Scott Kent commentary: The misery has been long and painful for Missouri

Special to the Ledger-EnquirerDecember 6, 2013 

I am a Missouri True Son: born in the Show Me State (Columbia, to boot) with deep family roots there, graduated from MU (Bachelor of Journalism 1988), a lifelong dedicated and passionate supporter of the school.

And by dedicated, I mean enduring some of the craziest, most heartbreaking outcomes you've ever seen. You know how Auburn has won its last two games in highly dramatic and improbable fashion? That's how Missouri's football and basketball teams have been losing them for decades.

Mizzou's mishaps and gut-punches have been so epic, several have their own Wikipedia pages (Google "flea-kicker" and "fifth-down game").

Tiger fans even have a term for it: Mizzou'd. As in: When that 24-yard field goal attempt bangs off the left upright in the second overtime, we've been Mizzou'd.

Some of those moments of anguish prevented Missouri from accomplishing great things, while other times they merely punctuated the dull ache of constant losing. Although a consistent winner in the 1960s and a giant-killer in the '70s, by the time big hair and Members Only jackets had become popular the program was in decline. Between 1984 (my freshman year) and 2002, Mizzou had two -- 2! -- winning seasons.

Hiring Gary Pinkel as coach in 2001 resurrected Missouri football. He is the reason Mizzou is in the SEC. Commissioner Mike Slive wouldn't have given the Tigers even a glance if the football team still had been logging 3-8 seasons, no matter how many TV sets are in St. Louis and Kansas City.

So now the Tigers are in the SEC title game in only their second year in the league. After the conference last expanded in 1990, it took newcomers Arkansas four seasons to reach that level and South Carolina 19 years.

Two years? Now that's SEC speed.

It's a remarkable turnaround from the Tigers' inaugural campaign in the conference, which produced a 5-7 record (Mizzou's first losing season since 2004), some second-guessing about the move from the Big 12 to the SEC, speculation about Pinkel's job security -- and lots of patronizing comments, from within the conference and from without, about Missouri finding out how real football is played.

Rubbing salt in the wound was the immediate success of fellow Big 12 refugee Texas A&M, which won 11 games, boasted the Heisman Trophy winner and knocked off No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. That highlighted the narrative that Mizzou was not ready for prime time.

Tiger fans felt like the nerdy new kid in school eating lunch by himself in the cafeteria, with all the cool kids sitting at the other tables and laughing at him.

Oh, we can point to an incredible rash of injuries on our offensive line and to our star quarterback, James Franklin, that might have cost us some games. But that doesn't fly in the big boy SEC, where you're expected to suck it up and recruit depth.

No, Mizzou needed more than improved health if it hoped to compete in these environs. It needed an attitude adjustment.

A change in offensive coordinators resulted in a tweaking of philosophy, making it more conducive to the SEC style of play. Equally important was a change in the lockerroom atmosphere and, I think, Pinkel's rededication to basics, and to himself.

It has paid off beyond most fans' wildest dreams. And although Missouri actually has been in better position before -- in 2007, the Tigers were ranked No. 1 heading into the Big 12 championship game, with a win guaranteeing them a spot in the national title contest -- the SEC championship Saturday is in many ways more fulfilling.

It involves the premier college football conference. It erases the pain and self-doubt of 2012. It makes Mizzou fans feel like we belong.

I've lived most of my life in the South (North Carolina, Georgia and the Florida Panhandle). When I wore my Mizzou shirt or jersey out in public on game days, rarely was I even acknowledged by other teams' fans. Missouri simply wasn't on their radar.

Sometimes, being ignored can be the worst punishment.

This season, though, I've been receiving lots of comments and conversation, most of it positive, even from other SEC fans.

It feels like I've finally joined the club.

I just hope we don't get Auburn'd Saturday.

-- Scott Kent is the editorial page editor of the Panama City News Herald.

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