).”
Often, that is the case. Either Oklahoma or Nebraska has been in the football national championship in four of the past five years. Five Big 12 men’s teams and two women’s teams have made the basketball Final Four in the last three years. Big 12 teams have won national titles in baseball, volleyball and softball.
“If you can put together a team that can win a Big 12 Championship, it’s almost like you’re automatically elevated to … the cream of the crop,” Moccia said. “It’s a tough echelon to break in to.”
But Missouri doesn’t even compete with the best of the Big 12 in most of its sports. MU’s average finish in football ranks ninth in the conference; in basketball, it’s fifth. If those two revenue sports are combined, MU’s average is ninth.
Only four Tiger sports have averaged a finish in the top half of the conference, and, after adjusting for sports with less than 12 teams participating, Missouri teams have had an average finish of 7.618. That’s ninth-best in the Big 12.
Moccia cites wrestling as an example of the depth of quality in the Big 12. MU is ranked No. 15 nationally in wrestling this year but finished in last place among the five Big 12 wrestling teams. The other four are all in the top eight nationally.
“It’s like there’s two ways to skin a cat,” Moccia said. “Did we win a championship? Heck, no. Did we come in last place? Yeah. But we’re also 15th in the country.”
Other measuring sticks
The wrestling team is not the only Missouri team good on a national level but buried in the Big 12 Conference, and Moccia is quick to point that out.
“When ... you’re evaluating the program, it’s like, are we moving in the right direction and are you poised to break into that elite level?” Moccia said. “I think in some sports we are.”
The Director’s Cup standings are a national measure of athletic departments in all sports, based on postseason performance. In the three years previous to Alden’s arrival in Columbia, MU’s rank was not higher than 100. The university has been in the top 60 each of the last five years.
In addition, Moccia said the athletic department measures its success off the field.
“I’m not over here trying to paint just a rosy picture,” Moccia said, “but I am trying to illustrate that I do think that even though, yeah, we certainly want to win more championships, there is no doubt about that, there’s other ways to evaluate how a program’s doing on the whole.”
Moccia said Alden has a “three-pronged” approach to success, composed of academics, work in the community and on-field success.
Moccia also said department success could be measured in terms of budget (MU’s athletic budget has grown from $13 million to $40 million under Alden) and facilities, several of which have been built in the past seven years.
University administration also supports Alden and his department.
“Our athletic program is one of the most vibrant in the Big 12 under the able leadership of Mike Alden, who is both a regional and national leader in athletics,” Chancellor Brady Deaton said. “We are particularly pleased with the facilities and the program development. The success of our student athletes ranks among the very best of the Big 12 and we have a significant number of academic all-Americans.”
The bottom line
Take away all talk of national rankings and other ways to measure an athletic department and the striking raw numbers still remain: 68 Big 12 championships for Texas, 54 for Nebraska, 10 for Kansas.
Two for Missouri.
The Tigers have been close to raising that number several times. In 2003, the men’s basketball team lost the Big 12 Tournament title by two points to Oklahoma. Months later, the women’s golf team came up a stroke short against Oklahoma State. The MU baseball team blew a 9-2 lead eighth-inning lead to the Cowboys in the 2004 title game.
“I think we’re right on the cusp,” Moccia said. “It’s just a matter of getting over the hump.”
Getting more championships depends on several things, he said.
“I think we certainly believe in what we’re doing,” he said. “I think a big component of that is building up the facilities, building up the budget and making certain that coaches have everything that they need ... to win a Big 12 championship.”
Until that happens, Moccia, Alden and the rest of the athletic department will have to live with the stigma of being by far the least-decorated team in the Big 12.
“I don’t think there’s any coaches saying, ‘Well, you know, we’re ranked 15th, so everybody should be happy with that,” Moccia said. “... I think all of our coaches and all of our kids strive to win a championship. It’s just a matter of all those pieces of the puzzle falling into place at the right time.”