Tigers deal with distractions of top football ranking

Tuesday, November 27, 2007 | 2:04 a.m. CST; updated 12:03 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
The Tigers have plenty to be happy about after defeating Kansas, but coach Gary Pinkel has everyone “back to work” preparing for Oklahoma.

COLUMBIA — With No. 1 Missouri as prominent and popular as ever, defensive tackle Lorenzo Williams had to maintain his focus in class Monday.

“A lot of girls told me they see me on TV, so it was cool,” he said.

“That can’t be all bad,” a reporter said.

“No, it can’t,” Williams replied. “But I got a girlfriend, so I got to ignore that kind of stuff. I got to be like, ‘Oh, OK.’”

Climbing to No. 1 for the first time since 1960, the Tigers are dealing with distractions both in the classroom and from the media. The national spotlight has shifted more than 160 miles east from Lawrence, Kan., to Columbia after Saturday’s victory against Kansas. The city, once suppressing its anxiety, is now bursting with enthusiasm. MU flags are flapping from car windows, and stores’ marquees are proclaiming “Go Tigers!” Although the Tigers are proud of their accomplishments, they say their focus is on Oklahoma, their opponent in Saturday’s Big 12 Conference Championship.

“It’s completely different from anything I’ve ever seen before,” Williams said.

When kicker Jeff Wolfert went to school Monday morning, his professor couldn’t resist acting like a cheerleader for a moment. “Hope you had a good break,” Wolfert said the professor told the class. “And how about them Tigers?” Then everyone cheered.

When players are walking around town or campus, they say they feel like movie stars shopping in Beverly Hills.

“You can just feel it whenever you go out there that everybody’s looking at you,” tight end Martin Rucker said.

The media are also fawning over the Tigers. Sports fans across the country read about the new No. 1 team on the front pages of sports sections and Web sites Monday.

Those stories will continue to proliferate. The Tigers will be on the cover of the Sporting News this week, said Chad Moller, MU’s assistant athletic director for media relations. He didn’t know about Sports Illustrated. He and his staff were bombarded with media requests Monday. Before coach Gary Pinkel’s press conference on Monday, Moller was joking that his voice mail was probably full again after he had just emptied it.

The media were buzzing before Pinkel came to the podium. Television cameras were packed tight in the interview room. Giant satellite trucks from St. Louis television stations were parked in front of the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex where Columbia’s more modest TV trucks are usually stationed. Sportscasters from CBS, NBC and FOX affiliates stood outside in the twilight, beaming their 5:20 p.m. reports live to the Gateway City. Pinkel stepped out into the cold to join one of them for an interview.

The coach answered questions all day. He was on ESPN’s First Take and chatted with Jim Rome on his radio show and Tim Brando on Sporting News Radio. So many reporters were trying to pipe in and ask him questions during his press conference that he stuck around past his scheduled time to satisfy them.

Even though they briefly celebrated their top status, the Tigers aren’t reveling in it. After Saturday’s victory, the senior captains made sure the pandemonium ceased in the locker room after their raucous celebration on the field at Arrowhead Stadium.

“We were like, ‘Hey, I don’t care what happens after today. This game is over with. OU’s the next game on the schedule,’” Williams said.

But the cheers continued into Sunday evening when the team learned of its No. 1 ranking during an awards banquet. More than 500 people were there. “Everybody went crazy,” Pinkel said.

But Pinkel only briefly mentioned the ranking during a meeting following the banquet. Like he does every week, he stressed preparation. “I know that’s redundant and it’s boring,” he said.

Rucker echoed his coach, sounding like a CEO just taking a brief look at the quarterly earnings. “We get it on Sunday. Everybody looks at it. We appreciate it. We worked hard for it. But after that, it’s just back to work,” he said.

If he isn’t speaking to reporters, working is all Pinkel has been doing.

“I really haven’t been out in public too much,” Pinkel said, laughing. “I’ve been kind of hiding and just working on our game against Oklahoma.”

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