IF YOU CAUGHT THE END OF THE BIG 12 BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT TITLE GAME IN MARCH, you no doubt heard it. "S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!" the Mizzou faithful chanted as the Tigers finished off a 90--75 win over Baylor at a raucous Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. Think we're pumped about moving to the best conference in the land?
Of course, basketball is in the side ring. First and foremost, the SEC is about football, so any excitement is tempered by the realization that we are stepping up into a brave—and bruising—new world. We've heard from skeptics, who suggest that the Tigers have no business playing in the SEC. Granted, Mizzou ranks ninth among the 14 SEC schools in alltime victories—and yes, that's despite ranking first in games played. Our pioneering and Hall of Fame coach Don Faurot left us long ago, four decades have passed since the glory years under Dan Devine, and in the 1990s we made headlines for all the wrong reasons—think Fifth Down (Colorado beat us with that extra chance) and the Flea Kicker (ugh, Nebraska!). "Same ole Mizzou," became the sad refrain.
Yet if you acknowledge that the Big 12 plays pretty good football, this is not the same ole Mizzou. Consider:
• In 2007 the Tigers climbed to No. 1 in the land for the first time in 47 years and, with a spot in the BCS title game on the line, were tied with Oklahoma late in the third quarter of the Big 12 championship game.
• Over the past five seasons Mizzou ranked ninth nationally among BCS schools in wins, with 48.
• Mizzou is one of only six BCS schools to win at least eight games in each of the past six seasons.
The man with the plan is coach Gary Pinkel, a no-nonsense protégé of Don James. Pinkel played for James (at Kent State), coached under James (at Washington) and likes to quote James (at every opportunity). Among Pinkel's Jamesian recitations: If you want to win on Saturday, you have to recruit kids who will play on Sunday. In fact, from 2009 through '11 five Mizzou players were selected in the first round of the NFL draft, second nationally to Alabama's seven.
In the SEC the Tigers will have to get faster and stronger, deeper along both lines. Facilities must be upgraded, Faurot Field (capacity 71,004) expanded. But while the SEC already has a pair of Tigers, don't ask us to change our mascot. We're named for the militia that protected Columbia during the Civil War.
Saying goodbye to the Big 12 means saying so long to a bitter rival. The game against Kansas was the oldest rivalry west of the Mississippi. After meeting for 20 years at a neutral site, we invited the Jayhawks to play in Columbia in 1911 and encouraged alumni to "come home" for the occasion. Yes, Mizzou invented homecoming. We take it seriously: house decorations in Greektown, a downtown parade, and in 2010 an appearance by ESPN's College GameDay that drew an estimated 18,000, a record for the show. That night in a meeting of undefeateds, the Tigers knocked off No. 1 Oklahoma. (Yeah, we scheduled the Sooners for homecoming. How's that for some SEC-style chutzpah?)
With the Jayhawks and the Sooners behind us, we look forward to establishing new rivalries. Opposing SEC fans can expect a warm welcome in Columbia. Order a pizza at Shakespeare's, grab a burger and shoot some pool at Booches (cash only!), stop by the Shack and check out the tribute to Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker (class of '48). And by all means, take in the tailgate experience outside Faurot. Mizzou fans know how to have a good time. We'll fit into the SEC just fine.