COLUMBIA — At the end of one of the most controversial weeks he can remember in his four years with the Orange Bowl, Larry Wahl picked up his phone again.
By then, he had just about heard it all. The questions. The complaints. The flaming arrows spewed in his direction from every medium imaginable by Missouri fans unhappy with the Orange Bowl committee’s decision.
“Are we still talking about this?” said Wahl, the Orange Bowl’s vice president of media and public relations, laughing, but probably not entirely joking.
The subject was Missouri fans’ reaction to the Orange Bowl’s selection of Kansas, a topic that became a centerpiece of college football discourse in the week following the BCS selections on Dec. 2. To the surprise of some, the Orange Bowl chose KU, which ranked two spots behind No. 6 MU in the final BCS poll. Despite the loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, some Tigers fans held out hope for a BCS at-large bid to the Orange Bowl, known for its historic affiliation with the now-defunct Big Eight Conference, of which MU was a member. (MU made Orange Bowl appearances during the 1939, ’59, ’60 and ’69 seasons.)
When the MU bid didn’t materialize, with the spot instead going to a bitter rival, the vitriol flowed fast.
“In past years, there hasn’t been anything that resembles what has happened with Missouri (fans),” Wahl said. “The selections were straightforward, so there hasn’t been anything in recent years. There’s no question, both teams were deserving, and that’s sure to stir passion on either side.
“We’ve received a lot of e-mails from Missouri people. They’re certainly a passionate group, and they feel strongly about their team — as they should.”
The passion was best displayed on TigerBoard, a popular online message board where fans post about issues relating to MU athletics. In the week following the announcement, topics included the cerebral, “The real winner in all of this: the Cotton Bowl,” and the colorful, “BCS = Big Crocka (expletive).”
Some went as far as posting letters to Orange Bowl officials. Members vented and tried to recruit others to do the same to make the fan base’s displeasure known en masse.
“Dear Mr. Wahl and fellow Orange Bowl employees,” wrote someone with the “mizzou fan in the bluegrass” handle. “I am attaching a link to a college football game that occurred just a few weeks ago. Although you and your employees are most likely paid very handsomely to create the best matchup for your bowl game, I think you may have not seen the game between Kansas and Missouri on November 24. If you did, I would be interested to hear your opinion/viewpoint on why Kansas received an Orange Bowl bid over Missouri.”
“If you look at Columbia as a whole, people get wrapped up into the university culture, and the university culture itself is very much wrapped up into the athletic department,” said James Thomas, who is in his first year teaching sociology of sport at MU. “Sometimes, you talk to locals who have never gone to MU, and there’s still an affinity for the Tigers. So when you get that wrapped up in the team, you feel a sense of collectivity with the team even if you’re not playing for them.”
Nick Witthaus, a 1992 MU graduate who maintains TigerBoard, said the reaction surprised him. Given a controversial situation, he said he usually notices a split between those who react aggressively and those who cope with reluctant acceptance. In this instance, he said, reaction tilted overwhelmingly toward anger.
“I wasn’t expecting such a violent reaction,” Witthaus said. “I guess after the disappointment of (the Oklahoma loss), it’s just a natural outcome.
“I was expecting some reaction, and generally you can get a feel if half the people are mad and half the people are like, ‘Oh well, this happened.’ But with this one, it was like 95 percent of the people were angry.”
Todd McCubbin, executive director of the MU alumni association, said he received about 20 e-mails from MU fans confused by the Orange Bowl’s pick. He said he has done his best to educate fans that the Cotton Bowl may be a better destination for MU, considering Dallas’ proximity to Columbia compared to Miami. McCubbin said the alumni association has sold 450 travel packages to the Cotton Bowl.
“We have a lot more people who are experts in the BCS than we probably ever have. That’s a good thing, in terms of being in that mix,” McCubbin said. “Mizzou fans have been waiting a long time for a season like this. Anytime the Orange Bowl snubs their team, they’re going to take exception to that. That’s what they did. For the most part, they’ve moved on, and they’re ready to play Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl.”
Moving on sounds like a fine idea to Wahl. After a week during which rivalry banter leaked into BCS debate, kickoff can’t come soon enough.
“Sometimes I wonder if this decision had been between Missouri and West Virginia,” Wahl said, “if there would have been this much reaction from Missouri fans. I doubt it.
“It will be nice to blow the whistle and kick the ball, that’s for sure.”