Senior College Football Columnist

Each unsure of the other, Missouri, SEC civilly enter union


Missouri and the SEC have a surprising number of things in common, except for football tradition. (Getty Images)  
Missouri and the SEC have a surprising number of things in common, except for football tradition. (Getty Images)  

A portion of Missouri's conflicted identity is buried in a little-known Confederate cemetery in Lexington, a small town about an hour east of Kansas City. There are 400 plots or so. Neatly arranged headstones. Anonymous fighters, forgotten warriors.

One headstone sticks out because 150 years later, William Quantrill's grave can still be seen decorated with flowers. Someone somewhere believes the legacy of a murderous Confederate Civil War guerilla is worth honoring. A lot of them root for, follow and/or attend the University of Missouri. Today.

Quantrill's bloody past came to mind Sunday when Missouri formally joined the Southeastern Conference. The state school in a state with identity issues has a new home. For better or worse, the partnership is going to take some getting used to.

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Quantrill is best known in history for murdering scores of residents and burning the pro-abolitionist town of Lawrence, Kan., to the ground in 1863. Some Missouri fans still celebrate Quantrill's bloody ride through Lawrence when the Tigers play Kansas.

How's that for real-life tradition as we make proper introductions?

Dixie, meet Show-Me.

A river runs through it -- or at least is shared by it. Mississippi the river is also shared by Mississippi the state.

Make room at the tailgate for gumbo and toasted ravioli.

Does all this make Missouri a fit in the SEC? Not necessarily. In many ways, Mizzou is merely a warm body in the conference realignment merry-go-round. The university and the state remain conflicted about their identities.

St. Louis leans more eastward with its Catholic roots, provincialism and distinct accent. (In "The Lou," 44 is sometimes pronounced "farty-far"). Kansas City is a bit more metropolitan, definitely a college and Chiefs town.

In the state's booming Southwest, Branson has become a country-western Las Vegas in the Ozarks.

So how does all that disparity fit the culture of the nation's strongest collegiate conference? To be determined. It's going to take a period of years, maybe decades. Athletically, Mizzou will compete at its current level. It's an above-average football program in the Big 12. It will be a middle-of-the-roader in the SEC. And that's OK.

Missouri fans have always thought their team should be better than it is, but they're not obsessed about it.

The Tigers quickly found their place in the pecking order: SEC commissioner Mike Slive put off the formal announcement until Sunday so as not to distract from the two-week hype building around LSU-Alabama. Mizzou got its day, but only after King Football hogged the stage in the South.

Missouri was a border state during Quantrill's Civil War days and remains in a psychological border state to this day. The state grows corn and brews beer. It is baseball in the east (Cardinals) and football in the west (Chiefs). It is home to a prestigious AAU institution (Association of American Universities) whose football team hasn't won an outright conference title in 50 years.

For more than a century, Missouri was a Midwest anchor in the Missouri Valley Conference, Big Six, Big Seven, Big Eight and Big 12. Now it's a western outpost playing in the SEC East Division. Now it may need to grit its teeth and try some grits.

The tradeoff, of course, is that the school has athletic stability for life. Leaving the Big 12 was like getting out of a bad marriage. Who knows when Texas and/or Oklahoma are going to get a wild hair and decide to bolt? Both schools came within a heartbeat of leaving for the Pac-12 twice within 16 months. Understandably, Missouri doesn't want to live like that.

But, for now, it is an SEC outsider.

"I don't think they fit culturally," said Ethan Rault, an LSU senior from Mandeville, La. "I don't know if they have a rabid fan base that belongs in the SEC. They don't have enough tradition. I feel like if they join the SEC they're not going to be competitive at all. They going to be like Vanderbilt. They'll be our new Vanderbilt."

Missouri does have certain cultural similarities. It borders Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas. Folks in the boot-heel region are essentially in the Deep South. They root for the Razorbacks, Vols and Wildcats and raise cotton.

But ask Missouri 23 months ago, and it was a perfect fit for the Big Ten. The governor, Jay Nixon, said so publicly when certain factions became dissatisfied with goings on in the fractious Big 12. One problem. The Big Ten wasn't interested and picked popular brand-name Nebraska to fill out its roster.

To this day, it can be argued that the majority of Missouri fans favor the Big Ten. But that ain't happening. This SEC thing is a marriage for life. The rivalries will be cross-country -- with Florida and Georgia and Kentucky -– not a bus ride away.

If Nebraska can leave Oklahoma and Texas A&M can leave Texas, breaking apart Missouri and Kansas just gets to be a little easier as the wheels of realignment grind on. Like Texas A&M, Missouri made its mind up a long time ago.

Turns out, in the end, the exact landing place didn't matter much. The state school in this border state trying to decide what its future identity would be took the first available opening.

Having traveled the SEC this season and checked the pulse of the conference's fans, the opinion on Missouri ranged from ambivalence to "Missouri Who?" It doesn't seem like the average SEC fan understands why the conference had to expand. It was doing fine as it is, winning five consecutive national championships, possibly going on a sixth.

"I grew up with 12 [teams]," said Trammell Coleman, an Auburn fan from Columbus, Ga. "Why spread it out any more? A&M's a joke. What do they bring? What value do they have to us? What strengths do they have to bring to us?"

"I like A&M. They belong more," Rault said. "Their culture fits more. They have a more passionate fan base, but I would prefer we just stay at 12. I believe we're the best conference in the USA. We don't need to add anymore. We're the best, you can't get any better. By adding anybody we're just diluting our conference strength."

"Culturally, their [Missouri's] people will come to SEC cities, see the differences and maybe some of that will rub off on them," said Lee Feinswog, a Louisiana-based journalist who once worked in Missouri. "It's a great thing for Missouri, but I think Missouri is going to get its brains beat in a lot of sports, including football."

So, welcome to your new home Tigers. You'll be sharing it immediately with two other Tigers (Auburn and LSU). You'll be shocked, some of you, by game day. These SEC fans, they eat jambalaya and fried alligator. They drink bourbon and taunt the heck out of the opposition.

It's a scene that might even intimidate Bloody Bill.

"Coming down to LSU, they can expect a whole lot of heckling, that's for sure," Coleman said. "If they need a beer they can come and find me. We'll be more than glad to treat them like champs."

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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