Missouri’s curators voted Tuesday to ponder the school’s Big 12 exit. Put simply, Missouri’s curators voted — unanimously, FYI — to bail on the Big 12. At issue now is what the school would bring to its new home, which is apt to be the SEC.
Here were pause to note that some folks see Missouri as a better fit in the Big Ten — the Tigers already have a heated basketball rivalry with Illinois — but the Big Ten hasn’t been overt in its ardor to expand. The Big Ten might be happy as is. The SEC needs a 14th member to offset Texas A&M.
The SEC also needs Missouri for another reason: This whole round of conference-hopping has given big-time college sports the look of me-first-and-everybody-else-last Wall Street, and that’s not the look you want in the year 2011. (It’s reality, but it’s still an unseemly image for institutions of supposed higher learning.) Missouri plays pretty good football and good basketball, but that’s not its greatest lure for the SEC.
Missouri is a state school in a state — heck, a region — where the SEC doesn’t have an outpost, and it would also deliver the St. Louis and the Kansas City television markets. (That’s an upgrade over A&M, which delivers the less-prestigious College Station market.) Those are nice things to have, but they’re not essential. Of greater importance: The SEC views Missouri as another vehicle in its quest to spruce up its academic image, which could use sprucing.
If it adds Missouri, the SEC will count four schools among the high-minded Association of American Universities. That’s double from a month ago. Texas A&M is an AAU member, and so are Florida and Vanderbilt. Both the Aggies and the Tigers play good enough football that they won’t sully the SEC’s brand, and the SEC doesn’t need an Oklahoma or a Texas to burnish its standing as the best football league. (Check the latest Associated Press poll: SEC teams are ranked first, second, 10th, 15th, 17th and 18th.)
The SEC has been measured in its approach to School No. 14. It didn’t fall over itself when Texas and Oklahoma were making eyes at the Pac-12. It didn’t so much pursue Texas A&M as it allowed itself to be pursued. Adding a 13th member just sort of happened. Adding a 14th will be a considered choice.
Adding Missouri would do more for the SEC’s image off the field than on, and that’s a consideration a lot of us missed when this whole round of choosing-up got going. The SEC is often regarded as the root of all collegiate evil, but this is one time when the league ruled by football is trying not to act as if football is the only thing that matters.
By landing Syracuse and Pittsburgh, the ACC all but destroyed the Big East. The SEC doesn’t need to destroy anything to ensure its survival; it’s the biggest conference today, and it’ll be the biggest 20 years from now. Mike Slive, the SEC’s commissioner, didn’t always carry water for King Football. He was the AD at Cornell and assistant AD at Dartmouth; he was also commissioner of the Great Midwest and Conference USA.
Slive is 71. He’s at an age where thoughts of legacy loom largest. (Indeed, at the SEC Media Days in Birmingham this summer the hot rumor, quickly refuted, was that Slive would announce his retirement.) He has presided over a decade of massive SEC growth, and now he wants to make sure that growth won’t be regarded, in the cold eye of history, as rampant pillaging.
When Mike Slive leaves this conference, he wants to be able to say, “We tried to do it the right way.” Others will quibble over the definition of “right,” but if the SEC pairs Missouri with Texas A&M it will be harder to make the case that the biggest league was utterly craven in its desires. Those are two good schools. They’ll broaden the base without rendering the league top-heavy. They’ll make the SEC not just bigger but better.
And that’s the key. As fascinating as the notion of the SEC with Texas and/or Oklahoma would have been, it would also have given rise to the charge of overkill. At some point the best league has to realize, “We’re good enough.” Slive and his associates have come to that quiet conclusion. If Missouri is indeed No. 14, the SEC will have done something the SEC doesn’t often do: It will have made a subtle splash.
By Mark Bradley