COLUMBIA, MO. • When he first heard talk of the possibility of Mizzou joining the Southeastern Conference, Gary Pinkel acted like a wise man, not an emotional one. The coach who has turned Tiger football into a significant national program in the Big 12, wanted to proceed on this potential new journey with the caution of an earnest school crossing guard.
He wanted to look before he leaped. So there was no knee-jerk celebration, no automatic stamp of approval. He didn't allow his mind to drift off into how easy it would be to sell Mizzou football to teenaged high school recruits on the value of playing in the best football league outside of the NFL. Personally, he even refused to dream about the possibility of matching his Xs against the Os of some of the best (and highest paid) minds in the college coaching business.
Instead Pinkel wanted answers. All he wanted to know from all the rather giddy folks who were rushing to push Missouri towards the SEC was the answer to one rather poignant question: Were these excitable administrators, boosters, alums and fans getting ready to write a check with their bubbling enthusiasm that their, ummm, financial support couldn't cash?
"When we discussed this going into the SEC, I often expressed if you're not going to be committed to excellence and invest, that you should never go into this league," said Pinkel, who already knew from several of his coaching buddies exactly what sort of heavy lifting is required to be competitive in college football's top conference.
Well, now Pinkel has his answer and it is emphatic and impressive.
When Mizzou announced earlier this week that anonymous donors from Kansas City had written a $30 million check to help jump-start a $200 million master plan for athletic facility upgrades, it was a major statement that Missouri athletics is not messing around. If there was any doubt in my mind about Mizzou making the move to the SEC, it was never about the men and women who play and coach. It was always about whether university officials, deep-pocket alums and so-called rabid fans had any idea what sort of neighborhood they were moving into.
It's a conference that does not mess around when it comes to big-time spending on athletics. I'll let you sort through your own ideas about the propriety of lavish spending on college sports and whether that's a good or a bad thing. But the rules of engagement in the SEC are unlike any other conference in college athletics, and if you're not up to those standards — or you happen to have more intellectual views about the value a state-of-the-art science lab over the late innovations in field turf — it doesn't make you a bad person. It just means you have no business hanging out in the SEC, where they make no excuses and offer no apologies for their ambitious attitudes and fanaticism about sports.
In the SEC, bigger is better. Lavish is even better than bigger. Ginormous recruiting budgets, state-of-the-art stadiums, ardent (did someone say "over-the-top crazy") fan support are all considered to be part of standard rules of engagement. And while MU director of athletics Mike Alden was sure that many of the improvements to the sports facilities would have happened no matter what conference the Tigers played in, he's certain that moving to the SEC had a dramatic effect on the entire process.
"I would say that the speed and the scope of what you saw today has a direct correlation to us going to the SEC," said Alden. "It doesn't mean that everything we're planning on wouldn't have happened, but the speed and scope changed dramatically after the decision to go to the SEC."
When you look at the plans to upgrade the football stadium, the designs show how Memorial Stadium will be transformed from a bland cement structure into a far more attractive and impressive stadium that will have the sort of retro red-brick facade similar to new Busch Stadium. It will have two large video screens above the south end zone seats, expanded loge and luxury suite boxes on the east and west sides, an upgraded press box, sideline seating that brings fans closer to the field and the opportunity for seating capacity that could expand the building to more than 77,000 seats (and perhaps as many as 80,000 seats further down the road).
In the next few years as you drive up Stadium Boulevard, Memorial Stadium will become the most impressive anchor to the steadily improving Mizzou Sports Park. It will look more like a big-time enclosed stadium rather than the undistinguished cement bowl it is now. But now comes the final part of the equation for the folks who wanted Missouri to switch from the Big 12 to the SEC. It's whether or not the fan support will mirror the financial support of the heavy-hitting boosters.
Will Mizzou home games become weekly events now that these new college football brand names like Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Florida and Tennessee will start coming to town?
The days of 50,000 and 60,000 Tiger fans showing up for home games better be over, because if MU fans aren't interested in buying up all the seats for conference home games, the rabid traveling caravans from every school in the conference will gladly fill up entire sections of Faurot Field and create a road-game atmosphere for all those home games.
"I do want (the stadium) to look better aesthetically," Pinkel said. "That is important. But my big thing is to sell it out whether it's 75,000 or 77,000. That's what we want to be able to do .... now it has to be better."