What once were murmurs of University of Missouri interest in joining the Big Ten Conference have grown distinctly audible.
A dozen prominent businessmen statewide have filed incorporation papers to create, "MU - A National Asset." Ostensibly, the non-profit organization aspires "to publicize the role of the University of Missouri-Columbia as a national asset."
But the group - which includes non-MU graduates and, in advisory roles, MU curators and administrators - are clear about a more tangible immediate goal: To gain membership in the Big Ten.
"We want to be in a position to be prepared if the opportunity arises," said Rich Carver, president of the Missouri Quarterback Club-St. Louis.
Getting into position has meant gathering documentation of MU's academic standing; commissioning a film touting MU's virtues; informal discussions between Mizzou officials and officials at various Big Ten schools; and attempting to arrange a luncheon with Illinois president Stan Ikenberry on Sept. 11, the morning of MU's opening football game with the Illini. Ikenberry, an associate of MU president George Russell, played an instrumental role in Penn State joining the Big Ten. He is unable to attend the game.
"All we're trying to do is protect ourselves for the future," said MU athletic director Dan Devine, who has attended several of the group's four meetings in an ex-officio capacity. "We have to protect Missouri first."
To protect Mizzou, then, chancellor Charles Kiesler rejected last winter a Big Eight Conference suggestion that member schools sign an agreement not to entertain proposals from other conferences.
"That would have violated the due diligence aspect of my job," Kiesler said, adding that it would have been irresponsible to reduce MU's flexibility.
The signature solicitation was dropped, Kiesler said, when several schools - believed to be Colorado and Nebraska - also refused to sign.
The influential group is fascinated with the Big Ten because of its academic prestige and its lucrative payouts from television and Rose Bowl revenues. Members cite MU's geographical and philosophical harmony with the conference, noting various academic indexes and a report by The New York Times calling MU "a public Ivy" League school.
But the reason most commonly given for the attraction is fear of being left in the lurch by a domino effect should another school leave the Big Eight.
Specifically, there are concerns that Colorado is pursuing membership in the Pacific 10 Conference. And if Nebraska left, perhaps for the Big Ten, some feel the Big Eight would be compelled to align with a Southwest Conference, presumably diluted by the loss of Texas, also to the Pac-10.
That set-up "would make you sick to your stomach," one member said.
Contrary to the group's perception, though, Colorado is unlikely to be the first domino. After examining the Pac-10 last year, CU officials determined that travel expenses and logistical considerations made for a poor …