An era ended for Missouri after a damp, dreary, lopsided victory over North Carolina in the Independence Bowl.
When scattered Tigers fans chanted "S-E-C!" after the 41-24 triumph Monday at Independence Stadium in Shreveport, La., Missouri's last game as a Big 12 Conference member was complete. Gone are annual meetings against Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and other regional rivals that span generations. The SEC waits as well as all tests that come with playing in the country's premier league.
Before Missouri moves on, the Tigers' victory Monday offered a chance to mark their progress since the Big Eight Conference and Southwestern Conference merged to form the Big 12 before the 1996 season.
Missouri ripped North Carolina for 337 yards rushing in beating the uninspired Tar Heels led by lame-duck interim coach Everett Withers. Sophomore quarterback James Franklin passed for 132 yards with a touchdown and an interception in a program-record seventh straight bowl game.
The Tigers' last postseason appearance as a Big 12 member included some humor. Hours before kickoff, Missouri's mascot Truman the Tiger fumbled the Independence Bowl trophy during a photo op and shattered the crystal bowl on a concrete floor. A local jeweler rushed to deliver a replacement, and coach Gary Pinkel and his players were presented the prize after time expired.
As Monday's postgame scene showed, the Tigers gained greater exposure in the last 15 years. But the journey was not always smooth. Missouri's time in the Big 12 began with Larry Smith's failed attempt to build a contender before he was fired after the 2000 season. It also included Pinkel's struggle to gain support after producing three losing seasons in his first four years.
But Missouri's time in the Big 12 also included breakthroughs not seen since the program's heights during the 1960s. Former quarterbacks Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert each produced lofty totals and went on to the NFL. There were six straight seasons with at least eight victories, nine bowl appearances, an epic win over Kansas in 2007 to claim the Big 12 North and, a week later, the program's first No. 1 ranking since 1960.
Despite gains, Missouri never earned a conference championship during the Big 12 era. There were near-misses the Tigers fell to Oklahoma in the 2007 and 2008 Big 12 title games but Dan Devine's 1969 team remains the last to win a league championship.
As seconds ticked down in Shreveport, though, the sight of Pinkel embracing his players and assistants on the field offered a chance to look forward. How will the Tigers fare within an SEC East that presents an opportunity to compete for the division lead right away? How will Pinkel's staff adapt to recruit the Sun Belt region? And how will Missouri's facilities evolve to meet the standard created by tradition-rich programs like LSU, Florida and Alabama?
Pinkel and his staff will have much to accomplish. Long regarded as a "sleeping giant," Missouri's program made gains during its time in the Big 12, but it also missed opportunities to earn a BCS berth over the past five seasons with NFL-caliber talent.
Now Missouri enters a different world. Will the program continue a steady rise? Will it grow stagnant? Or will it achieve something between those possibilities?
On Monday, Pinkel and others within his program took the first step in answering such questions by closing their time in the Big 12 with a victory. Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel was doused with Gatorade. Franklin moved toward midfield with a grin.
Next fall, Missouri begins a new life. Its time in the Big 12 is already becoming a memory.