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Spotting The Differences Between Missouri, SEC Easy For MrSEC.com Writer

(MrSEC.com weekend writer Mike Mitchell made a trip back to his home state of Missouri this past weekend.  During the height of expansion mania, he was at ground zero watching the Tigers fall to Oklahoma State in Columbia.  He filed this report on the many differences he noticed between SEC fans and Mizzou fans.)

 

The headline read “2 cities, 2 very different takes on revered game.”  The topic was baseball and the story focused on the cities of St. Louis and Dallas and their reactions to the World Series.  But the article in the Sunday Post-Dispatch could just have easily described college football, with a comparison between Columbia, Missouri and any tradition-rich SEC town.

“There is just a different feel here,” a Missouri baseball fan was quoted as saying about baseball in the Lone Star state. “The excitement isn’t the same.”

As someone who’s spent the vast majority of his life living in Missouri and Tennessee, I know the feeling. The Missouri Tigers may very well become the 14th member of the Southeastern Conference.  But what separates Columbia, Missouri from Columbia, South Carolina is more than just driving distance.

I’ve spent the last few days in Missouri, with time in both St. Louis and Columbia as the Tigers seemingly inch closer to the SEC.  Here are a few things I’ve noticed from my travels.

Friday: I’m in St. Louis and watch a live video stream of the announcement by the University of Missouri Board of Curators giving Chancellor Brady Deaton permission to talk contracts with other conferences.  Just a few minutes later, I’m in my car and tune in local sports radio to gauge the reaction.  One station was discussing Sam Bradford’s injury and whether the Rams quarterback would answer the bell at Dallas on Sunday (he didn’t). Another station was talking Cardinals baseball and whether they could bounce back in Game 3 of the World Series after a tough loss at home in Game 2 to the Rangers(they did).

In the 20 minutes I’m tuned in, I hear no discussion of Mizzou.

Saturday: I head to Columbia for an early game against Oklahoma State.  It’s a picture-perfect fall day, temperature in the 50’s at kickoff and steadily rising throughout the game. Despite great weather and an undefeated and highly-ranked conference foe in town, the game is not a sellout.  The crowd of 64,000 is about 7,000 short of capacity.

There are little things you notice as well.  Not only are the crowds smaller and not as loud, neither are the bands.  SEC marching bands look like an invading army – covering the field from end zone to end zone.  Marching Mizzou started and ended at the 10-yard lines and looked thin and stretched out in doing so. During games, it seems like an SEC band is a constant presence following nearly every single play.  Here, it’s more sporadic, not as loud, less intimidating.

Whether it’s the band or the crowd, intensity seems the biggest difference.  When I’m at an SEC football game, I get the sense it’s the culmination of a week of planning by players, coaches and fans. What is about to transpire on that football field is THE focus of the weekend.  At Mizzou, the people are friendly, supportive, turn out in their black and gold and cheer on the Tigers.  But when the game ends, they move on with the rest of their day and the rest of their lives.  In SEC Country, a loss stings and lingers.  Here, it tends to quickly evaporate.

I can engage an SEC fan in a conversation about a game and I wouldn’t be surprised to get a lengthy reply on the strengths and weaknesses of an opposing team’s particular offensive or defensive coordinator.

I’ve never heard a similar discussion regarding Mizzou football.  I know I couldn’t name a single non—Missouri coordinator in the entire conference but I could easily rattle off a half-dozen or more from the SEC.  Those types of conversations are part of the DNA of SEC football.

Sunday: I catch an interview with Mizzou Tigers play-by-play announcer Mike Kelly on St. Louis radio.  He’s asked about what he’s hearing from fans regarding the move to the SEC.  He says there was very little chatter the previous weekend at Kansas State about the potential move and on Saturday in Columbia, he heard from one fan about it as he departed the stadium following the game.  One.

On Saturday, I chatted with a couple of people about the Tigers and conference realignment.  Each time, I had to raise the issue. Didn’t hear anyone else discussing it. (For the record, one opposed it, citing tradition and the other supported it – citing the outsized influence of Texas and league instability).

Anecdotal evidence?  Sure. Sweeping generalizations?  You bet. Are there hardcore college football fans in Missouri?  No doubt.  Just as there are casual fans in the SEC.  But the larger truth holds. As one small gauge of intensity, go to Facebook sometime and check out fan pages for various universities and their sports teams.  Most SEC schools will have hundreds of thousands of fans – one Florida Gators group has more than 700,000 followers.  The largest Mizzou group I can find has 198,000 members.

These observations come from years of first-hand experience.  I grew up in Southeast Missouri, spent four years in Columbia and have spent the last two decades moving back and forth between St. Louis and Knoxville, Tennessee.

I’ve always found fascinating the differences in the two sports cultures. You can always tell the dominant sport in a particular region by the year-round chatter on sports radio.  In February in Knoxville,   the talk is the most recent signing class and its impact on the Vols roster in the fall.  In February in St. Louis, the discussion centers on the most recent free-agent signings and the impact on the Cardinals roster that spring.

Which brings me back to where I started.  Can Mizzou, like the Texas Rangers, find championship success without tradition?   Can a football-first Southern culture be transplanted to Mid-Missouri? Can the SEC tide lift the Tigers boat?

I don’t know the answers to those questions but from all indications, it sounds like we’re about to find out.

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Where Does Missouri Fit And Where Do Tiger Fans Want To Go?

Last summer, we dove into the expansion game with a series of reports called “Expounding on Expansion.”  We compared 18 different SEC schools in a number of categories — athletic budget, bowl and NCAA tourney bids over a 20-year period, academic rankings and AAU status, population base, television markets, etc.  We then ranked all 18 schools according to those hard and fast figures.

The number two school on our list of “good” expansion moves for the SEC was Texas A&M, just behind Texas.  And if there were a way to take points off for ego and an inability to get along with others, we have no doubt the Aggies would have bumped the Longhorns from the top spot.

Missouri — a school NO ONE was talking about as an SEC candidate last summer — came in right in the middle of our rankings.  The Tigers bring in everything that everyone has now come to realize matters: big TV markets, a big population base, solid athletics, and a good academic standard to please the presidents doing the voting.

But Missouri angled loudly for a Big Ten berth last year.  No wonder.  A university president would love to partner his institution with an academically-respected conference.  And for those who still don’t get it, the Big Ten’s various academic partnerships (learn more here) enable the average Big Ten school to grab about $500 million per year in research funding.  That’s about five times more cash than the biggest athletic budget in the nation.  So, yes, academics matter.

This summer, there are still many Mizzou fans and administrators who’d like to wait around for a Big Ten berth that may someday come.  Meanwhile, MU chancellor Brady Deaton is serving as the chair of the Big 12′s board of directors and he’s reportedly become the key man in trying to hold the Tigers’ current league together.  And at the same time, Deaton and the MU administration have supposedly been chatting with Mike Slive and the SEC, too… to the point that the school received an informal “if your league blows up, come join us” offer for SEC membership.  The Tiger fans on this site — probably because it’s a site covering the SEC — claim that the majority of Tiger fans want Mizzou to move South, not North in the expansion game.

As we’ve stated, if Missouri does eventually land an SEC bid, it would be the first school to enter the league without offering a full-throated “Hurrah!.”  See Texas A&M if you want an example of what a conference wants to hear from a potential new member.

Trying to gauge Mizzou’s interest in the SEC (and Big 12 and Big Ten) is tricky business.  Luckily, Mike Mitchell — my partner here at MrSEC.com — and our weekend and occasional “Overtime” contributor is a Show Me State product.  Asked why his home state seems so divided, Mike made it clear that that’s always been the nature of Missouri.

I asked him to put his thoughts — as a Missouri native and as someone who still lives part-time in that state — into a quickie post for the site.  Here’s his take on the mixed messages coming from the MU fanbase and administration:

 

Where does Missouri fit in all this expansion talk?  Just about anywhere.  And nowhere.  Maybe because it borders so many states (eight), there’s no consensus in Show-Me country where the Tigers fit best. 

Go to the western part of the state and the rivalry with Kansas dominates.  On the eastern side, Illinois is a natural rival.  Where I grew up in the Missouri bootheel, the television market features a CBS affiliate in Missouri, an ABC station in Illinois and the NBC affiliate broadcasts from Kentucky.  As a child, I watched a lot more Kentucky and SEC basketball games than I ever did of the Missouri Tigers and the old Big 8 (the Paducah, KY station used to pre-empt Saturday Night Live to show tape-delayed broadcasts from Rupp Arena).  In this part of the state, proximity to SEC country is closer than you think.  From the bootheel town of Sikeston – population of about 20,000 – you can be in Oxford, Mississippi just as fast as you can drive to Columbia, Missouri.

For that reason, I suspect many fans in southeast Missouri are sympathetic to a move to the SEC.  Ditto for the southwest part of the state where Springfield (the third largest market in the state after St. Louis and Kansas City) is only about 150 miles from Fayetteville, Arkansas. 

But go north of there and attitudes change. St. Louis media cover Illinois sports. Each year, Mizzou and Illinois play a basketball game in St. Louis.  The Illini represent Mizzou’s biggest non-conference rival.

About four hours west in Kansas City, the rivalry is different but the passions are even deeper.  Disagreements between Missouri and Kansas go back to Civil War days and William Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence.  On the football field, the Missouri-Kansas game is the oldest major college rivalry west of the Mississippi. I suspect many fans on the western side of the state are more interested in preserving an old rivalry than expanding to new territory. 

I was in college at the University of Missouri in 1985 when the St. Louis Cardinals played the Kansas City Royals in the World Series.  Because Columbia is roughly equidistant from the two cities, Sports Illustrated sent a writer to campus.  I recall a quote from a sociology professor who said something to the effect that, “St. Louis looks to the east.  Kansas City looks to the west.” It’s as true today as it was then.

The baseball teams remind me of another complicating factor in all of this: Unlike many SEC states where professional sports only arrived in recent decades, Missouri is dominated by pro sports teams. Both Kansas City and St. Louis have MLB and NFL teams.   The Cardinals have been a part of the National League since 1892.  If there’s a fan base in Missouri that can rival the passion of SEC football fans, that’s the group. In St. Louis, college sports receive second tier status. The Cardinals consume much of the media oxygen.

If you’re expecting consensus from the Missouri crowd on what conference is best, you’re going to be disappointed.  For reasons of history, culture and geography, it’s a divided state on so many issues.  Always has been and, I suspect, always will be.

 

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Wilson, Fontenot Add to LSU’s World Series Legacy

BATON ROUGE – Former LSU stars Brian Wilson and Mike Fontenot earned World Series rings Monday when the San Francisco Giants defeated the Texas Rangers, 3-1, in Game 5 at Arlington, Texas.
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(img via bubbaprog @ 30fps) Congrats to former Tigers Brian Wilson, his beard, and Mike Fontenot…

LSU
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Congrats to former Tigers Brian Wilson, his beard, and Mike Fontenot on their World Series win last night.


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Hogs Watching Lee’s Dominance

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For the second consecutive year, Cliff Lee will start Game 1 of the World Series tonight when his Texas Rangers face the San Francisco Giants.

Lee, a former University of Arkansas pitcher, has been dominant this postseason. In three starts, all of which have come on the road, Lee has a 0.75 earned run average and has struck out 34 batters.

You can rest assured current Razorbacks coaches and players are taking note.

“We definitely talk about it,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “I send Cliff a text after every game he wins, especially the ones I get to watch. Right when it’s over I fire one out saying, ‘Congratulations. Keep up the good work. We’re all up here watching you and proud of you.’”

Van Horn said he was most impressed with Lee’s last outing in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series in New York. Lee tossed 8 innings of shutout ball there as the Rangers took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

In eight career starts in the postseason, all of which have come in the last two years, Lee has a 7-0 record with a 1.26 ERA.

“It’s hard to do what he’s done one time,” Van Horn said. “Then if you do it back-to-back it’s something special because you’re usually going to have an off-game. Doing it a third time in Yankee Stadium against the Yankees with it being 1-1 in the series, is pretty amazing. The thing I like is it looks like he’s having fun doing it. I think he’s probably irritating that other team just running off the field smiling.

“It’s fun to watch him pitch. He’s a little bit of a throwback.”

Van Horn said Lee, who will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2011, has had interaction with the program in recent years. In the off-season following Lee’s 2008 AL Cy Young Award, the lefty from Benton came to Fayetteville for his first bullpen session.

“Our whole team was watching,” Van Horn said. “It was amazing just watching him spot it up. That was his first bullpen of the year and he was putting it right where wanted, throwing it 85 miles per hour. It was really good for our pitchers to see and we went to Omaha that year. It’s neat having him around and I just appreciate what he’s done for the university and the exposure we get from them just commenting he was a Razorback.”

Redshirt junior outfielder Collin Kuhn was one of those watching Lee’s bullpen that day. He said it was an experience he’ll never forget.

“Everything he did was so effortless,” Kuhn said. “It was cool to see that.

“It’s good to see our former players come back. It’s hard to get to where he is but it really isn’t far-fetched. If you have the tools you can make it, especially if you’re coming from a program like this and do well here.”

After transferring from Meridian Community College, Lee pitched at Arkansas in 2000. He finished that year with a 4-3 record and 4.45 ERA.

Van Horn said overtures have been made to recognize Lee at Arkansas’ Nov. 27 football game against LSU at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. Lee was also recognized at the Razorbacks’ game with the Tigers there two years ago following his Cy Young win.

Game 1 of the World Series has a first pitch set for 6:57 p.m. Central on FOX.

For more visit WholeHogSports.com. You can follow Matt Jones on Twitter @NWAMatt.

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Bulldog World Series Begins Wednesday At Dudy Noble

STARKVILLE, Miss. – It's World Series time, both in San Francisco, Calif., and Starkville, Miss.
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Two Former Tigers to Play in World Series

BATON ROUGE – Two former LSU baseball players will participate in the World Series with the National League champion San Francisco Giants.
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