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July 1, 2012
I remember it vividly. December 28, 1998. I packed everything I could fit in the back of my car and left my parents' house in Kansas City. Exactly 705 miles on I-29 and I-90 separated me from KNBN-TV, Rapid City, South Dakota and the job I had taken about a month before.
I had graduated from college seven months prior and worked at KOMU-TV in the interim. My last assignment had been a week covering the Insight Bowl, a Missouri win over West Virginia, in Tucson. I flew back to KC the day after the game, gathered my stuff and drove toward my life.
The first thing I really remember is driving across Central South Dakota. For those of you who have never done this, it's a lot like driving across Western Kansas. A turn in the road is exciting. A hill is flat out pandemonium. As I'm looking around I distinctly remember thinking, "What the hell did I do here?"
Missouri, the SEC is your South Dakota. Today, the Tigers turn the key and start that trip.
Today is July 1st, officially Mizzou's first day in the Southeastern Conference. The move from the Big 12 to the SEC, along with Texas A&M, has generally been the biggest story in college athletics for most of the last eight months. It will likely continue to be so for at least a year. At some point, things will settle in. In a couple of decades, there will be a generation of Tiger and Aggie fans who have never known anything but the SEC. But it's not that way now. Today, it's all so new. Some would say exciting. Others would say terrifying. As you drive down that highway, away from the security and safety of everything you've ever known, toward a brand new life that could hold just about anything, it's a little bit of both.
Most of the past eight months, Missouri has had to listen to a cacophony of calls about how it will never survive in the SEC. How the Tigers are jumping into the deep end of the pool and they've forgotten their floaties.
Sure, it's possible. But if we can, let's take an unemotional look at the whole thing. For the past decade, (we're talking about football here because, well, in the SEC, it's football and then about 12 levels lower you get to everything else) Mizzou has been somewhere between the third and fifth best program in the Big 12. Oklahoma and Texas have clearly been better. Nebraska (which the Big 12 can no longer claim either) probably has. Texas Tech has been more consistent. The Red Raiders' lows haven't been quite as low, but the highs haven't been quite as high or as frequent. But either way, Missouri fits comfortably somewhere into the top half of its league over the last decade.
As it transitions into the SEC, Alabama and LSU loom as giants. The OU and UT of the SEC, the NFL-light programs, the programs that don't rebuild, but reload. Then there are Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas, current top 15 teams that have been there at times in the past and look to be at their apex right now. And you have Florida and Tennessee, programs that were once great and are looking to be so again. Auburn is two years removed from a national title, Vandy is getting better quickly, Mississippi State is silently solid.
So, yes, it's a hell of a league. What I find amusing is the cry coming from Big 12 country the last few months. The league's former coaches and players, as well as its media, has screamed about how the Tigers will never compete in the SEC. This is a team that may have been as good as the third best team in your league over the last eight seasons or so. And now you're saying they have no shot? Frankly, that says far less about what you think about the SEC than it does the Big 12.
For the record, yes, I supported the move. I have said many times that in a perfect world Missouri would have stayed in the Big 12, but the world the Big 12 had created was so far from perfect the Tigers had to look elsewhere. But this isn't an argument that Missouri made the right move. It's not an argument Missouri is going to win the SEC. It's not an argument that they're going to be very good or even average. I don't know. And that's the part that is scary/exciting. It just depends on your point of view.
The only sure thing is there will be parts that are both. I didn't make very much money at that job in South Dakota (not something Mizzou has to worry about) and I worked crappy hours. After four-and-a-half years, I got fired. But I met my wife. And we've got two kids. And I now get paid to cover my alma mater and the team I grew up watching. I lived 20 miles from Mount Rushmore and got married in the Black Hills, one of the nation's more well-kept secrets. All in all, it worked out pretty well.
In ten years, who knows how we will look back on Missouri's venture into the SEC? Maybe those Big 12 scribes are right. Maybe the Tigers will look back with longing at forgotten rivalries against Kansas and K-State. Maybe the decision they made will be viewed as impulsive and emotional once it is in the rearview mirror. Or maybe it will be viewed as the greatest move Mizzou has made in its 180 years as a University.
We don't know. Nobody knows. That's what makes today so exciting. The journey has just begun. Take one last look in your rearview mirror, Tiger fans. The place you've always called home is fading into the distance. A new home awaits. Let's start the drive.
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