After nearly a decade away, the University of Missouri is headed back to the Big XII Conference…at least in one sport. The school announced on Thursday afternoon that the wrestling program would rejoin the conference it called home from its inception in 1996 until 2012.
The school’s athletic teams left the Big XII following the 2011-12 school year for the Southeastern Conference. But the SEC doesn’t sanction wrestling so the Tigers’ most successful program was left searching for a home.
“I remember ten years ago being homeless for six months,” head coach Brian Smith said.
Smith’s program landed in the Mid-American Conference. All the Tigers did there was win the league championship nine consecutive years while rolling up a 147-24 record in dual meets. That included three seasons in which the Tigers went unbeaten in dual competition, including a 10-0 mark in 2020-21.
“The MAC has been been a great home,” Director of Athletics Jim Sterk said. “We want to thank them.”
But in all that time, Smith never gave up on the idea of returning to the Big 12. Sterk said Smith raised the idea with him in their first conversation upon Sterk taking the Missouri job in 2016.
“In my first meeting with Brian in 2016 he expressed the desires for the program and what he wanted to do,” Sterk said. “Part of that was getting back to the Big 12.”
The official invitation didn’t come until a few weeks ago, early in 2021. That’s when Big XII Commissioner Bob Bowlsby reached out to Sterk and asked Missouri to come back.
“This was weeks and weeks,” Smith said. “Really, this was years. It was something that I never thought would happen.
“But people change, things change.”
The MAC title this year was actually Missouri’s tenth straight conference championship. The Tigers won the Big XII title in 2012, their last year in the league, before departing. Which means Smith will technically return to the conference trying to defend a title he won a decade earlier.
Smith was hired at Mizzou prior to the 1998-99 season and spent the first 14 years of his career in the Big XII before the program went to the MAC. In MAC competition, Mizzou faced Rider, Northern Illinois, Central Michigan, Buffalo, Clarion, George Mason, Lockhaven, Ohio and SIU-Edwardsville. Smith said the Tigers would continue to schedule dual meets as they are able against some of the MAC opponents.
In the Big XII, the Tigers will be reunited with old league foes Iowa State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. The rest of the league is comprised of West Virginia, Northern Iowa, North Dakota State, Northern Colorado, South Dakota State, Utah Valley and Wyoming. Fresno State had been in the league but is dropping its program going forward.
The Tigers have continued to wrestle Oklahoma State every year and Missouri’s Smith said Cowboys’ coach John Smith has always been a proponent of getting Mizzou back to the Big 12.
“They were all pushing for it to happen. They see the big picture that the Big Ten has kind of separated itself a little,” Brian Smith said. “The Big 12 has a lot of really good programs and with us coming in, we just add to that.”