Missouri in the middle of it all

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T.J. Moe of the Missouri Tigers celebrates a T.J. Moe of the Missouri Tigers celebrates a victory after overtime against the Texas A&M Aggies at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas. The Missouri Tigers defeated the Texas A&M Aggies 38-31. (Oct. 29, 2011) Photo Credit: Getty

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John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and

This latest round of conference roulette is all the fault of my school, the University of Missouri. Whether motivated by real concerns that its Big 12 home would disintegrate around it, or caught up in the baser get-rich-quick lure of greener TV payouts, Missouri's expected leap to the Southeastern Conference -- last year, it flirted unsuccessfully with the Big 10 -- has been a central provocation in the mad scramble for higher ground.

As a Missouri alum, I am appalled. To leave the Big 12 would mean abandoning regional ties that reach back almost 100 years, likely ending the second most-played college football rivalry in the land (against Kansas) and generally straining long-standing loyalties.

Then again, as a graduate of the Missouri school of journalism, oldest in the world and a place where we learned that questions can be more fascinating than answers, this nutty dance is riveting. What a story: Who, what, why, when and where?

The tornado of change has relocated Nebraska from the plains to the Great Lakes region, Colorado from the Rockies to the Pacific coast, West Virginia closer to the Chisholm cattle trail than the Appalachian Trial, Texas Christian (briefly) in the East, Pitt and Syracuse way down south. No wonder American kids don't know their geography any more.

Boise State could wind up an athletic neighbor of Rutgers, Air Force in the same football environs as South Florida. And among the thoroughly disoriented observers is NCAA president Mark Emmert.

"There really was a moment last summer," Emmert said, "when it felt a little bit like Europe in June of 1914. Everybody with their hand over a trigger, waiting to see what the other guy was going to do. It was not the way we would like to do business."

To have my alma mater guilty of the Archduke's assassination, setting off the sports equivalent of a global war in the (theoretical) world of higher education, is a bit discomfiting -- as naïve as that may be.

Emmert, former LSU chancellor and University of Washington president, acknowledged that American colleges have "wound up creating athletics, in the mind of the public, as a proxy for academic status, which is an odd thing." As a young man, he said, his own father reacted to his interest in a faculty position at "a very prestigious university" by telling him, "I never hear much about them."

"What he meant," Emmert said, "was that they didn't play Division I football. My dad was a smart, capable guy, but to him, if it was a great school, why don't they play football? Or, at least, better football."

College football long ago became professionalized, barely connected to the educational process. At a session of the watchdog Knight Commission last week, Boise State president Robert Kustra called it an "arms race" and lamented that, "from the trenches, I can tell you . . . we're at the very low end of the arms race," even as he longed to join the "haves" in securing an automatic Bowl Championship Series affiliation.

Colleges and conferences, Emmert insisted, must be free to make their own decisions about membership; at Washington, after all, he voted in favor of the Pac-10 expanding to 12 schools. But he did admit that the "troubling piece [now] is the lack of thoughtfulness in some cases. Every university president knows that a successful conference is one where they can sit around the table and be able to trust each other.

"I just think there should be more transparency, so we don't have sudden shifts where someone automatically goes from saying, 'Well, we're really happy in this conference and -- oh, by the way -- tomorrow we're leaving.' That type of disruption is very, very damaging to the whole model, and to integrity."

And it sounds suspiciously like some of Missouri's mixed messages in recent months.

So, how about this: If dear old Mizzou is willing to so lightly cut traditional and geographic ties, I propose it join an athletic conference of like-minded universities -- those with the nation's top 10 journalism schools (as ranked by Education-Portal.com, among others): Missouri, Columbia, Northwestern, Syracuse, North Carolina, Cal, Indiana, Maryland, Florida and Ohio University.

It merely would be an added bonus that Missouri's football team should do pretty well in that group.

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