COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Like any dedicated college football fan, Brian Brooks watches the rankings closely.
"And it drives me up a wall," says the University of Missouri School of Journalism's associate dean of undergraduate studies.
It's only May, but it's getting late in Brooks' world. He is upset at the prospect that the rankings -- those of college universities by U.S. News and World Report -- could somehow keep Missouri out of the Big Ten.
|Gary Pinkel has helped improve Missouri's stock by building the football program up. (Getty Images)|
"One thing that is irritating as a faculty member is people see those rankings and ask, 'Does Missouri belong?'" Brooks says. "Hell yes, we belong."
In the Big Ten, to be specific, out of the Big 12 and into the academic and athletic stratosphere for a university that finds itself at possibly the highest point in its 171-year history. It is a blessed convergence of factors for the school of Brad Pitt, Tennessee Williams and Lloyd Carr that has brought it to the brink, it hopes, of joining the Big Ten. Being on the cutting edge of conference realignment would boost everything from Missouri's athletics to its research to its grant applications to its ego.
As long as it gets in the right neighborhood, mind you.
Forget No. 102. Brooks will tell you the magazine's rankings are short-sighted and superficial. They don't properly weigh graduate studies and research. To him, it's like making your bowl reservations based on the preseason top 25. Don't you have to see your team play a little, first?
"Let me tell you something," says Brooks, who came to Missouri almost 40 years ago, "if you think there's any substantial difference between the education at Penn State and Missouri at the undergraduate level, forget it. You're just wrong."
There's just one comparison. You'll hear them all over this state, from the talk shows in St. Louis and Kansas City to Harpo's, the famed watering hole in downtown Columbia. Mizzou is good, but is it Big Ten good? Specifically, is Missouri in Michigan's neighborhood academically and athletically? Certainly not. But neither does it consider itself worthy of sharing the same conference with the likes of Iowa State.
Missouri's average ACT of incoming freshmen that leads the Big 12 would rank in the middle of the Big Ten, ahead of Ohio State and behind Penn State. That MU journalism school is No. 1 -- in the world. Only five other universities nationally have medicine, veterinary, law, engineering and agricultural schools all on one campus. Missouri's on-campus nuclear reactor produces more radio isotopes for health care purposes than any in the country.
There's a professor named Gabor Forgas who has invented a device called the organ printer. It is what it sounds like. Someday, Forgas hopes to grow human organs.
That's the university résumé you don't know. The other stuff has been figured out, or so Missouri hopes. In the end, all Mizzou has to do is make the cut of the final 12, 14, 16 (or more) that will result from a reconstituted Big Ten. The cheerleaders in the effort don't all reside on message boards. Not only are faculty members like Brooks accomplished educators, they are also fans.
"Hell, yes," is a refrain being heard around Brooks' office, the faculty lounge and university. Since the Big Ten broached the subject of expansion again in December, Missouri has not been shy about its interest. When it comes to the Big Ten, Ol' Mizzou has been the waitress who unbuttons a couple of buttons on her blouse, leans over a table of guys and tells them, "I get off in five minutes."
Oh yeah, Missouri is available.
"Faculty are almost unanimously in favor of going to the Big Ten because of the academic ramifications of it. We keep hearing that Mizzou is a lock," said Brooks, who quickly added he had no inside knowledge.
Just a lot of hope.
Brooks is sounding off because we keep being reminded that Big Ten expansion is as much about academics as athletics. All 11 Big Ten schools are members of the prestigious Association of American Universities. Missouri has been a member of the 63-school consortium for more than a century and is among the top 32 in that group among public universities.
Still, since the December announcement, Missouri has appeared near or at the top of the list of expansion candidates sometimes by sheer inertia. A day doesn't go by lately without Missouri's name being attached to the Big Ten. Brooks and the faculty want it, the governor (Jay Nixon, a Mizzou grad) wants it, but the question remains: Why Missouri?
"The Big Ten is more highly thought of academically than the Big 12," Brooks says. "It attracts better students. It does more research. It's a group that Mizzou has always wanted to be associated with."
But will it?
Over the course of its history, Missouri has had an inflated opinion of itself, at least athletically. In its history, the football program can best be described as middling. In 119 years of football, it is 99 games above .500. It hasn't won an outright conference title in 50 years. If anyone on the Missouri sideline noticed Colorado was getting a fifth down in 1990, they sure didn't speak up in time. The program went 14 agonizing years between bowls -- suffering losing seasons from 1984 through 1996. Even when it hit one of its high points in 2007, getting to No. 1 for a week, something was missing.
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Tied with Oklahoma at halftime of that year's Big 12 Championship Game, the Tigers were 30 minutes away from a national championship berth. Instead, they lost not only the game but were jumped for an Orange Bowl bid by rival Kansas, a team it had beaten by eight points in a nationally televised showdown a week before.
"You're going to play [for] the Rose Bowl, you're going to play at Ohio State," John Kadlec said of the prospect of playing Big Ten football. A color analyst for the Tigers, Kadlec was an all-conference lineman in 1950 before becoming an assistant for four Mizzou coaches.
"It wouldn't bother me one bit. I'd like to see us go to the Big Ten."
Big 12 dissatisfaction is as palpable as sentimentality is invisible. Missouri is a charter member of the old Missouri Valley Conference, joining in 1907. That league eventually morphed into the Big Six, Seven and Eight that merged with four old Southwest Conference teams in 1996. Since then, the union has been, at least, a marriage of convenience.
Missouri's fans sense disrespect when they see their team slotted in less lucrative bowls. They are incensed at the Big 12's inequitable revenue distribution. They sneer at a league that they consider Texas-centric. Maybe true, but also that overdeveloped sense of self has not waned.
While it isn't Michigan, it has been reminded over and over in its own league that it wasn't Nebraska or Oklahoma in football or Kansas in basketball. Missouri has never been to a Final Four. The last BCS bowl was the Orange on Jan. 1, 1970.
Old-timers like Kadlec will admit that if Missouri does make the Big Ten move, Don Faurot might deserve much of the credit. The raw-boned coach from Mountain Grove, Mo., kept the Missouri name out there when it could have faded. Faurot took over in 1935 at a time when the athletic department was $500,000 in debt, a huge amount at the time.
To balance the budget, Faurot played a series of road games against national opponents. Big Ten teams were among those more than happy to oblige. The Tigers played at Michigan, Minnesota, Michigan State, Wisconsin and, most notably, Ohio State. From 1939 through 1949, Missouri went to The Horseshoe nine times, losing eight.
"They never looked down on us," Kadlec said.
Perhaps even back then, Missouri had Big Ten leanings. Part of Faurot's legacy is buried in the back of the media guide. Almost 9 percent of Missouri's 1,180 football games have been played against Big Ten opponents. The budget-conscious schedule at least helped establish Missouri in the national conscience. Quarterback Paul Christman finished third in the 1939 Heisman voting. His coach invented the Split T offense, a precursor to the modern option.
Dan Devine probably brought Missouri its greatest glory, leading the Tigers to a No. 1 ranking in 1960 and that Orange Bowl following the 1969 season. Al Onofrio pulled off some of the biggest upsets in the program's history in the 1970s, but always seemed to follow them up with mind-bending upset losses.
Just when Missouri football seemed to be gaining some consistency, Warren Powers was sent packing after the 1984 season despite a run of five bowls in six years (1978-83). The likes of Pat Dye, LaVell Edwards and Bobby Ross were interested in the opening. But then-chancellor Barbara Uehling chose to observe Affirmative Action guidelines rather than move quickly. Then, as now, schools were allowed exceptions to act immediately to hire a new coach. Not Missouri, which settled for Woody Widenhofer, a Pittsburgh Steelers assistant who had played at Mizzou but whose only experience as a head coach was one season in the USFL.
Hello, 13-year bowl drought.
Current coach Gary Pinkel is the winningest coach since Devine, having taken the team to five consecutive bowls. Two years ago, much of a record freshman enrollment was credited to football's success.
You listening, Big Ten?
The push is on, then, from a preening state university in a largely unremarkable state. Missouri is the nation's 17th most populous state. St. Louis is known for its beer and its birds (the Cardinals); Kansas City for its greeting cards (Hallmark headquarters) and grease (world-class barbecue). Kansas City is the nation's No. 32 TV market. St. Louis is No. 21.
"And dropping," says Stacey Woelfel, an associate professor in the journalism school and news director of the Columbia NBC affiliate KOMU. "That's a city that's losing population and market share. It's not like you're picking up Dallas or Denver."
As for Kansas City ... "That's a KU [Kansas] town, more than Missouri."
Accurate, in both cases, but Woelfel also understands why Missouri is a hot property. The Big Ten Network is the engine that is driving the conference's expansion. Well, that and commissioner Jim Delany's desire to extend his conference's footprint and dominate the college athletics world. Literally.
Don't think of Missouri as a standalone. Think of it as part of a final Big Ten claim when this is all over: We've got every significant media market and BCS program from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Ocean to New England.
In between the state's two big markets is Columbia, a charming college town of 100,000. The state's confederate Civil War leanings are reflected in the city's long-time nickname "Little Dixie." Whatever negative connotation that label had has been lost along with the name. Now the seat of Boone County might forever be known more as the center of an academic, financial and athletic windfall.
Faculty can't wait to start interacting with their peers from the Big Ten. Think of it as getting inside the velvet rope at an exclusive club. One that isn't located in (ahem) Ames, Iowa. Football could suddenly start selling Rose Bowl possibilities to recruits. Call it a push in recruiting. What recruiting foothold Pinkel might lose in Texas, where he has cleaned up, would be replaced by open doors in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
A windfall? Big Ten schools reap a reported $22 million in athletic revenue from the conference per year. Missouri would be there, someday, after buying out of the Big 12, likely buying into the Big Ten and gradually gaining a full share over a period of years. Imagine a bigger, better, haughtier, renamed Big 16: Come for the money, stay for the elbow patches!
Missouri is more or less the last, best western outpost for the Big Ten to extend its reach -- whether or not Nebraska joins with it. The Show-Me State doesn't have to be the biggest or the best, it just has to be ripe and willing. Brooks said that because of a lack of state subsidies, Missouri does more with less than most schools. Athletic director Mike Alden said that in two years, the athletic department will essentially be self-sufficient after paying down some debt.
The lean-and-mean look is perfect for the Big Ten and the BTN. The network's ad revenue has risen an unheard of 30 percent in the past year according to a report last week in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
As his black-and-gold waitress continues to flirt, Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe has promised a "frank conversation" June 1-4 during his conference's spring meetings in Kansas City.
"We need to talk about where we're going and who's on the plane when it takes off," Beebe said recently.
Will Missouri be on board or continue to enjoy its blessed convergence? With expansion looming, geography -- among other factors -- is Missouri's friend. It rubs up against Big Ten states Illinois and Iowa at a time when the Big Ten Network needs new markets. The momentum is indisputable with football on an uptick and basketball ready to welcome arguably the conference's best recruiting class. The biggest part of a recent $1 billion campus-wide capital campaign came from athletics, which raised $157 million.
Missouri, then, is ready for its closeup.
"One of my favorite quotes is from Louis Pasteur," says Dr. Rob Duncan, vice chancellor of the school's Office of Research. "'Chance only favors the prepared mind.' Sure, there is a lot of serendipity in catching the ball to get the winning touchdown. There is a lot of serendipity in discovering a new gene sequence that will make soy beans resistant to worms.
"But it doesn't happen by accident."
The heady mix of prestige and money that would result from joining the Big Ten could be the biggest win in school history. At least that's the sense you get from veterans like Brooks, a mentor to scores of the J-School grads who are now covering this unique event.
"It is about money, but there is some resentment among the fans ... that make them say, 'Let's go, let's get out of this damn mess,'" Brooks said. "The overwhelming sentiment of Missouri fans -- both on the sports side and faculty -- is, if we get a chance to go to the Big Ten, we ought to take it.
"The university has taken off here in the last 15 years. Look at the building that has taken place. ... If they've [Big Ten] done their homework -- and I assume they have -- they'll realize that."
The J-school recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. Duncan proudly said that Missouri was second among all schools in growth of federal research funding from 1995-2007. That research reactor helped create Samarium-153, an isotope that led to the breakthrough drug Quadramet for the treatment of bone cancer. Professor Randall Prather has helped bioengineer a pig with cystic fibrosis in order to help cure the disease in humans.
The expansion process will someday make an interesting journalism study for Brooks and his students. When Penn State jumped to the Big Ten in 1990, the process was so clandestine that Big Ten athletic directors were kept out of the loop. In the modern information age, there seemingly is a speculative fire to be put out every day. Missouri did little to quash Monday's report that it had received an invite to join the Big Ten along with Nebraska, Rutgers and Notre Dame.
All of it has happened before around here. In 1991, a group called "MU -- A National Asset" was campaigning for the Big Ten. The league has resolutely stayed at 11 teams since Penn State's admission, awkward label be damned (Big Ten?).
"It's a group that Mizzou has always wanted to be associated with," Brooks said. "The only thing that held us back is that the Big Ten wasn't ready to expand."
Now that it is, damn the rankings. No. 102 in U.S. News wants to be Team No. 12 with a bullet in the only league that matters.