Springfield attorney Tom Strong is surrounded by members of the Springfield media inside Great Southern Bank Arena
Springfield attorney Tom Strong talks to the media Monday, May 13, after a media conference discussing Missouri State's move to Conference USA. Strong donated $5 million to help with the move and encouraged others in the community to get involved. (Photo by Jesse Scheve, Missouri State University)

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We’ve heard rumblings for years that Missouri State wanted to elevate its football program to the Football Bowl Subdivision level and find a new conference home. Cold water always came splashing down to douse the rumored fire.

Until now. The Bears are going to play with the big boys — at least the Group of Five big boys, who are a notch below the Power Four — on the football field. Missouri State is going to Conference USA in all sports for the 2025-26 season. This is not a test.

This is the school’s biggest athletics development since joining NCAA Division I in 1982.

If you didn’t believe it before, the CUSA logo was fully on proud display Monday, May 13, during a news conference cementing the move, inside the Prime Overtime Club of Great Southern Bank Arena. CUSA commissioner Judy MacLeod was on hand. Everyone was smiling. It was a day to celebrate. And dream of bigger and better things.

‘It's time to think big and be bold'

Missouri State athletics director Kyle Moats stands behind a podium with a sign reading "Missouri State University" and in front of a blue banner with the Conference USA logo printed on it.
Missouri State athletics director Kyle Moats addresses the crowd at a media conference announcing the school's move to Conference USA at Great Southern Bank Arena on Monday, May 13. Moats told the crowd, “It's time to think big and be bold.” (Photo by Jeff Kessinger)

But is this the right move? I’ve gone back and forth on this for years, when it was evident that the eventual plan was to move up in football and it would happen, someday. It’s a move with risks, both financially and competitively. There’s a lot of heavy lifting to do in terms of convincing donors to ante up — not just with the initial excitement of the move, but annually.

President Clif Smart said the move is “budget-neutral” thanks to increased revenue projected from CUSA media rights and football “buy” games on the road. But the overall budget will increase by a projected $5 million for scholarships, salaries and travel by the first season in CUSA.

We won’t know if this move is a good one for a few years, but you’ve got to give Missouri State credit for taking a big swing. As athletics director Kyle Moats said on Monday, “It’s time to think big and be bold.”

The more ‘Mr. Missouri State' learns about the move, the better he feels

There will be doubters. No one realizes this more than Mr. Missouri State, Bill Rowe. The man has been a part of Missouri State as a student, coach or athletics director for nearly seven decades. He was there in 1982 when many believed the school was crazy for moving to Division I after 26 years in NCAA Division II.

“In ’82, my first year as the AD, there were skeptics,” Rowe said. “There always will be for things like this. But the more I learn about this, the better I feel. Judy MacLeod was at Tulsa. She’s good people. I like the teams in the league and the competition.

“I think we’ll be able to match up. Football, we’re going to be behind initially, but it’ll get there. I think it’ll be a good move.”

After Missouri State dominated the Mid-Continent Conference, especially in basketball during its early DI years, Rowe heard more skepticism when the Bears moved into the Missouri Valley Conference in 1990. He recalled the late Bears’ basketball coach Charlie Spoonhour encouraging the move.

“He said we need more challenges,” Rowe said. “And we did.”

One expert calls it a ‘game-changer' for MSU, southwest Missouri

Missouri State has far from dominated the Valley, at least in men’s basketball, failing to get to the NCAA Tournament in that program since 1999. The Missouri Valley Football Conference, the best in the land at the FCS level, has seen the Bears slog through three decades of mostly irrelevance.

So how is this a good thing, moving to a higher level? I sought out a couple of national sports journalists for their unbiased views of Missouri State’s move to CUSA. Dennis Dodd is a Missouri native who is a longtime college football writer for CBS Sports. He called the move a winner from a football standpoint for both Missouri State and CUSA.

Dodd said recruits who never would have given Missouri State a thought, no matter how good the MVFC was, now at least will take notice because of three letters — FBS. He said the 12th spot in CUSA was coveted as it likely will be the final one available for an FCS team to land, in the Group of Five, for a while.

It might not be realistic, but Missouri State’s football coaches have a great recruiting pitch. Beyond bowl games with odd names, Group of Five schools have a shot at THE College Football Playoffs. 

People sitting in chairs inside Great Southern Bank Arena applaud
The crowd applauds during a media conference announcing Missouri State's move to Conference USA and the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision. (Photo by Jesse Scheve, Missouri State University)

“It’s a game-changer for Missouri State and southwest Missouri,” Dodd said. “You can legitimately sell to recruits that you can play for a national championship. There is a path. The best of the Group of 5 champions is going to be in the (12-team) playoffs.

“A school like Missouri State can hang a banner ‘playoff participant’ and that is a big deal.”

Not to say that has a chance of happening in the first couple of years of CUSA membership. Dodd said he understands that not everyone is going to share in the enthusiasm, especially when considering longtime rivalries in other sports go by the wayside.

“But I’ve learned one thing through realignment,” Dodd said. “Hearts break, but they mend fast.”

CUSA is a step down in basketball, but that might work in MO State's favor

Matt Norlander, who specializes in covering college basketball for CBS Sports, said that this is a step down in that sport, but that might work out in Missouri State’s favor.

“I don’t think that is arguable,” Norlander said. “Conference USA for the most part has not been as viable or as competitive since it went to the mid-major ranks in the late 2000s. The Missouri Valley, almost every year, has rated better than Conference USA. The top of its conference has a team that has rated better.

“However, maybe this winds up benefitting Missouri State on two fronts. One, you bring back (men's basketball coach) Cuonzo (Martin) which hopefully stokes some more competitive fire and can get the program in the direction that it needs to be going. Two, since the league isn’t as good, maybe combining that with Cuonzo being a good coach gives Missouri State a pretty good chance at being a major player in the league. 

​​“When you look at Missouri State basketball this century, you can make a case that Missouri State is the best mid-major program without a tournament run since we hit the year 2000. They would love to end that as soon as possible and maybe this will help enable that.”

‘Bold' move might reignite the fire

Judy MacLeod, commissioner of Conference USA, stands behind a podium with a sign reading "Missouri State University" and in front of a blue banner with the Conference USA logo printed on it.
Conference USA commissioner Judy MacLeod addresses the crowd at a media conference Monday, May 13, at Great Southern Bank Arena. Missouri State will join CUSA as a full member effective July 1, 2025. (Photo by Jeff Kessinger)

Sitting in a mostly-empty palace of a basketball arena for the last couple of years and a football stadium that has long been a concrete jungle of fan apathy, it’s struck me that the school’s athletic program had gone stale. The Valley was a great home for the Bears, especially in men’s and women’s basketball, but to casual and hardcore fans the interest had waned.

Even Lady Bears basketball, despite a tremendous last decade of success under three coaches, has failed to generate noteworthy ticket sales. And in football, FCS always has carried a stigma where too many fans thought Missouri State was Division II, failing to grasp that FCS was simply another level of DI.

This “bold” move, as Moats accurately described it, could be what the school needs to reignite the fire. Time will tell. The final and perhaps most significant move of Smart’s 13 years as school president likely will be his lasting legacy, however it works out.

Decades-long booster pitches in to make the move a reality

It’s a move that couldn’t have happened without one man.

Tom Strong graduated from Missouri State in 1952 before earning his law degree from Missouri in 1955. He’s been a decades-long supporter of Missouri State, with one of the major buildings on campus (Strong Hall) named in his honor.

Strong donated $5 million towards the decision to move to FBS football, with $3.5 million of it going toward an NCAA entrance fee and the other $1.5 to start the campaign for necessary Plaster Stadium renovations.

“I did it because this is a transformational step for Missouri State University,” Strong said. “It makes Missouri State a more-perfect university. It makes us great in athletics to compete and complements the other great programs that we’ve had at Missouri State.

“This is a huge step. It’s a huge step for me. I am nothing more than a successful lawyer. This is taking a great bulk of my assets. And my children also voted for this. I have three children and their inheritance is smaller because of the gift that I’m making.

“I’m hoping that other people will join with me and see the improvement of education in Missouri by this kind of a gift, if not through athletics, then academics.”

‘We're like a rocket taking off'

Springfield attorney Tom Strong is surrounded by members of the Springfield media inside Great Southern Bank Arena
Springfield attorney Tom Strong talks to the media Monday, May 13, after a media conference discussing Missouri State's move to Conference USA. Strong donated $5 million to help with the move and encouraged others in the community to get involved. (Photo by Jeff Kessinger)

Strong said when he began as a student, Missouri State had 1,577 students. It now has over 25,000.

“We’re on our way. We’re like a rocket taking off.”

Strong said he has worked to get Missouri State into FBS football since 2018.

“This has been my commitment and my pledge for years,” Strong said.

Now it will take others to follow his lead — albeit on a much smaller scale — for Missouri State to have a chance to succeed in its new home in the changing and expensive world of college athletics.

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Missouri Sports Hall of Famer, Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at Lscranton755@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton