The Big 12 never left Brian Smith’s mind.
Even as his Missouri wrestling team won nine consecutive Mid-American Conference championships, the Tigers coach continued to schedule duals against former conference foes like Iowa State. The rivalry with Oklahoma State didn’t miss a beat as the teams continued to meet every year. But even amid lingering reminders of a previous era, Smith didn’t truly believe MU would ever be able to rejoin the conference it called home for more than 60 years.
That changed Thursday, as Missouri announced the wrestling program would rejoin the Big 12 as an affiliate member effective July 1. It ends a brief but successful stint in the MAC that began in 2012.
“It’s an amazing time,” Smith said. “It was a challenge with how our program and the culture of our program, which is TigerStyle, dealt with that and now having the opportunity for a new challenge. We’re going back to the Big 12. We’re very excited about it. Very excited about the competition level that we’re moving into.”
As recently as “a few years ago,” Smith said, Missouri was in talks to rejoin the conference, but the Big 12 never extended the invite.
Talks began similarly this offseason. Rumors swirled in wrestling circles that the Tigers would get the chance to return to their old conference. Smith had talked to Oklahoma State coach John Smith and Iowa State coach Kevin Dresser about the possibility when Missouri visited those teams.
Both were in favor of a reunion, Brian Smith said. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby was, too, and reached out to MU to officially offer a spot in the conference.
“They see the big picture, that the Big Ten has kind of separated itself a little in the sport of wrestling,” Smith said, “and the Big 12 has a lot of good programs with us coming in to just add to that. The last 10 years, 90% of our guys have gone to the NCAAs, so this is a big upside for the Big 12 to add nine or 10 more qualifiers, hopefully 10.”
Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and West Virginia are the only wrestling teams in the Big 12 whose programs are in the conference for other sports. The rest, like Missouri, are all affiliate members for wrestling only. California Baptist will join as the 12th member in 2022.
The move will mark a jump in competition for the Tigers, who went 146-19 as a member of the MAC. Sixteen Big 12 wrestlers received individual All-American honors last year. The MAC had three who weren’t from Missouri.
The Southeastern Conference, where all of MU’s other athletic programs compete, doesn’t sponsor wrestling. The Tigers spent six months in limbo after leaving the Big 12 before accepting an invitation to the MAC.
The Tigers’ return to their original conference offers some stability after the uncertainty of 2012. Duals against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Iowa State will all make for relatively short trips.
The last time the Tigers were in the Big 12, they carved out a 14-5 record and a first-place finish in the conference championships.
Smith plans to schedule nonconference duals against MAC opponents, just as he did with once-former Big 12 conference rivals the past nine years. Missouri as a program won’t deviate from what made it successful in the MAC, even against stiffer competition.
“Really nothing’s gonna change,” Smith said. “We’re still gonna recruit the same kids that fit in the culture. It’s just going to be in different places.”