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September 10, 2012"Let me know where I turn," the cab driver shouted back to my fiancee and me, over the heads of two Georgia fans in his taxi-van sometime after midnight on Friday evening.
I had to pause the pleasant conversation I was having with the couple -- the man, actually an Oklahoma grad, and the woman, a Georgia graduate, both made the trip in from California for the weekend. It wasn't their first trip to Columbia, but each agreed that the atmosphere and welcoming nature of Missouri fans were something different than their previous visits to central Missouri.
Before I answered the cab driver, I hesitated. Surely, they knew the reputation of Missouri from one of their previous trips, a repuatation that out-of-town Big 12 fans (and mainly Kansans and Nebraskans) harped on often. I-70, a stretch of nearly straight highway dotted by adult-entertainment establishments and firework stands (and superstands). I really didn't want to have to answer the cab driver's question.
The turn approached.
"This is going to sound bad," I said, waving my arms in a dismissive hear-me-out manner, "but make a right after the porn store."
Maybe this is a case of reading too far into something, or trying to extract meaning and symbolism from a story that began with too many drinks at a bar. But, all this season, I'm going to do just that as I try and experience Missouri's first season in the SEC first hand. For the first time, I'm jet-setting (and car-sitting) across the country for all of Missouri's road games, in addition to my usual appearances in Columbia for home games. In the process, I'm going to do my damndest to relate all the traditions, all the stories and all the changes of the Tigers' first SEC season from a non-football standpoint. We'll have plenty of coverage from kickoff to quadruple-zero on the scoreboard.
I want this to be something more, about the culture and character and crazies of the Southeastern Conference.
Back to that cab ride. I don't see it just as some funny anecdote about the state's reputation (which, by the way, I just see as capitalism). Instead, I tried to extrapolate that feeling -- the hesitation and embarrassment stemming from a coincidental and unfortunate location, moments after out-of-town fans were gushing over the city I called home for six years of my life -- to the start of Missouri's conference schedule.
It seemed to fit. This whole weekend seemed like a big welcome party for Georgia and the SEC. I don't think I've ever seen Columbians quite as cordial on a game weekend as they were until around 4:30 PM Saturday, when I entered the press box to cover the game. It's almost as if fans were hoping for a new start. I'd seen poor and embarrassing fan behavior during my three-and-a-half years as a student in Columbia, where I never had a gameday Missouri football beat. So, I was right in the thick of things.
Yet now fans were presented with an opportunity for a clean slate, a chance to start fresh and turn Columbia, Missouri into Mayberry as they welcomed Bulldog fans with smiles and advice and handshakes. I saw plenty of that, from subtle "Welcome to Columbia!" wishes on Broadway to Missouri fans picking up the checks of Georgia fans or buying drinks at bars for the visitors.
Surely, that didn't happen when Nebraska or Oklahoma or Texas came to town. Maybe a welcoming attitude by the New Guys would help wash away a pock-marked past of Missouri fandom. Maybe it was just striving to live up to this "reptutation" of SEC fans as the bearers of light in regards to gameday atmosphere.
(Which, by the way, is largely hogwash. SEC fans are like Nebraska football fans: "We're the best fans because we say we are.")
Georgia fans did not arrive from Athens or elsewhere as a Mongol horde, as many expected. On my trips through the tailgating areas beginning around noon on Saturday, the only difference I noticed was an influx of RVs. But, the number of fans in red didn't astonish. It seemed like any other good Big 12 fanbase, like Texas or OU or Nebraska. Even in the stadium, there wasn't a sea of red like the Huskers would bring. Georgia fans were largely confined to the northeast and southwest corners -- Missouri officials guessed there have been 8,000 Bulldog fans in attendance, 2,000 more than the alotted tickets for UGA.
That welcoming attitude between Georgia and Missouri fans began to change as kick-off approached. As I walked to the press box, a Georgia fan stood in front of the north entrance to Faurot Field, shouting, "Where is Memorial Stadium? I have tickets to the game, but all I can see is Columbia High School stadium!".
During the game, Missouri fans booed mercilessly when they felt a Georgia defender faked an injury to stop Missouri's up-tempo offense in the third quarter -- a feeling that at least a handful of Missouri players felt, also. After the game, some of my Georgia friends told me how "despicable" that was, as SEC fans don't boo injured players.
Friendly banter can't hide an eyesore in the eyes of a visitor. It may not have been the three-touchdown road win that led some Georgia fans to believe Missouri doesn't belong in the SEC. In the collective eyes of those fans, that chorus of boos for Cornelius Washington was a deal breaker.
There's no way to know for sure if Washington was injured on that play, but without a doubt, the timing was convenient. And I'm not saying I agree or disagree with the fans who booed as he slowly (sloooowly) got off the field, only to return a little while later. But, that exchange showed all the welcomes in the world can't hide the porn stores -- er, the eye sores -- for an expectant visitor.
I couldn't head to downtown Columbia after the game, as I didn't leave the press box until close to 1:30 AM.
(On a related note, it's amazing how much my perception of night games has changed since my days as a student ended. Loved the all-day tailgate fest during college. Now, I loathe them as a journalist. If I could have my way, I'd stick with 11 AM kickoffs every Saturday).
But, I'm sure the animalistic, guttural barking of Georgia fans -- Go Dogs, Sic 'em! -- probably did not get the same reaction from Missouri fans as it did 24 hours earlier. I'm sure the mirthy, Southern charm of Georgia fans ordering pizzas under the pseudonyms of Herschel Walker or David Pollack or A.J. Green didn't make Missouri fans smile at Shakespeare's. I'm sure the Dooley-ville RV parks off Providence and behind the Hearnes Center weren't regarded as a reminder of a new conference.
Instead, all those things were reminders of a deflating second-half loss. The next big-time SEC fanbase comes to town in the middle of October, as Missouri hosts Alabama.
We'll see if Columbia is still Mayberry by then.