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August 9, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
When Athletic Director Mike Alden announced on Nov. 6 that MU would be leaving the Big 12 Conference for the greener pastures of the Southeastern Conference, the future of Columbia shifted irreversibly. Gone are the days of weekend road trips to Manhattan, Kan., and Ames, Iowa. Columbians will now be racking up their frequent flyer miles and traveling south to Gainesville, Fla., and Athens, Ga. The faded turf of Faurot Field was swapped out and emblazoned with the SEC logo, and the football players who will pace along the sidelines will don entirely redesigned uniforms, featuring the tiger logo more prominently than ever. The changes won’t be restricted to the perimeter of Memorial Stadium, however. With the influx of our new Southern competitors, hotels and restaurants should benefit economically. Columbia (and the state of Missouri, for that matter) will take the spotlight on a national level in a whole new way. But uncertainties have risen as well: What will happen to the wrestling program in a conference that doesn’t have the sport? Has the book closed on the MU-KU rivalry? As football season quickly approaches and anticipation hangs in the air, Alden talks the future of MU athletics as Columbia moves into SEC country.
You said recently that it would take several years for us to really feel acclimated to our new league. What did you mean by that?
I was trying really to compare it to moving into a new neighborhood. It takes you time to be able to understand who your neighbors are, what improvements you might need to make to your house, how to navigate the streets. There’s a unique thing here in that there’s not a lot of history for schools moving to different conferences. You don’t have a lot of case studies to be able to provide as an example. It’s going to take us time to get acclimated to this new neighborhood, to understand what it’s like to go to Gainesville instead of going to Ames, what it’s like to secure hotels in a certain area, what it’s like to recruit in a different part of the country, what it’s like to compete at a different level.
Speaking of recruiting, what do you think that will look like in the future?
I know that there’s no question we’ll continue to focus the majority of our energies on locking down the borders of the state of Missouri. It’s where we live, it’s our home state, and it’s what we should be able to do. The future of recruiting will see us zone in on Missouri as well as Texas, to maintain a good presence there. And then to be able to expand not only into our bordering states but really down into the Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, Nashville, Orlando and the Tampa areas, to really try to gain a stronger foothold in that part of the country.
What are the long-term plans for Memorial Stadium?
Well, we announced June 26 a little north of $200 million worth of facility improvements, the lion’s share of which will be concentrated on Memorial Stadium and Faurot Field. What folks will see is that’s really a two-phase effort. The first phase, which we outlined, was a renovation of the west press tower, an expansion on the east side to include additional seating and premium seating, a new field to resurface and some new infrastructure work. That will actually take our attendance a little north of 75,000. So from 71,004 to a little over 75,000. And then the next phase, which will be the completion of the south end of the football stadium, will get us somewhere between 80 and 83,000 seating, and that will include an end zone complex down there as well. So it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of resources. We’ve had a lot of generous people who have contributed to that. But it’ll show a significant change in the visibility of Faurot Field and Memorial Stadium, and increase the capacity.
What about other facilities?
So in addition to football, we’re immediately embarking on projects relative to tennis, a new indoor golf facility, an expansion of our softball complex as well as our baseball complex.
How do you expect us to fare this football season?
I think we’re going to do well. I certainly know that there are a lot of folks who recognize the SEC as the strongest football league in America. The reality of this is that the Big 12 is pretty darn good as well, and we’ve done really well in the Big 12. There are a lot of great teams in the SEC just like in the Big 12; the Oklahomas and the Texases are among the nation’s elite. The one thing about the SEC is there’s just more of them. Coach Pinkel and our staff have done a great job of building a tremendously strong foundation. We have a group of students who don’t only hope to win, they expect to win, and they’re used to winning. I think that will translate to success for us as we step into the league, and I think we’re prepared to compete right away.
Do you think joining the SEC will benefit Columbia in areas other than athletics?
I do. This was a university decision, this wasn’t a decision made by athletics. I applaud Dr. Deaton and our Board of Curators and others for making that decision. Because I think it raises our profile, it raises our visibility, it raises the number of households that we have a chance to be able to impact. I think it’s going to be a tremendous component for our entire university. In addition to that, the amount of exposure that has almost immediately been created for Columbia, for mid-Missouri and the state of Missouri has been remarkable. To be able to see and to know that hotel accommodations have been greatly impacted, the restaurants and how they’re going to be greatly impacted, the travel industry, all these different types of things will bode really well for the economic development of Columbia and mid-Missouri.
Where do you see Mizzou athletics in 10 years?
I would hope that in 10 years they’re still going to be saying the same things about Mizzou athletics: “They graduate their kids, they do it the right way, they’re socially responsible as men and women, and my goodness, they win at a high level.”
The SEC sometimes has a reputation for bending NCAA rules. Will anything change with MU compliance to help stay in good standing?
It’s important that folks know our No. 1 focus is on doing things the right way with great integrity. Regardless of what conference we’re affiliated with, that’s who we are, and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re not going to change the way we do things just by virtue of the neighborhood that we moved into. I do think that the SEC has sometimes been unfairly characterized as having some challenges in those areas. From what we’ve seen with the leadership of the SEC, I know they’re committed to doing things the right way. That’s been very encouraging to us certainly as being part of that group now.
You recently served as the chair of a committee that changed NCAA rules regarding coaches texting players. Do you think NCAA rules will continue to evolve to keep up with technology?
I do. It had to be recognized that the way we communicate with students today is completely different than it was 10 years ago. So trying to limit our capabilities — to be able to send a text message to a student, to be able to have a student come to your campus, to be able to work with student athletes over the summer — we were legislating ourselves into almost a dinosaur era. What was encouraging to me was to see the understanding from the board of directors and the willingness from them to be able to evolve. It was somewhat groundbreaking, and I think that’s going to set the groundwork for future considerations in a positive way.
Do you know about the status of the SEC Network?
I would just tell you that I know that Commissioner Slive is a tremendous leader, and we have a tremendous amount of confidence in his leadership for all of our television opportunities in the SEC, whatever direction that’s going to take. I know that it’s going to be good for the entire league and good for each individual institution. So whether that has to do with modifications of the current contracts or a different delivery system or whatever may transpire, I’m just looking forward to the commissioner doing what he does.
What do you think the game day experience will be like?
Awesome. I just think it will be awesome. I do. We’ve got Southeast Louisiana coming in, and I know that’s going to be a great opening weekend for us on Labor Day weekend. I’ve just got to tell you, I’ve been involved in some great atmospheres — with Mizzou-Oklahoma, Mizzou-Nebraska, Mizzou-Kansas at Arrowhead — lots of different games and lots of phenomenal environments. But I can’t even begin to guess the type of buzz that’s going to be around here for SEC games. It’s exciting. It’s going to be great for our students at Mizzou, for our faculty and staff, for our fans, and I think it’s going to be tremendous for the state. I’m really looking forward to that very first SEC game.
It’s almost here. You’ve said the SEC plans ahead. Was that a big pull when it came to the move?
I don’t want to speak for Dr. Deaton and the people who made that decision, but I think the thing that was so impressive to us, at least to me being in the room when we were having those meetings, was the fact that the SEC, they looked at things 10 years down the line, 20 years down the line. That was one thing. And everybody was doing something for the greater good, not for their individual concerns, but for what was best for the league. We weren’t used to that. We were always used to being in reactive mode, at least since I’d been in the Big 12, and that was 14 years. It was never a point that everybody was all for one, one for all. And so in all those discussions, with not only the SEC leadership team but my colleagues around the league, to be able to know that here’s a group of people who’s all in — to us, I think that was a significant part of what helped make that decision.
What are the biggest challenges that remain with realignment?
Well, I think the biggest challenge is going to be to continue to try to manage expectations. The SEC, the level of competition, the enthusiasm that their fans have, the level of awareness that people in the Southeastern Conference have for college sports, that’s going to be a constant effort with our fan base. And we have great fans. But I think for us to be able to manage those expectations and recognize that A: we stepped into a new neighborhood, and B: it’s going to take all of us getting to the games early, wearing gold, being enthusiastic, understanding that things revolve around sport in the SEC different than they do in other areas. And to be able to recognize it’s going to take a couple years to get our feet on the ground, those to me are going to be the continuous challenges for us over the next couple years. I think what will really wake people up is when we go to Gainesville, Florida, to Columbia, South Carolina, to Knoxville, Tennessee, and see the enthusiasm and the importance that people place around that being a part of their culture.
Who are you most excited to play?
All of them. You know, it’s funny, I don’t want to say one over the other. I think that each program is going to provide a great opportunity for us, whether we’re going to Kentucky to play basketball, we’ve got Georgia coming in here for football, we’re going to go to Alabama in gymnastics, baseball in South Carolina. Every opportunity in all 13 other institutions — I couldn’t weigh one over the other.
Do you think conference realignment is finally done?
No. I absolutely do not. I think that there’s going to be a lull, which there has been just a little bit, but you’re going to continue to see it happen. Where it goes, I don’t know. The change of the BCS format to go to a somewhat college football playoff with the four teams, I think that’s going to make people step back and look at it a little differently right now. But I still think with television contracts, with continued emphasis on greater exposure, with the move toward a top 60 or a top 70 institutions in the country really taking a look at controlling the majority of college athletics, I think conference realignment is not done.
What’s the future of the wrestling program?
We’re a top-10 program in the country. We’re one that expects to win a national championship here. Brian Smith and our group have done a great job. Now that we’ve joined the SEC, we’re going to be operating as an independent for the next couple years and working hard with the NCAA on redistricting of the wrestling programs, which I think will be great for the future of wrestling. So it’s something we’re going to invest heavily in.
Everybody’s favorite question: Do you think we’ll play KU again?
I hope. I don’t know the answer, but I hope. There’s no data that supports why you have to be in the same conference to be able to play a rival. There are numerous examples of rivals being able to play each other. This is not a decision that should be made in the moment. This is a generational decision. For us at Mizzou, we believe that for the generations that have preceded us to the generations that are going to follow us, it’s important for Kansas fans and Missouri fans to be able to compete. My hope is that after a certain period of time, whatever folks may be thinking from the University of Kansas, they’ll see it to be something they’re going to want to continue. We’ve made our case, we’ve stated our position, and our hope is that they’re going to want to do that. We’ll wait to see.