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Commentary: This ain't Kansas, Toto

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 19, 2012 - “He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

The above passage was quoted by Robert Kennedy when he eulogized his slain brother, Jack. The words speak to the ineffable sorrow of loss and to the reluctant acceptance of passage and its mortal grief. They were originally written by the ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus, who in retrospect may have been an early fan of University of Missouri football.

As regular readers are aware, I have been skeptical of the university’s transfer to the Southeast Conference since it was first proposed. My reservations were twofold: By leaving the Big 12, we would abandon traditions and rivalries, some of which date back 100 years or more.  And I’m far from convinced that our new home in the SEC is a particularly good fit for Ol’ Mizzou.

The border war between Missouri and Kansas, for instance, was the oldest collegiate rivalry west of the Mississippi. I was introduced to the enmity while I was still in grade school. How could a true fan forget that it was the dreaded Jayhawks who blemished Mizzou’s otherwise perfect season in 1960? True, Kansas later forfeited the win because of an ineligible player, but the asterisk remains to this day.

Then, there was Nebraska -- a foe that I personally despised more than Kansas.  I was an undergraduate when the Cornhuskers first installed artificial turf on their home field. My cohorts and I were concerned by the development. Where, we wondered, would their cheerleaders graze?  It was also rumored that the “N” on the side of the Nebraska helmet stood for “knowledge’ in Lincoln.        

Alas, these and countless other memories have now been relegated to the dust bin of history. Bearing in mind Heraclites’ observation that the only constant is change, it is obvious that nothing can remain the same. Nebraska and Colorado had already split the Big 12 for greener pastures, so it’s hard to accuse Mizzou of treason.

I would have been more sanguine about the move if I thought it was in the best interests of the program. But the SEC doesn’t look like the land of milk and honey to me -- at least not for a team that has been chronically incapable of producing a title in a weaker league.

There is an old adage among poker players that if you sit down at a table and you can’t spot the sucker, you’re it. The corollary here is that if you join a football conference and you can’t spot Iowa State, guess who you are?

The traditional explanation for Missouri’s gridiron woes was that the university’s high academic standards kept it from recruiting many of the best athletes. While it is true that an impressive 40-yard dash time has been known to offset a poor showing on the ACT at Oklahoma, the SEC generally makes the Big 12 look like the Ivy League.

Some wild-eyed optimists have suggested that its promising basketball program will establish Mizzou’s athletic creds in the new conference. These people need to stop sniffing glue. In the SEC, there is the fall football season, then winter football recruiting, followed by spring football practice.  Everything else is merely a host of inconsequential student activities.  Basketball is at best a mildly amusing diversion with which to while away February. 

As for SEC academics, nobody really minds if an egghead professor at Vanderbilt happens to win a Nobel Prize for some kind of obscure research. After all, the award might help to convince the parents of a promising high school prospect that the conference institutions are more than mere football factories. All the gold in Stockholm, however, will do nothing to compensate for a four-loss season, which, ironically, Mizzou usually considers to be a successful campaign. 

Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, the university unveiled its new Nike-inspired football uniforms. Everything has been redesigned to comic book-gaudy specifications. Gone is the classic “M” from the helmet, replaced by two different iterations of a Tiger head. I suppose the old emblem was a bit too literate for today’s visual generation.

Indeed, Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell reports that the new duds are wildly popular with the kids they’re designed to attract and counsels traditionalists like myself to chill out.

He’s got a point. You don’t see many geezers playing cornerback in the NCAA.  Then again, Alabama doesn’t even have a logo on its helmet -- just the player’s number stenciled in white -- and that program seems to be doing OK.

Mizzou recently concluded spring training with 12 players side-lined due to injury -- including the starting quarterback -- while last year’s placekicker performed so erratically that he lost his starting job to a red shirt freshman.

On the brighter side, the team is set to take the field this fall in Halloween costumes that appeal to juveniles. Head Coach Gary Pinkel, who has yet to win a conference title during his 12-year and counting tenure in Columbia, is his usual upbeat self. Here’s hoping the coach can keep his chin up because he’s not heading to Kansas, Toto.

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