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September 6, 2012

5 Questions with Darren Hellwege, Part One

Darren Hellwege, the sports director of KBIA in Columbia, graciously agreed to field some questions to help get us ready for the trip to Missouri this weekend.  To say he has a lot to say about the move to the SEC and what is means is an understatement. In Part One, he discusses the move to the SEC and what it means to Missouri, plus he tells us about the rivalry with Kansas, which dates back to the Civil War.
Parts two and three will follow soon.

Based on what we've seen, the Missouri to the SEC move has been lauded by Missouri bloggers and sports writers. How about the average fan?
It’ll be something we’ll watch develop over time. On the one hand, the average Missouri fan is very proud of the association with the SEC. They know that while the difference may not be as great as some think, the SEC is the best of football and college athletics. I think fans will miss the rivalries of old, especially the Kansas rivalry, and what happens in the next couple of years to either restore that or see a new rival pop up will be significant. Sometimes it’s natural, like a border rivalry with Arkansas (most likely) or Tennessee. Sometimes, it’s just a thing that is set by the action on the field. For instance Mizzou got a great rivalry going in recent years in softball with Oklahoma because the two teams were the top two in the Big 12 and the players didn’t like one another much. In other sports it might be a different team. That’ll happen with the SEC, too…you might find men’s basketball players really hot for the game with Vanderbilt and baseball players fired up for Ole Miss.
I also think the top-level fans who travel to some of the games are very excited about getting to explore new places. I think the game at Tennessee is especially exciting this season for them.
I’m seeing an awful lot of SEC gear around town, t-shirts and what-not. It’s definitely a big deal here.

Does this have anything to do with the possibility that Missouri was facing the Big 10 or nothing two years ago?
That’s absolutely a factor. I think it was the “or nothing” that really scared folks. I remember going from “it looks like Mizzou and Nebraska are going to the Big Ten” to “Nebraska will and Missouri will not” in about a 24-48 hour span. THEN we spent a few days with the insanity of looking like the Big 12 was about to crumble. I spent one or two days in the Alumni Center on campus with the rest of the press corps waiting outside a closed Board of Curators meeting with nothing to do but sit with our laptops watching one rumor after another go flying past. I still remember seeing one website saying that Oklahoma State was for sure joining the Pac-12, which as a Stillwater native who grew up following OSU was a big gut-drop for me. There was a time where it looked like the Big 12 was toast, and there didn’t seem to be a lot of interest from the Pac-12 in Missouri. That was a time nobody wants to live through again. We had a time where it looked like the Big West was a serious possibility. Then, the whole Pac-12 thing fell through and they managed to salvage the Big 12. But I think the fear that short time put into everyone’s mind was a reason Mizzou actively pursued the SEC membership instead of just being happy with the newly-remodeled Big 12. The fact that fans of other schools, especially Kansas, were loudly making fun of the idea when it first arose…”Why would the SEC want Missouri?” that makes MU fans all the more proud of the affiliation.
I suspect there’s more re-alignment to come, and huge changes in store for college athletics. But, the Southeastern Conference is about as stable as can be as far as conferences go, and Missouri’s kind of a conservative place, stability is a big deal here. It’s comforting to be in a conference that nobody’s trying to leave, that everyone knows will be here next year. Can anyone say for sure the Big 12 will be around next year? The Big East? C-USA?

If Missouri fans were given a choice last summer between Big 10 and SEC, what do you think the vote would have been? How about the University proper?
For fans I think SEC would have been the choice although it might have been close. Missouri seems to me to be a Big Ten-type school although it’s more like SEC schools than many realize.  For the University proper, it depends on what you mean. Administration? They get why the SEC membership is a benefit from an athletic standpoint and I think they see it as the ideal situation. Faculty? That’s a different matter, they see the academic side of the Big Ten as being stronger, and the SEC offers less of that, perhaps a lot less. Some of that is reputation, and some reality. I think research and educational bonds will be made that will eventually benefit the school, but I also think the connection to Mizzou will benefit the other SEC schools even more, and that’s something they need to take some pride in. The faculty and administration are often of very different minds on issues like this.

Just how much do Missouri fans hate Kansas fans?
I grew up in Oklahoma with the “Bedlam” rivalry between Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, and this one matches it blow for blow. It’s a big part of life in Missouri, even people that aren’t that into sports make a face when you say anything about the state of Kansas. It has roots in the civil war history, which was very unique in this area. Rather than having large organized battles, the war in this part of the country was a lot less “official” and a lot more un-organized guerrilla actions, what we’d call “terrorism” today. Perhaps best known is the burning of the city of Lawrence (home of KU) by Quantrill’s Raiders, which included (at times) Frank and Jesse James…that’s the sort of people we’re talking about here.
The rivalry extended to every sport, and got nasty at times. One of the worst fights I ever saw at a sporting event took place late in a game between the Missouri and Kansas basketball teams…the women’s basketball teams…in the mid-90s. Tiger teams were thought to have had a successful season if they beat Kansas, no matter what else happened. And the best story came from the 1969 game, at the end of a tremendous season for the Tigers, their 9th win against just one loss, they were in the midst of putting a thrashing to the Jayhawks when coach Pepper Rodgers supposedly flashed a “peace” sign at Dan Devine.
Legend holds that Devine returned half the peace sign back at Rodgers.
The greatest season in MU football history was 1960, a team that won the Orange Bowl over Navy and claimed part of the national championship. The team had just one loss…to Kansas. But, it was later revealed that KU had used an ineligible player and the game was forfeited to Mizzou. To this day, the schools disagree about the record of the series, both claiming the win in ’60.

What are Missouri fans most excited about with the move to the SEC?
I honestly think Mizzou fans have felt the team has not received the respect it’s due in the last ten or fifteen years. Yes, the program was just gawd-awful through the later eighties and part of the nineties. But it has a rich history, and in some eras particularly the 1960s was among the best teams in the nation. Fans remain particularly stung by the team being passed over for a BCS bowl after the ’07 season. Mizzou had been ranked No. 1 in the nation, won 11 games and were Big 12 North champs, with only two losses, both to top ten Oklahoma. And yet, even though they beat Kansas that season, Kansas was selected for the Orange Bowl ahead of the Tigers, who settled for a bid to the Cotton Bowl where they dominated Arkansas. I honestly believe that snub was seen as disrespect by the Big 12 and is a big reason Mizzou didn’t put more into staying in the league and holding the conference together rather than leaving when the chance came. Missouri fans view the move to the SEC as the opportunity to become recognized for what they think the team already is…one of the nation’s strongest football programs. MU has won at least ten games three of the last five years, and has beaten some of the nation’s best in that time…Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska…yet they feel disrespected. Being part of the SEC puts Mizzou into the highest echelon of college football, and fans feel they’re ready to compete with the nation’s best.



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