Maybe the most maddening aspect of both coaching and fandom is that the ‘when’ matters, and you have very little control over it. You don’t know when your state is going to produce a certain amazing crop of blue-chippers, and you don’t know when conference realignment is going to pop up, but you have to hope you’re at your best when it does.
If you’re an Alabama football or Kentucky basketball, that doesn’t really matter. You’ve got history on your side, and you’re always just a single good hire away from being great. But for most of the rest of us, you can’t always be on your game. You just have to hope to make it count when you are.
We’ve seen the downside of “when” plenty in terms of recruiting. Until Michael Porter Jr. came to town, Mizzou’s timing of program quality with nearby talent was hilariously awful in the 2000s. And of course, the football program is swimming against the current this year, having won nine games in two years as the best senior class in decades goes through the recruiting process.
A few years ago, however, Mizzou’s timing was absolutely perfect.
In this week’s Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody, Godfrey and I had SB Nation’s Matt Brown on to discuss his new book, What If?. It is basically a look at things that almost happened in college football that could have changed everything we know about the sport.
One of the book topics we really latched onto in the podcast was the near-creation of the Metro Conference in the late-1980s and early-1990s. With help from Raycom Sports, the conference, which already existed in basketball, nearly put together a lineup that looked something like this:
(Penn State was initially involved here, too.)
I love that Matt delved into this topic because it’s long blown my mind. We came closer than you think to having a 16-team super-conference in about 1990, one that featured three massive powerhouses (FSU, Miami, Penn State) and a bunch of teams that had rather recently contended for a national title (BC, Pitt, Syracuse, West Virginia).
At this point, the Big Ten was about to move to 11 teams, but conferences still mostly lived in the eight- to 10-team range. The SEC wouldn’t expand to 12 teams until 1992, and the Big 12 wouldn’t get going until 1996. The Metro wouldn’t have planted a flag at 12 teams; it would have gone all the way to 16.
It’s incredible to think about how other conferences may have responded.
- Maybe the SEC adds Clemson instead of South Carolina and sticks to 12 teams (with the continued addition of Arkansas). But what if they also move to 16? Who do they add? As I noted in the podcast, it’s probably not Mizzou — the Tigers stunk in the late-1980s.
- Maybe in Penn State’s potential absence, the Big Ten adds Nebraska instead. It sure as hell doesn’t think about bringing on Mizzou unless it’s going to 14 or 16 teams.
- Maybe the Big 8 and SWC freak out a little earlier, and the Nebraska-less Big 8, with OU falling apart under NCAA sanctions and only Colorado doing any national damage, loses leverage in its negotiations.
A lot of things might have been different, and because Mizzou was at that point quite bad at football, the Tigers would have had absolutely no leverage. They would have ended up with Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, and company, hoping for a nice landing spot in a Big 12ish conference and not in some collection of leftovers with Rice. There would have been no SEC, and unless the Big Ten freaked out and began indiscriminately shoveling in schools, there would have been no Big Ten.
Contrast that with 2011. When the SEC officially began to open itself to expansion beyond 12 programs (well, 13 after Texas A&M joined), there were some reasonably appealing options. West Virginia, for instance, had won 60 games over six years in the Big East and presented a pretty attractive alternative. Missouri, however, had won 40 games in four seasons in a tougher conference. Like WVU, the Tigers had nearly made the BCS title game in 2007, and unlike WVU, they had followed that up with two more 10-win seasons in 2008 and 2010, replete with spending a few weeks in the top 10.
There were plenty who still doubted Mizzou at that time. That’s not something I have to remind Tiger fans. But Pinkel had nailed the “when.” As fate played out, the years leading toward 2011 were a very good time to get your act together on the football field, and Missouri had done just that.
Missouri’s five-year SEC anniversary recently came and went, and while that, and the (hopefully brief) downturn of the last two years, have led to plenty of “Does Mizzou fit/belong in the SEC?” radio segments and thinkpieces, it doesn’t matter. Missouri is in the SEC and will be for the coming decades. Tiger fans don’t have to worry about the next run of fallout when the Big 12 potentially falls apart again a few years from now. They don’t have to keep their ear to the ground in the hopes that they find a good landing spot instead of a bad one. And while academics and basketball and plenty of other factors played a role, the biggest reason why Mizzou fans watch realignment drama stress-free is that, not only did Gary Pinkel figure out how to deliver high-quality play to Columbia, Mo., but he did it exactly when he did it.