One of the ongoing issues in the Big 12 is how the North schools can keep up with the South. In general, the South schools have bigger athletic-department budgets and they are easier to recruit to for most sports because of weather and population base.
Among the North schools that for the longest time didn’t seem like it was really going to be able to compete very well in the Big 12 was Missouri. Not that this was a big surprise, since the school was too often just treading water in the Big Eight from the early 1980s until the Big 12 began in 1996.
But in recent years, things have changed for Missouri. The latest success – the softball team advancing Sunday to the upcoming Women’s College World Series _ just adds to what some Tiger fans are calling the best year in the school’s history. And to really appreciate that, let’s go back about a quarter century.
I enrolled at Mizzou in the fall of 1983 and saw the football Tigers go to the Holiday Bowl. That would be their last bowl appearance until 1997. The football program didn’t just go downhill, it went off a cliff. It became a joke, all the more painful because for so long the Tigers had been a program that – even when not overly talented – always played hard and could scare the “big boys.”
My senior year, the 1986 season, I was one of the reporters covering the football program. Fortunately, my assignment for every game but one was the opposing team, which meant I was usually dealing with the winners (the Tigers went 3-8 that year). Never was I more glad of that than after Mizzou’s 77-0 loss at Oklahoma.
Overall, for many years, MU sports seemed to be either awful, mediocre or good-but-inevitably- snake-bit. Take the year 1990, for instance.
MU won the Big Eight regular-season title in women’s hoops, but then the Tigers saw their NCAA Tournament hopes evaporate (this was before the 64-team field) when they shockingly lost in the first round of the league tournament to Oklahoma. Yes, the same Sooners’ program that shortly thereafter was disbanded briefly (eight days) by the school because it was deemed a waste of resources.
The Tigers men’s hoops team also finished first in the league in ’90 … and then also lost in the first round of the Big Eight tournament. They still made the NCAA Tournament, where as a No. 3 seed they were upset in their opener by No. 14 Northern Iowa.
Then in the fall of 1990 came the notorious “Fifth-Down Game” in which the Tigers – on their own field – were victims of one of the most famous officiating blunders in college football history. Colorado scored the winning touchdown in a 33-31 victory on a “fifth” down when officials lost track of downs and allowed the Buffs an extra one.
It just seemed there was a kind of dark cloud over Mizzou sports. It’s not that nothing good ever happened. It’s just that so many bad/unlucky things happened that they overwhelmed the good. Until the last few years, that is, when good results and good vibrations began to accumulate, and it seemed the skies had finally cleared.
The Tigers football program became nationally relevant again and was even ranked No. 1 briefly in 2007. MU has had success in volleyball, gymnastics, women’s soccer, wrestling, track, softball and baseball. This current school year, the football team went 10-4 and won the Alamo Bowl. The women’s soccer team won the school’s first Big 12 tournament title in that sport. The men’s hoops team won the Big 12 tournament and made the NCAA Elite Eight.
Sunday, the baseball team played in the Big 12 tournament title game, losing to Texas, but is expected to make the NCAA tournament field. Meanwhile, in the biggest news of the weekend for MU, the softball team was able to beat perennial power UCLA on the Bruins’ home field in a best of three series, taking the first and third games, and advanced to the WCWS.
It’s the first time since 1994 – before the formation of the Big 12 – that the softball Tigers, who also won the Big 12 tournament this season, have made the WCWS. To do so as an unseeded team against the likes of UCLA on the road makes this one of the more notable team accomplishments in MU sports history.
But do you notice what sport isn’t really being mentioned much here? Women’s basketball. The Tigers have never made the Big 12 women’s tournament final; the only other school that hasn’t is Nebraska. MU has advanced to the semifinals of the tournament only once, in 2006.
That is also the last time MU made the NCAA Tournament, but that is actually a bad memory. Sent to State College, Pa., to compete on a neutral court against Virginia Tech, the Tigers played one of the worst NCAA tournament games I’ve ever seen a team with talent play. It was terrible to watch, really, because during that game some of the Tigers just flat-out quit. The Hokies won by 31 points, but it looked even worse than that score sounds.
And it seemed to start a downward spiral for the program, which has gone 40-52 overall and 11-37 in the Big 12 in the past three seasons. The highlight in that time was an upset of Oklahoma in the first round of the 2008 Big 12 tournament. Among the lowlights was the Tigers throwing the game away in their first-round Big 12 matchup with Texas this March. MU’s turnovers led to a 9-0 Longhorn run in the final 90 seconds of the game.
Tigers’ coach Cindy Stein is 173-159 in 11 seasons, with three NCAA Tournament appearances. Her best showing is the 2001 Sweet 16. She’ll be back for next season. Athletic director Mike Alden has said that the youth of the team this past season suggests Stein may be able to pull things together better for 2009-2010.
Next season could be a chance to potentially climb the ladder for Missouri, at least among North schools. Kansas State and Iowa State had significant senior losses. Nebraska spun its wheels in the sand this past season, while Colorado really didn’t even have wheels. Not sure if either will be different in 2010 (although at least the Huskers get Kelsey Griffin back). Kansas projects to be the top North team; it’s the most experienced and talented group coach Bonnie Henrickson has had in Lawrence.
So somewhere in there – along with the relative youth of several South squads – Missouri might find a pathway to success.
The thing is, even in the best of times for MU’s women basketball in recent years, there was never really a feeling they were a true contender in the conference. Let alone in the nation.
It’s just not reasonable to expect the Tigers to be in the top half of the conference year in and year out. In this league, that’s not going to happen. But the problem is Missouri has only been in the top half three times in the 13 years of the Big 12. The Tigers’ best Big 12 regular-season finish came in 2006, when at 10-6 they were fourth. Oklahoma was 16-0 that year.
I guess the bottom line is that a lot of terrific stuff has been happening at Missouri, and that’s been proof that the school can compete in this league despite the South’s advantages. There needs to be progress next season that shows women’s basketball can be part of that wave of success, too.