'Celebrating a New Era'

The SEC welcomed Texas A&M and Missouri with a party in Atlanta Wednesday night.

ATLANTA – Howdy.


This was how R. Bowen Loftin, the president of Texas A&M, and the Aggie faithful, in unison, greeted each other in Atlanta Wednesday night at a "major event" to introduce A&M and Missouri to the SEC.

Apparently, the welcoming is a school tradition. Missouri has one too, although it's a little more awkward to begin a conversation with.

"M-I-Z," Missouri Chancellor Brady Deaton began. "Z-O-U," fans shouted back.

The event was labeled, ‘Celebrating a New Era," a line steeped in truth as the SEC welcomes in only the third and fourth new members in the conference's near 80-year history. Hundreds of fans and/or alumni flocked to the J.W. Marriott off Lenox Road to see the big wigs from their respective universities and also the football and basketball coaches.

SEC Commishioner Mike Slive kicked off the event, welcoming in the two schools by speaking about the conference's passion, prestige and pride while somehow leaving out the profit.

President Michael Adams and athletic director Greg McGarity were there representing the University of Georgia. Alabama athletic director Mal Moore was there, too.

In fact, people mingling in the crowd were seen with apparel from: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and South Carolina. And the fact is, the fans from each of the "traditional" SEC schools looked just like the followers of the two new SEC schools. We're used to maroon and white, although those colors usually flow out of Starkville. And we've heard of the Tigers before – but LSU's version Geaux. Missouri's simply go.

A&M brought a live dog mascot – a collie, and well trained at that. Missouri had a guy in a Tiger suit walking around, although this feline seemed well fed compared to Auburn's.

Things are different. But not really. No, things are just new.

The SEC is known, first and foremost, for being the best football conference in college football. And secondly, for having the most passionate fan bases this side of a soccer riot halfway across the world.

On Wednesday night, it felt like Missouri and Texas A&M fit right in. The football part is yet to be determined. But the fans represented well, doing their part in early June to set the stage for what is to come.

"We hope each of you will visit the tradition-rich campuses and see first hand a Saturday game ‘Between the Hedges,' " Slive told the crowd. "A night under the lights in Death Valley, a trip to the Swamp and a visit to the Grove just to name a few."

Oh, they will travel. Rest assured, Missouri and Texas A&M fans are eager to see how their teams measure up. The atmosphere on Wednesday proved that. And given the amount of fans from other schools in attandence Wednesday, curiosity is a two-way street.

"All over the country SEC fans come up," coach Gary Pinkel, who has been at Missouri since 2001, said. "They talk to me and congratulate me for coming into the league. They all say, ‘Are you ready? Are you ready for what you're getting into?' "

It may be impossible for any program to get ready for the SEC schedule in one short offseason. The thing is, for all the newness going around now, one thing is assured. The ball will be kicked off in September and the Aggies and (the third team called) the Tigers will be right in the middle of the mess. Missouri will host Georgia on Sept. 8. Texas A&M gets Florida the same weekend. And it will roll on from there.

"I've heard a lot from Mizzou fans about beating Georgia," Pinkel told the crowd. "I've heard that a few times (Wednesday night)."

"It's gonna happen!" one fan shouted.

The Tigers have won 48 games the past four seasons and have been in the hunt for the Big 12 championship off and on during the last half of Pinkel's tenure. The Aggies, on the other hand, don't enter on the same solid ground.

After a 26-25 record since 2008, coach Mike Sherman was fired last December, replaced by an up-and-comer in Kevin Sumlin.

He's already noticed a boost due to the conference switch.

"Now that we market being a member of the SEC, I just want to let you know that it has been overwhelming in recruiting this year for next year's kids, the respect that the SEC has and how positive that that's been," Sumlin said. "We're certainly honored for that."

A hotbed of talent surrounds Texas A&M, where the Friday Night Lights are just as important to the natives as what happens on Saturdays. Sumlin will now be able to sell the fact that his school is not only in state, but also is in the best conference in the land.

Missouri will use the pitch too.

But recruits secured will have to play the recruits signed by Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Florida, Georgia and on down the list. And we already know the results those players produce.

The winners of the last six national championships, the teams in the SEC aren't playing for second place in the nation, much less the conference -- or division for that matter.

So, like commissioner Slive said to kick things off on Wednesday – "Welcome to the SEC, y'all."

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