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Enrollment Down, Mizzou Draws Up a New Play 

click to enlarge Fans root for the home team at Faurot Field.

NICK SCHNELLE/COLUMBIA TRIBUNE

Fans root for the home team at Faurot Field.

On the morning of the Mizzou football game against South Carolina, Sharon Cloud walks out of her room in the Discovery Hall dormitory, eager to start tailgating.

It's been more than 50 years since Cloud was a student at the school. Her granddaughter Kellie moved a month ago to Columbia, where she would like to study nursing. Kellie doesn't live in Discovery Hall, though.

It is Cloud and her husband, Dennis, a fellow Mizzou alum, who are staying in a dorm room with two twin beds, two desks and two bulletin boards — arranged for roommates.

"We thought it would be a hoot to stay in a dorm again, and it's really nice," says Cloud, 71, who worked with her husband, a veterinarian, in his office before they both retired earlier this year.

The Wildwood resident explains that she has two daughters and two nieces who have attended the university. She and her husband were previously football season ticket holders for 30 years.

"I moved into Lathrop Hall when it was brand new and it was sparkly clean and we had open balconies on every two floors and we could look at the stadium," she recalls.

A residential life staff member overhears Cloud say that she'd lived in Lathrop, which has since been torn down. He asks her if she would like a brick from the building.

"Really?" Cloud asks.

The staff member asks Cloud which room she's in, and Cloud, assuming he means as a student, begins to tell him, "Seven-oh—," but then the staffer clarifies that he means in Discovery. Room 303, she says.

"When you come back, there will be a brick waiting for you at the desk," says Andrew Sommer, the financial officer for residential life.

"That's so nice of you!" Cloud says.

Sommer then asks if the couple needs a ride to the stadium in one of the golf carts standing outside the building.

"I can't say enough nice things about residential life," Cloud tells me a few days after the game. The other people I speak with who are staying in the dorms for the game also seem charmed by their extroverted brand of hospitality.

But there's some irony in the scenario. Some of the people who are most excited about coming to the football games and staying in a dorm are also those who are most upset about the reasons the rooms are available: a significant drop in enrollment following the 2015 protests over the administration's handling of allegations of racism on campus.

"I'm very disappointed that the university has suffered so much," Cloud says.

"But I think it's going to respond," Dennis Cloud adds.

"It should, but it will hurt it," Cloud says. She cites a daughter who works in higher education: "She said things like these are very hard to overcome because you lose your momentum."

"We better go," Dennis says.

There are still more than six hours until kick-off.

click to enlarge Jonathan Butler, the grad student at the head of the protest movement, speaks with other members of Concerned Student 1950 in November 2015. - NICK SCHNELLE/COLUMBIA TRIBUNE
  • NICK SCHNELLE/COLUMBIA TRIBUNE
  • Jonathan Butler, the grad student at the head of the protest movement, speaks with other members of Concerned Student 1950 in November 2015.

In the first semester of 2015, after a series of hateful acts towards minorities — the then-student government president, who is black, said people riding in the back of a pickup truck called him a racial slur; a white student disrupted a Legion of Black Collegians gathering and began shouting the same word; a swastika drawn with human feces was reportedly discovered in a residence hall — some students felt the university administrators did not adequately respond to the incidents and arranged an encampment at a campus quad. They called themselves "Concerned Student 1950," referring to the year the school admitted its first black student.

One member sent a letter to the University of Missouri Board of Curators saying that he would not "consume any food or nutritional sustenance at the expense of my health until either [university president] Tim Wolfe is removed from office or my internal organs fail and my life is lost."

Five days after the start of the hunger strike, a significant number of black football players tweeted a photo of themselves with arms locked and said that they would not participate in any "football-related activities" until Wolfe was gone. A day later, black and white players and coaches, including head coach Gary Pinkel, tweeted a photo of themselves with the caption "The Mizzou Family Stands as one." The next day, Wolfe resigned.

Since then, enrollment at the school has dropped significantly. In 2015, about 6,200 freshman students were on campus. The next year, there were about 4,800, according to the school, which projected that there would be just 4,000 freshman this year. The university also projected a $59 million budget shortfall, including a $16.6 million loss owing to the enrollment decrease. As a result, Mizzou eliminated more than 400 jobs and took seven dormitories "offline." Fans could then rent rooms in two dorms — Excellence and Discovery — for football games.

Despite the drama surrounding the hunger strike, the football team's actions appear to have been the real tipping point. Some speculated that the president resigned because the team would have had to pay a $1 million cancellation fee to its next opponent, Brigham Young University.

Also, as the Washington Post reported, "the team is the public face of the student body. Any number of people who live in the state but don't have relatives in the University of Missouri system likely know student-athletes by name."

But other Mizzou people also became household names during the protests.

There was Wolfe, who after resigning bashed the football team and other university leaders.

"The $1 million penalty associated with forfeiting the game against BYU would have paled in comparison to the more than $25 million in lost tuition and fees MU will realize with reduced enrollment this Fall," he wrote in a letter. "The football team's actions were the equivalent of throwing gasoline on a small fire."

There was Melissa Click, the communications professor, who called for "muscle" to stop student journalists from entering the Concerned Students 1950 encampment and was later fired.

And then there was Jonathan Butler, the student who went on a hunger strike. The university chancellor, who resigned after Wolfe, praised Butler "as a person of principle," but conservative news organizations like the National Review later held Butler's family wealth against him and reported on online posts from years earlier in which he said he'd stolen free hotel breakfasts in order to be "Beat like Rodney King."

What would it mean for the University of Missouri at Columbia if people around the state again talked about the players names' rather than Butler, Click and Wolfe?

I wanted to interview Sommer about the residential life department's approach to game day, but he said he would first need to get permission from the school's public relations department. When I explained to a spokesman the focus of my story, he asked me why I needed to rehash the protests when the school has so many positive things happening. (I ultimately got the OK.)

In addition to the golf cart rides and bricks, the school also provided guests — the majority of whom are alumni or parents of students — with a Southeastern Conference (SEC) gift bag, and fans under the age of eighteen received Future Tiger T-shirts, Sommer says.

"We're trying to get them connected back" to the school "and make sure they have a good time," says Sommer, an alum whose wife manages the school's botanical garden. She would offer guests a tour that afternoon.

Most football weekends, the school has a total of 376 beds available in the two dorms. A two-room, four-bed suite goes for $120 per night. They sold out for each of the seven home games, Sommer says. It reminded me of a quick-selling Groupon. Customers are psyched about the deal even if they likely realize why the restaurant needs to offer it: Business is slow.

Sommer himself stays in the dorms on football weekends from 1 p.m. on Friday until 1 p.m. on Sunday. "I was excited about it because I haven't lived in a dorm for fifteen years, and it's fun to come back," he says.

Despite Sommer's enthusiasm, it didn't seem like he wanted the dorm-hotel to become a fixture of football games.

"I think this will be the only year we do it," he says. He later adds, "You can feel the optimism when you're on campus."

click to enlarge Students walk to class near Mizzou's signature columns. - NICK SCHNELLE/COLUMBIA TRIBUNE
  • NICK SCHNELLE/COLUMBIA TRIBUNE
  • Students walk to class near Mizzou's signature columns.

When I was a student at Mizzou, football weekends were always the liveliest. There was a surplus of black and gold and burgers and charcoal and beer and red Solo cups. It didn't hurt that 2005 to 2009 — led by quarterbacks Brad Smith and Chase Daniel — was one of the most successful four-year stretches in school history. One of the staples of games is the cheer in which the student section yells "M — I — Z" and the alumni on the other side of the field respond "Z — O — U." I was hoarse on Sundays.

Our tailgates in parking lots included a solid mix of white and black students. I had more black friends in college than I had before or since. I don't recall seeing or hearing any racism or slurs at tailgates or parties. I never felt that Mizzou was a racist institution. But I also am white. My perception is limited.

Dorian Grady and I had been friends at Ladue Horton Watkins High School and ended up at Mizzou a year apart. He recalls "a couple isolated incidents. There were times when trucks drove by and drunk dudes were being stupid and yelled nigger at us. With Mizzou, you get all sorts of Missourians."

I had never heard about that before. I also hadn't asked.

More often, Grady says, there were just conversations with people who had not been around minorities before and "were ignorant because they didn't know any better."

"Overall, my experience was pretty positive. I got along with most people who were tolerant and willing to have a conversation," says Grady, who now works as a financial advisor in Chicago.

On election night in 2008, Grady and I and other friends watched the results come in at my apartment in Columbia. When I was in high school and the TV show 24 featured a black president, I remember thinking that it wasn't realistic; that could never happen in this country. And yet here we were, less than a decade later.

"That was a magical night. The feeling around the city — it was electric," Grady says.

The truth was, however, there might have been an even bigger stir in Columbia five nights earlier, when Senator Barack Obama visited. Missouri was seen as a key swing state — and the candidate's visit drew more than 35,000 people, according to estimates from the Columbia Police Department.

Last year, President Donald Trump, who had a much different relationship with the black community, won Missouri with 57 percent of the vote. Still, one thing held true: In 2008, 2012 and 2016, the only parts of the state that went to Democrats were around Kansas City, St. Louis and Boone County, which encompasses Mizzou. Many of Grady's and my classmates were coming from parts of the state that were bright red.

click to enlarge Former Missouri player (and current Denver Bronco) Shane Ray greets fans in 2015. - NICK SCHNELLE/COLUMBIA TRIBUNE
  • NICK SCHNELLE/COLUMBIA TRIBUNE
  • Former Missouri player (and current Denver Bronco) Shane Ray greets fans in 2015.

When the University of Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC in 2012, many fans were upset because the school would no longer play games against its biggest rival, the University of Kansas. University of South Carolina head football coach Steve Spurrier tried to promote a game against Mizzou as the "Battle of the Columbias," since each university is based in a city of that name. He said the winner of the game would receive a trophy.

The idea hasn't really caught on. But still for the game Saturday, a significant number of Gamecocks fans flocked to the parking lot and stadium.

Eric Abel, a 30-year-old native of Greer, South Carolina, says his cousin has been named "the biggest fan of South Carolina in 2012."

I ask him who awarded that honor.

"The Baton Rouge police department," he says, and then gives me a koozie with his cousin's mugshot on it. His group of fans travel to one South Carolina road game each year.

"Usually we have a crew of about twenty, but people didn't really want to come to Missouri," Abel says.

He says he had no idea why. "We got here and were shocked; this place is awesome," he enthuses as his friends play drinking games nearby. "When you look at how great of a college it is and the downtown area, this is one of the best schools in the SEC. Oh, and also there are a couple hot girls walking around."

I wonder whether news of the protests reached South Carolina.

"We were cognizant of it," Abel says. He was surprised when he saw news about how much enrollment had dropped.

He and other South Carolina fans mention the racial tensions in their state, where a Confederate flag flew at the Statehouse until 2015, when Dylann Roof, a Columbia, South Carolina, native, killed nine black people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

"Me and my friends were always proponents of taking the Confederate flag down," says J.W. Brunson, who was in the third generation of his family to attend South Carolina and is now president of the Gamecock Club in Nashville. "We were very thankful that they took it down."

Despite the flag, Brunson says he was "lucky enough" to not have grown up in a racist community. He adds, "I don't want to say that there wasn't racism." The church shooting, he says, had brought the white and black communities closer together.

Just like at Mizzou, USC has dealt with hateful acts on campus. In 2015, the school suspended a student who was photographed writing a racial slur on a white board, which then went viral over social media, according to the Washington Post. Shortly after the protests at Mizzou, about 150 students walked out of class at USC to "protest alleged racial and gender inequalities," the Charlotte Observer reported.

The students, operating under the name USC 2020, made similar demands of administration as Concerned Students 1950, such as "improve and expand minority recruitment efforts in order to increase racial diversity on our campus." They said they had moved up a date for a planned protest because of the events at Mizzou.

"In Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina, blacks represent about a third or more of each state's college-age population but less than fifteen percent of the freshman enrollment at the flagship university," the New York Times reported.

Maybe there were the right elements for a rivalry. At South Carolina, black students made up six percent of the freshman class in 2015; at Missouri, the figure was eight percent.

Or maybe there isn't anything unique about the lack of diversity at the schools.

Shortly after the protests, FiveThirtyEight.com, a data news organization, reported that Mizzou "is almost exactly in line with its peers in terms of how representative its student body is."

Maurice Benson, a former Mizzou defensive back, grew up in Manhattan, Kansas, home of Kansas State University, and has spent much of his life in the two college towns.

"A university brings people from out of the country, and there are black, white, Asian, Hispanic students. You ran across all walks of life," says Benson, 46, who is black. He roomed with black and white players and says he never felt they were treated any differently around town.

He remains an enthusiastic Mizzou fan. A few hours before the game, Benson, who now directs a YMCA center in Topeka, Kansas, is walking around downtown with his daughter and some friends. Like Grady, he believes most racism comes from ignorance.

"Things happen everywhere you go, but to think that this is more of a racist town, a racist place, a racist university, I can't agree with that." He notes that some of his black teammates were elevated to positions including athletic director and associate dean. "To portray this town as not accepting or against anyone who doesn't look like them, I think that's so far from the truth, I can't even speak to it."

But to walk around campus on game day, when the school is at its brightest, is of course to get a skewed perspective. Students who have experienced significant racism may no longer live in Columbia. And black student-athletes' experience may not mirror the rest of the black student body.

"If U were black at my alma mater, and ur name was not Maclin, Denmon, Pressey, English, Weatherspoon, Carroll, etc. You didn't feel welcome," former Mizzou basketball star Kim English tweeted shortly after the protests.

Alex Rideout, a black senior from St. Louis, plays club ultimate Frisbee at Mizzou but came to the school because he wants to be an athletic trainer for a football team.

"It's just the atmosphere of it, where not only the players are a giant family but also the fans, the crowd," says Rideout.

When the protests were occurring — and there were threats against African-Americans over social media, and a truck with a Confederate flag drove by the protesters' encampment — Rideout says he received calls and texts from ultimate teammates to see if he was OK.

Rideout said he had not experienced any racism on campus but understood where the protesters "were coming from."

Once, at a party, he recalls, a white student sitting near him on a couch told him that he was "OK with black people as long as you don't steal my stuff." He says, "Immediately everyone at the party condemned it and shut him down and he ended up leaving."

During the protests, his parents asked him if he wanted to transfer.

"Even though there was a lot of turmoil going on, I have never been one to run from it, and on top of that, my friend group has always been supportive," he says.

But Rideout was already there. What about those who watched the protests as they were deciding where they wanted to attend college?

Students Carlisle Smith, who is black, and Austin Wise, who is white, are walking toward Memorial Stadium just before kickoff. Smith, a freshman from Chicago, says he is "excited to see the fans and the student section." It is the first Mizzou game for each of them.

Smith, a business major, decided to enroll "because I knew some people down here and liked the campus and the culture a lot."

As a black student, he says, "there was definitely some hesitation about what might happen or what could happen but nothing that stopped me."

As to what their first month had been like, both Smith and Wise say they have been having a good time.

Do they feel as though the school has been making a concerted effort to make minority students feel welcome? Says Wise, "I think it's just natural. You see us; we're different races and we're friends."

Their first game begins well. A couple minutes into the second quarter, the Tigers are winning 10-0.

click to enlarge Fans tailgate in the back of a pickup truck. - NICK SCHNELLE/COLUMBIA TRIBUNE
  • NICK SCHNELLE/COLUMBIA TRIBUNE
  • Fans tailgate in the back of a pickup truck.

Despite the protests and subsequent fall-out — or maybe because of it — donors gave nearly $171 million to Mizzou during fiscal year 2016, setting a new record, according to the school.

Ed Travis has missed one home football game since 1973 and was among those donors. He tells me to find his tailgate in parking lot C, "where we fly not only the Mizzou flag but also fly the Kirkwood flag."

His son Ed Travis is the fourth generation with that name, and he has a son, Ed, who is a Mizzou senior. Ed Travis IV says that when he was a freshman at Kirkwood High School and playing football, his dad offered to chair a committee to raise money for lights for the field so the team could play night games.

"Everyone thought he was being very benevolent," Travis IV says. "It was purely so he could watch me play on Friday nights and then come to Mizzou games."

Ed Travis III, a retired owner of a management recruiting firm, says, "We have four grandchildren on campus as we speak ... and at no time, not once, ever, did they encounter a racism problem or confrontation or evidence thereof. Not one time. That's bullshit."

Travis, who is white, suggests I talk with some of the black athletes who have gone on to work for the school, including Howard Richards, a former star offensive lineman recently hired as the assistant athletics director for community relations.

On Saturday, Richards and the university brought more than 2,000 elementary and middle school students from the St. Louis area to the game as part of a new program called the Mizzou Youth Experience. The idea is to try and foster connections with children who "could become first-generation college kids," as Richards says in a video promoting the program. Participating school districts include East St. Louis, Jennings and Ferguson/Florissant.

"They have all heard of college; they have heard of Mizzou, but actually getting them here so that they could see what it was — especially on a day like today, on game day —was a tremendous experience for them," says Richards.

On August 24, the University of Missouri also announced that it would cover all tuition and fees for Missouri residents who are accepted to the school and eligible for federal Pell grants, meaning they come from households with an annual income of less than $30,000. The maximum Pell award is $5,920, so the school would then cover the remaining $22,000.

Not all people were moved by news of the program.

"This is another roundabout attempt from University System leadership to quell discussions of their systemic problems instead of addressing them head-on," Representative Courtney Curtis (D-Ferguson) said in a prepared statement. Curtis said he was "appalled" the university was "using PR stunts" rather than grappling with its problems. "With the significant cuts to academic retention services over the past decade, and their inability to address recent issues, it's no surprise that their enrollment rate has been plummeting."

A day later, the Board of Curators approved a new $98 million football facility in the south end zone of the football stadium.

"It's important to have an outstanding training facility and athletic facility and better locker rooms for [the] football team," says Nick Joos, senior associate athletic director for strategic communications.

I ask a school spokesman whether any thought was given to the timing of the announcements. One for the students, then one for the football team?

"It was just coincidental that the announcements happened relatively close to each other," replies Christian Basi, director of the school's news bureau.

It does appear, however, that the school sees the fate of its student population and its football team as at least somewhat linked.

"We have gotten a division championship, but we just haven't gotten that conference championship or that national championship," says Benson, the former defensive back. "You get one of those things done and the statistics show that the programs that do that get a big bump in the revenue and get more people invested in the team and the school in general."

Despite the strong start in the South Carolina game, the momentum changes quickly. A 97-yard kickoff return leads to a Gamecocks touchdown and then Mizzou quarterback Drew Lock throws an interception, setting up a second touchdown for the visitors. Final result: South Carolina win, 31-13.

It's a big loss; Benson told me before the game that the team needed to win at least three of its first four games. The next week, Mizzou hosts Purdue and loses 35-3, leaving the Tigers with a 1-2 record.

After the players leave the field, Richards, who also serves as a radio analyst for football games, anoints the students who came on the youth experience as one of the three stars of the game.

Head coach Barry Odom, whose team went 4-8 in his first year last season, tells Richards and the other announcers, "I'm so thankful for our fans."

Then he makes a plea.

"Just hang with us," he says. "I really appreciate their support."

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