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Mizzou greets SEC with hopes beyond football glory

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COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri football fans' lust for victory in the Tigers' Southeastern Conference opener was squashed after No. 7 Georgia's 41-20 win on Saturday night.

The sentiment away from Faurot Field? More like a hearty handshake than a glaring scowl.

Businesses across central Missouri rolled out the welcome mat for the long-awaited first SEC home football weekend. For them, the points on the board matter less than the clangs of the cash register.

On Friday night, the few visiting Georgians at a rain-dampened Welcome SEC JC" pep rally 30 miles from Columbia in the state capital of Jefferson City were serenaded with the Bulldogs' fight song, which is sung to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

And in downtown Columbia, country-rock singer Corey Smith from the Athens, Ga., area performed at a free outdoor concert Friday, scheduled specifically with Bulldog fans in mind.

"As soon as the (SEC football) schedule was announced, I got phone calls from managers and agents (in the Southeast) wanting to get on The Blue Note calendar," said local music impresario Richard King. "There was an immediate response from folks down there."

A new economic impact study of Missouri athletics by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce and the city's convention and visitors bureau estimated that out-of-town football fans will generate $30 million in extra local spending this year — a 33 percent increase from the school's final year in the Big 12 Conference.

Gone are the afternoon road trips to Columbia from Lawrence and Manhattan, Kan.; Ames, Iowa; and Lincoln, Neb. Now, most rival fans live in cities like Gainesville, Fla.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Athens, Ga. — all of which require plane trips.

That's how Curt Collier, University of Georgia Class of 1992, came to town, flying with two friends from Atlanta into Kansas City, an itinerary that included sampling Midwest barbecue. The Athens native said he's missed just one home game since 1979, and didn't want to waste time checking off a trip to Mizzou from his bucket list.

"This is definitely a must," he said. "I've been to all the SEC stadiums."

Missouri's move to the SEC is also seen by community leaders as leverage to build an expanded runway and new terminal at Columbia Regional Airport. Delta Air Lines recently added a daily flight from Columbia to Atlanta. And Frontier Airlines has announced its own plans to fly to Columbia from Orlando, Fla.

Count Lisa Bartlett, an art studio owner, among those eager to embrace Missouri's new affiliation — and the legions of die-hard fans that will come to town each fall. She opened her North Village gallery for a Friday night street festival that not even a late storm could deter. She's planning another "Art Huddle" when the Crimson Tide roll through town next month.

"We want to give them a unique experience they're not going to get at the mall," Bartlett said of Alabama and other SEC fans.

Georgia fans said Saturday that they appreciated Columbia's warm welcome.

But some weren't above offering a friendly tip or two.

"We'll have to teach you how to tailgate properly," said Jeff Stephens, a former Bulldog offensive lineman who graduated in 2000.

In the months leading up to and following Missouri's move to SEC, school officials emphasized the state's southern side.

Few are more familiar with the school's new peers than Missouri journalism professor Charles Davis, who grew up in the shadow of Sanford Stadium in Athens, earned his master's degree at Georgia and getting a doctorate at Florida.

The Mizzou season ticket holder said he was trying to "wrangle" his way into the opponent's section of the stadium.

"I will be donning my red and black," he said. "Blood is thicker than money."

Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier