The date was March 1, 1990. I’d been 12 years old for all of one month when the Southwest Missouri State Bears defeated Northern Iowa 94-86 in overtime at Hammons Student Center to wrap up another Mid-Continent Conference championship. The Bears went to the NCAA Tournament that year, falling to North Carolina – my other favorite team as a kid – 83-70 to wrap up another great year of basketball in Spoon’s Temple of Doom. SMS, under the direction of Charlie Spoonhour, won its fourth straight conference title and advanced to the postseason for the fifth straight season – not bad for a program that had been in Division I for less than a decade.
“This is awesome,” 12-year-old me thought. “It’s always gonna be just like this.”
I had no idea.
That win over UNI was the Bears’ last Mid-Con victory. SMS left for the Missouri Valley Conference the following season and fit right in. The Bears went 11-5 their first season, finishing second in the league, and advanced to the finals of the MVC tournament. They didn’t win, but their 22-12 mark was good enough to get them into the NIT Tournament.
Next season was more of the same. The high-flying Rodney Perry-led Bears went 23-8 overall, 13-5 in league play (good enough for third) and upset Tulsa 71-68 to win the league tourney and get back onto the Big Dance floor for the fifth time in six years.
It would only happen one more time in the next 17 seasons. In the meantime, the Bears would never win another regular season conference championship. During that drought the school went through a name change, hired four university presidents as well as four head coaches and moved into a brand new arena.
So you’ll have to forgive me if I shed a few tears last weekend, after Missouri State held off Wichita State 69-64 to win the Missouri Valley Conference championship, the first MVC regular season title in 21 seasons in The Valley. I stupidly didn’t check a calendar when I agreed to cover a shift for a co-worker that day, so I didn’t get to witness history in person (something I’ll always regret), but I stayed up until the wee small hours Sunday watching the replay on ESPN3, reading every account of the game I could find on the Web, and living vicariously through fan photos and YouTube videos. And shedding a few tears – especially when I watched Bill Rowe, Mr. Missouri State Athletics, wipe a tear from his eye during the post-game celebration.
My oldest daughter is just a bit younger now than I was the last time the Bears were conference champions. The last time the Bears were in the NCAA Tournament, I hadn’t even started dating her mother. This has been a long time coming, and I have savored it for five days now. I’m still partying like it’s 1999. Or 1990.