Missouri’s football success great for program as well as student body

COLUMBIA, Mo. – There’s a cry of “We’re No. 1” on campus, and it has nothing to do with Missouri’s renowned journalism school.

A football team reduced to mediocrity for decades now flirts with a chance at the national title. The success on the field seems contagious.

The admissions office reports a 20 percent increase in undergraduate applications. Development officers find donors more receptive to opening their wallets. The alumni association hears from forgotten graduates eager to reconnect with their alma mater.

“This is uncharted territory,” said Barbara Rupp, admissions director at a school still referred to by many in the state by its regional designation, the University of Missouri-Columbia.

This football designation is downright startling. Missouri has an 11-1 record and is No. 1 in both The Associated Press and BCS polls after defeating archrival Kansas last week to win the Big 12 North and earn a trip to the conference championship game in San Antonio on Saturday.

A victory over No. 9 Oklahoma, the only team to beat Missouri this season, would earn the Tigers a trip to the BCS championship game on Jan. 7 in New Orleans.

Rupp cautioned that it’s difficult to determine whether the surge in interest by high school seniors is tied to the football team.

Admissions officers, economists and other researchers have wondered about that question since at least 1984. That’s when Doug Flutie’s desperation heave sent Boston College to a riveting victory over Miami a day after Thanksgiving.

The dramatics supposedly led to a large increase in applications at Boston College the next year, but the long-term influence on other aspects of college life – coined the Flutie effect – is still debated.

Still, there’s no doubt the Missouri campus is reveling over its moment in the spotlight. There has not been this kind of success since coaching great Dan Devine roamed the sidelines four decades ago.

Across the country, alumni in far-flung cities such as Miami, Phoenix, Seattle and Los Angeles gathered en masse to watch the 36-28 defeat of Kansas – then ranked No. 2 – in one of college football’s oldest rivalries.

More than 300 Tiger faithful attended the Los Angeles watch party, with an additional 100-plus cheering in Phoenix, said Todd McCubbin, executive director of the Missouri Alumni Association.

“We’re hearing that wave across the country,” he said. “It’s happened throughout the season, but now it’s really building to a crescendo.”

Campus fundraisers are also taking advantage of Missouri’s newfound football prowess. While it’s still too early to directly link any hefty donations to the surprising season, administrators say the winning climate certainly helps cultivate donors.

“Being No. 1 in football is great for fundraising,” said Beth Hammock, the school’s director of development external relations. “Everybody’s excited when they hear a Mizzou person on the phone.”

School spokesman Christian Basi put it more bluntly: “When people feel happy, they send money.”

Yesterday, the campus buzz surrounded the release of this week’s Sports Illustrated, featuring quarterback and Heisman Trophy contender Chase Daniel on the cover.

Students snapped up the magazine from the campus bookstore, which ordered 1,200 copies – more than 100 times its typical weekly allotment. The big order even eclipsed the store’s usual best-seller, Cosmopolitan magazine, which sells 500 copies each week.

At the journalism school, the nation’s oldest and approaching its 100th anniversary, faculty have long been accustomed to interest from students and professionals across the country and the world.

Yet when Brian Brooks, associate dean and professor, fields calls from prospective students and their parents these days, football invariably becomes part of the discussion. After 33 years on the faculty, that’s a first, he said.

“This year, none of those conversations end without the football team coming up,” he said. “And I’m not the one bringing it up.”

Rupp, the admissions director, said football allows academic recruiters to “get a foot in the door” and sell the university’s other attributes. Even before this year, campus enrollment at the 28,000-student school has steadily increased at a clip of 2 percent to 5 percent annually.

She added that Missouri’s success at attracting “high-ability” students – those scoring 30 or higher on the ACT college entrance exam – extends well beyond any perceived spillover from sports. This year, applications from that coveted demographic have increased 90 percent, Rupp said.