Back More Than Just A Game at Missouri

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More Than Just A Game at Missouri

By Matt Smith
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At the University of Missouri, football means more than just a game.

For the past two years, the University of Missouri has been mired in a constant cloud of negativity, both inside and outside the walls of the athletic facilities.

Yes, the football team has posted back-to-back losing seasons after making bowls in eight of the previous nine years, and yes, the basketball program was by far the SEC’s worst over that same time. However, issues run much deeper than losses on the gridiron and hardwood. Missouri’s freshman enrollment has declined by about one-third over the past two years, as detailed in a New York Times story earlier this week.

Dorms are empty, and not just individual rooms within a dorm. Entire buildings are currently standing vacant – with Missouri offering them as lodging for visitors on football weekends this fall.

How could a school with a strong academic reputation and the financial backing of the mighty SEC find itself where it is today? Failure from university leadership surrounding the fall 2015 racial protests are the first and foremost reason, which led to the abrupt resignations of university president Tim Wolfe and chancellor R. Bowen Loftin following a student’s hunger strike. The resignations came two days after the Missouri football team said it would not play the following Saturday’s game vs. BYU if Wolfe did not resign.

Later that week, just a day prior to the BYU game, longtime head coach Gary Pinkel announced he would resign at the end of the season due to health reasons, forcing the school to conduct its first football coaching search in fifteen years. The school ultimately settled on promoting defensive coordinator Barry Odom.

Twenty months later, Odom, a Missouri alumnus, enters his second year as the Tigers head coach with a team that has won just three of 16 SEC games over the past two years. Coaching football in the SEC is stressful enough, but how has Odom embraced the added challenges that come with restoring the university’s image?

“I’m proud to represent our football program and understand the importance I have as the head football coach in leading a program that the University of Missouri and the state of Missouri can be proud of,” Odom said. “It’s statistically shown that went an institution’s football program has success, that helps in every area. I don’t run from that. I embrace that.”

Senior wide receiver J'Mon Moore, who is African-American, experienced the highs of an SEC Championship Game trip as a freshman and the lows of that infamous week in November 2015. Moore hasn’t wavered in his belief in the Tigers and Missouri as a high-level academic institution despite the turmoil.

“I just had to understand that there’s a lot of distractions and be able to put aside the distractions,” Moore recalled. “Being an African-American on campus, I haven’t gone through any bad experiences. Winning could definitely bring back some of the decline that we’ve had and are facing right now.”

Football is big business, and it’s only going to get bigger. But is football powerful enough to affect the academic prestige of a university? Look no further than Alabama, who saw applications rise sharply in both quantity and quality after Nick Saban brought the Crimson Tide to the top of the college football world at the beginning of this decade. The university saw a 0.25 points increase in freshmen average high school GPA and a 58 percent enrollment increase from 2006 to 2016, per the New York Times.
The University of Alabama did not have the same political issues that Missouri has faced, but the point is that football can change a university’s stature. Do the Tigers player believe their own return to SEC and national relevance could help right the wrongs with which Missouri has dealt?

“Missouri’s a great place,” junior quarterback Drew Lock said. “I love Missouri. When we win football games this year, I think enrollment will go up.”

Fiery linebacker Eric Beisel echoed Lock’s sentiments.

“Football has that power,” Beisel said. “Football has that amount of influence – the SEC, especially. It just means so much more here - the responsibility that it carries playing in this league. We’ve sold more tickets to this point this year than at any point last year or the year before. The enrollment numbers might not be there, but everyone is definitely excited for the football season.”

Can Missouri return to the days of 2013 when the Tigers won the SEC East and were a game away from playing for the national title? Beisel was on the team as a redshirt during that season and is using the strengths of that group in developing the 2017 Tigers.

“There was so much leadership when I got here in 2013,” Beisel said. “So much pride, so much passion for Missouri football. What we’re doing leadership-wise is modeling it off of the 2013 team.”

Missouri has a long way to go to make the campus and the football program feel like it’s still 2013. The Tigers players know that they can’t solve every issue at their university, but also that they’re in a unique position where winning something as simple as a football game can drum up enthusiasm within alumni, students, and most importantly, prospective students.

The current SEC mantra is that “It Just Means More” – a slogan that is mocked on a daily basis on various social media platforms. But when a football team has the power to affect a university’s well-being, as it did at Alabama and it now does with Missouri, it’s hard to argue with its validity.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.