Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Mizzou 50: In an ill-advised move, the 1988 Tigers played at "The U"

In 1988, Woody Widenhofer was, like Barry Odom this fall, a former Missouri linebacker entering his fourth season as the Tigers’ head coach. Unlike Odom, he was coming off three losing seasons. That year would be his last as the Mizzou head coach, but he had pretty interesting football life.

He played linebacker at Mizzou in the early ’60s, when Dan Devine was the coach, some of the glory days for Tiger football. He was a defensive assistant coach for the “Steel Curtain” Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was a part of four Super Bowl championships, including defensive coordinator for the fourth one. He coached a USFL team for a year, coached his alma mater, then went back to the NFL, including a stint with the Cleveland Browns in 1993 and 1994. There, Widenhofer was linebackers coach under a few coaches of some repute, head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Nick Saban. In fact, that coaching staff was so loaded they took the Browns to the playoffs and even won a playoff game, still the Browns’ last playoff win, 25 years later.

After his time at Cleveland, Widenhofer eventually became the head coach at Vanderbilt, and then served as an assistant coach at Southeastern Louisiana and New Mexico State under offensive innovator Hal Mumme. After retiring from football coaching, Widenhofer worked at a tollbooth in Florida, as one does. He simply said he didn’t have anything else to do and enjoys meeting people. I kind of love that, actually.

But long before that, Widenhofer had his final season in Columbia. The Tigers started the 1988 campaign with a 35-21 home win over Utah State. But unfortunately it was downhill from there. The Tigers got hammered by Houston 31-7 in Columbia on Sept. 17, then the following week tied Indiana 28-28.

Then came what was, in hindsight, a questionable game at No. 1 Miami. That’s right, Missouri played the Miami Hurricanes… during their peak… on the road… when Mizzou was in full late-80s mode. “The U” was known for their swagger, their overwhelming talent, and the wild and freewheeling reputation of their program. The Hurricanes won the national title in 1987, and they were rolling to start the 1988 season, up to 15 wins in a row when the Tigers came into the old Orange Bowl for their Oct. 1 game. It was Miami’s final game before their famous “Catholics Vs. Convicts” game at No. 4 Notre Dame, which the Irish won 31-30 in thrilling and controversial fashion on the way to a national title.

The Oct. 1 game between Missouri and Miami was much more straightforward, with the Hurricanes winning 55-0.

If playing at Miami was about as tough an assignment as there was in college football in the late ‘80s, Missouri’s next week was one of the more favorable college football opponents from that time, Kansas State. It was the last season in Manhattan before Bill Snyder arrived to lift the K-State program out of a half-century of futility. This was the last season of the Old K-State, who would finish 0-11 and last in the Big Eight. Missouri was just 1-2-1, but they went into Manhattan and cruised to a 52-21 win.

Then came a parade of losses, starting with 21-3 at home to Iowa State, and then 49-21 at No. 15 Oklahoma State. The marvelous Barry Sanders was having a season for the ages that year, winning the Heisman Trophy. Counting the bowl game, over the 12-game season Sanders ran for 2,850 yards and 42 touchdowns. Just ridiculous. Although Mizzou “held” Sanders to his lowest rushing total of the season, 154 yards on 25 yards, a still-impressive 6.2 yards per carry.

Missouri then had a surprisingly respectable 26-18 loss at No. 5 Nebraska, followed by a brutal 45-8 home loss to Colorado.

The Saturday after George W. Bush was elected President, Missouri lost 16-7 to No. 8 Oklahoma, the 16th and final time the Tigers faced Barry Switzer. Missouri finished with a 2-14 mark against Switzer’s generally marvelous teams.

It was a tough final season for Widenhofer, but the Tigers did get a satisfying end to the season by crushing rival Kansas 55-17. It was another bad season for the Tigers, who finished 3-7-1, and Widenhofer was let go after four losing seasons in Columbia. But Missouri did at least notch two wins by at least 30 points against the two schools in Kansas.

1988: 31 years ago, 6th in the Big Eight

Record: 3-7-1, 2-5 in Big Eight

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1987 Tigers faded after a decent start

The third season of Woody Widenhofer’s tenure as head coach at Mizzou needed a good start. After two bad seasons in Columbia, the coach could use a good start.

The Tigers got that good start, beating Baylor 23-18 on Sept. 12 in Columbia to kick off the season. Then came a 28-3 home win over Northwestern to move to 2-0.

But Missouri then lost at Indiana and against Syracuse at home to head into Big Eight play at 2-2.
Conference play began about as charitably as possible, with a home game against an egregiously bad Kansas State team that would go 0-10-1 under Stan Parish. That Wildcat team did manage a tie against rival Kansas in an edition of their rivalry dubbed the “Toilet Bowl,” which ended on a blocked field goal and both teams scrambling for the loose ball as time expired.

Missouri needed no such drama, rolling to a 34-10 win.

The Tigers followed that up with a commanding 42-17 win at Iowa State on Oct. 17 to move to 2-0 in Big 12 play, on the same day the St. Louis Cardinals lost Game 1 of the 1987 World Series at Minnesota.

Next up was No. 19 Oklahoma State in Columbia. The Cowboys had All-American Thurman Thomas at running back, and Barry Sanders as his backup, which feels like overkill. It was a competitive game, but Missouri lost, 24-20. That night, on the brink of World Series title, the Cardinals lost Game 6 in that darn Metrodome, leveling at the Series at three games each. The Twins would take Game 7 Sunday.

That Oklahoma State loss kicked off the decline phase of the season for the Tigers.
No. 2 Nebraska hammered Missouri 42-7 on Halloween in Columbia, and then came a 27-10 loss in the mountains at Colorado.

Now 4-5, Missouri had to travel to No. 1 Oklahoma on Nov. 14. The Sooners were steamrolling toward a fourth straight Orange Bowl appearance under Barry Switzer, but this was a tight game, with Oklahoma prevailed 17-13 to set up a “Game of the Century II” with Nebraska the following week.

It was a fourth straight loss for the Tigers, but Missouri was at least able to end the season on a positive note, winning 19-7 at an also egregiously bad Kansas team. The Jayhawks were wrapping up a 1-9-1 season.

Missouri finished the season at 5-6. It was Widenhofer’s high water mark with the Tigers.
After firing Warren Powers for a run of six winning seasons and one losing season, Missouri now had three straight losing seasons under Widenhofer and four straight losing seasons overall. The malaise continued for Missouri football.

1987: 32 years ago, 5th in the Big Eight

Record: 5-6, 3-4 in Big Eight

Monday, July 29, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1986 Tigers suffered infamous 77-0 loss at Oklahoma

The 1986 football season was another rough one for Missouri, but they did match the previous season’s win total in the first week of the season, winning 24-10 at home against Utah State. It was a fairly straightforward game, but it was the Tigers’ first win on the Omniturf surface installed at Faurot Field ahead of the 1985 season. Also, future Super Bowl-winning coach with the Ravens Brian Billick was the offensive coordinator for Utah State.

Unfortunately, the Tigers followed that up with five straight losses. It was a tough time for Missouri football, and it was a tough time for agriculture in the state, and rural areas in general. The 1980s Farm Crisis was reaching its peak by the middle part of the decade, and rural communities and farmers took big hits in the 80s.

In a matchup of the two states currently home to the most beef cows, Missouri hosted Texas in week 2, with the Longhorns winning 27-25. But the bulk of Missouri’s cows look much better than those rangy Longhorn cattle, so take that, Texas.

Missouri then lost at home to Indiana and got crushed 41-9 at Syracuse, in the eight-year-old Carrier Dome, to fall to 1-3 heading into Big Eight play.

The Tigers lost at home 17-12 to Colorado, a program on the rise, on Oct. 11. It was clear this would be another lost season for Woody Widenhofer and the Tigers.

Missouri played at No. 3 Nebraska on Oct. 18 and lost 48-17, the eighth straight win for the Huskers in the Victory Bell rivalry.

The Tigers then faced Kansas State, which was bad again but coming off a win over rival Kansas. The Wildcats would not win another Big Eight game until 1990, four years later. It’s hard to overstate how bad of a situation Bill Snyder took over at K-State in 1989, and how great of a job he did there. In 1986, The Tigers avenged the previous year’s loss to the Wildcats with a 17-6 win in Manhattan, surpassing the previous year’s win total. It began a 0-26-1 stretch in Big Eight games for K-State.

Heading into November, Missouri had a rather forgettable 37-14 home loss to Iowa State, and then suffered a hard-to-forget 77-0 loss at No. 4 Oklahoma, one of the most brutal losses in school history. The Sooners were barreling toward another Big Eight title, and the game was not competitive almost from the start.

Brian Bosworth, the Sooners’ colorful and ferocious linebacker who was an All-American in 1985 and 1986, said of that 77-0 game, “Games like that aren’t fun,” according to longtime Omaha World-Herald sportswriter Tom Shatel. Boz was suspended from the Orange Bowl after that season for a positive steroid test, and he word a T-shirt that referred to the NCAA as “National Communists Against Athletes” during that bowl game, and Barry Switzer eventually dismissed Bosworth from the team. In 1988 Boz wrote a book, titled the Boz, in which he detailed an Oklahoma program full of drug use and other wild or criminal behavior. The book and subsequent NCAA report eventually led to Switzer being forced to resign.

But in November 1986, Switzer and Boz were still teamed up and crushing the Tigers.

In Shatel’s ode to the Big Eight, he recalled that 77-0 game, and Missouri color analyst Dan Dierdorf starting to call play-by-play of a local rugby match next to Owen Field.

Missouri had a bye week after the loss at Oklahoma, and the formula of seething over a humiliating loss plus an extra week to rest and prepare plus a bad rival team coming to town equaled a lopsided victory for the Tigers. Missouri rolled to a 48-0 home win over Kansas, who would finish last in the Big Eight that year. It tied for Missouri’s biggest-ever win over the Jayhawks. Oddly enough, Missouri has beaten Kansas by exactly 48 points four times.

The Tigers wrapped up the season with a 10-6 loss at Oklahoma State on Dec. 4. Cowboy running back Thurman Thomas had a somewhat less productive season, coming off an ACL tear, but he was playing again by the end of the season. Also, the Cowboys seemed to have a pretty outstanding backup running back, a freshman by the name of Barry Sanders.

Missouri finished the 1986 season at 3-8, a third straight losing season.

1986: 33 years ago, 6th in the Big Eight

Record: 3-8, 2-5 in Big Eight

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Mizzou 50: Amidst I-70 Series excitement, 1985 Tigers suffered an atrocious loss

On October 26, 1985, Mizzou football suffered perhaps its most embarrassing loss ever. Mercifully, almost no sports fans in the state dwelt on it too much, thanks to one of the most infamous calls in baseball history that same night.

The enduring image of autumn 1985 in Columbia is not from the football team, which went a staggeringly bad 1-10 in the first year under coach Woody Widenhofer, a Mizzou alum who unfortunately had more W’s in his name than on the field in his Mizzou coaching debut.

No, the enduring image is related to the “I-70 Series” edition of the World Series from that October, when the St. Louis Cardinals faced the Kansas City Royals in the Fall Classic. The photo is of a frat house in Greektown, a giant white line running down its front steps and front walkway, dividing the house’s loyalties. Words written in white tape (college kids have always been resourceful) on the brick front of the building expressed support for the Royals on one side and the Cardinals on the other. Appropriately rowdy frat guys in red and blue stand on the front porch gesturing and clamoring and raising “No. 1” fingers. In the foreground, sitting on the steps at the front of the walkway leading to the house, sit two guys, one in a Royals hat and one in a Cardinals hat, sitting on opposite sides of the line, looking like “80s frat guy” actors. It’s always October in that photo, Columbia’s best time, the guys in the photo are youthful and hopeful, and Missouri’s baseball teams are the best in the world, with Columbia as the clash point of the two fanbases, especially among the MU student population.

It’s hard to even imagine, but the stories from that month, October 1985, make it sound like Columbia was basically an 8-day party during that World Series, with class attendance optional.
It’s good Missouri sports fans had good baseball teams, because Missouri football had one of its worst seasons. After being the last Big Eight holdout to still play on natural grass, Missouri began its generally awful Omniturf era in 1985. It was like someone in the state’s legislature selling out for an embarrassingly small bribe, because the Tigers gave up playing on natural grass for a pretty terrible artificial surface that was widely lambasted by visiting teams.

So Missouri wasn’t good and they played on a bad field. Cool.

The Tigers appropriately christened that surface with a loss, losing the Sept. 14 season opener 27-23 to a Northwestern team that would, and this will shock you, finish last in the Big Ten. I’ll spare you the details, but Missouri then lost every other game leading up to the World Series, including a 36-17 home loss to an Indiana team that would, and this will shock you, finish tied with Northwestern for last in the Big Ten.

Missouri got hammered 38-7 at Colorado on Oct. 12, their first lost to future Omniturf critic Bill McCartney. At the end of that same day, both the Royals and Cardinals trailed in their League Championship Series. But both rallied to win them and set up the I-70 Series.

On the day of Game 1 of the World Series, Missouri put up fierce resistance to No. 7 Nebraska at home, but lost 28-20 to fall to 0-6. It was their ninth straight loss dating back to 1984. That night, the Cardinals won Game 1 of the World Series in Kansas City.

Then came that memorable day, Oct. 26. Missouri hosted an egregiously bad Kansas State team. The Wildcats had fallen apart under Jim Dickey, who was fired early that season. K-State was 0-6 as well, playing under an interim coach named Lee Moon, who is probably a real person because he has a Wikipedia page. The Wildcats had lost at home to TWO I-AA teams, Northern Iowa and North Texas State, as well as a humiliating season-opening loss to Wichita State, which was Division I but would shut down its football program a year later. So, they were bad, even by Kansas State’s standards at the time.

And… they beat Mizzou. Missouri suffered an incomprehensible home loss to those Kansas State Wildcats. It had to be a sparse crowd at Faurot that October Saturday, given the two terrible teams and the looming Game 6 of the World Series in Kansas City that night, but those that sat through this game deserve an honorary degree from MU. Missouri led 17-6 in the second half, but coughed it up late, missing a near-interception that would’ve sealed things, but instead the Wildcats got a late touchdown and a 20-17 win. It would be the only win of the Lee Moon era.

I think about this game from time to time, both because of the day on which it was played, and the unique situation in Columbia and Missouri at the time. I also think about the undying loyalty of the fans there, the crazy kind of loyalty, and the players, who were still fighting and struggling for just one win at that old stadium. It was a day game, because they were all day games at Memorial Stadium until 1992, and I wonder how many thoughts were drifting toward the big baseball game that night.

You probably know about that game already. With the Cardinals up 3-2 in the Series, Game 6 was an electrifying pitching duel. The Cardinals took a 1-0 lead in the top of the 8th, but the Royals rallied for two runs in the bottom of the 9th to win the game, and eventually win their first World Series title with an 11-0 win in Game 7.

In that 9th inning, American League umpire Don Denkinger called pinch-hitter Jorge Orta safe at first, even though replays showed he should’ve been called out for out number one. (The Royals fan in me at least has to note, reading from my Royals fan operator’s manual, that Frank White was called out stealing second in the fourth, when replays showed he was safe, and the man at the plate singled two pitches later, so it’s reasonable to think that could’ve put the Royals up 1-0. But, obviously, a bad call in the 9th looms larger than a bad call in the 4th.)

Jack Clark, who should probably send Denkinger a nice bottle of something each year on Oct. 26 for shifting the blame, dropped a foul popup from Steve Balboni, who singled two pitches later to really get the rally going. Dane Iorg eventually had the game-winning hit, with one out.

After all that hysteria, it probably felt like a letdown to watch Mizzou play at Iowa State the following Saturday, Nov. 2. Iowa State was decent, but 0-7 Missouri, perhaps motivated by winning the coveted Telephone Trophy, rose up and won 28-27 in Ames, their only win of the season. It snapped a 10-game losing streak.

Missouri was undefeated in November, but that didn’t last long with the schedule coming up. The Tigers lost 51-6 at No. 7 Oklahoma, which was in the midst of a late season surge to a national title.
Missouri then lost a tough one at home to No. 10 Oklahoma State, 21-19. It dropped the Tigers to 0-7 at home on the season. Missouri had a 1,000-yard rusher that season in Darrel Wallace (not the NASCAR driver), but Oklahoma State had Thurman Thomas, who led the Big Eight in rushing in 1985 and was an All-American.

Missouri then capped the season with a 34-20 loss at Kansas on Nov. 23, the Tigers’ third straight loss to the Jayhawks.

It was a memorable autumn in Missouri, but one of the tougher seasons the Tigers have had.

1985: 34 years ago, tied for 7th in Big Eight

Record: 1-10, 1-6 in Big Eight

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1984 and the beginning of Missouri's descent into the futility

When Memorial Stadium was carved out of the natural valley south of the University of Missouri campus in the 1920s, the only real option for football fields was natural grass. Or, in a pinch, sawdust and tree bark, apparently.

Missouri’s first game at Memorial Stadium was Oct. 2, 1926, against Tulane. As can happen in October in Missouri, there were torrential rains, and the field could not be sodded due to the wet conditions. So, as the story goes, MU created a surface of sawdust and tree bark, as one does, to try to keep the muddy mess of a surface playable.

Perhaps “playable” is a stretch, and like my brother and I’s first Madden 99 football game when we didn’t really know the controls, the game was a 0-0 tie. As longtime St. Louis sportswriter Bob Broeg later wrote, Missouri and Tulane “played to a scoreless, mudpie tie.”

But every game after that, for nearly 60 years, the Tigers played home games on God’s green grass. However, the infamous Omniturf era was coming soon, and 1984 would be Missouri’s last season on grass for over a decade.

That farewell to grass did not fare well, and it cost Warren Powers his job. Given his record over seven seasons in Columbia, it was kind of a bizarre move.

The season started with a tough 30-24 loss at Illinois. It broke a four-game Tiger winning streak in the on-and-off series, which was played pretty frequently from 19966 to 1984. Missouri would have to wait till 1991 to try for revenge against the Illini.

Missouri then lost its home opener on Sept. 15, a 35-34 loss to Wisconsin. Close losses were unfortunately a theme this season, but this one was particularly painful. It was sportswriter Pat Forde’s first game he covered for the school paper. He recalls how well things were going, with Missouri up 28-7 after three quarters. But then, as Forde later wrote, “Marlon Adler had his own personal tour of football Hell.”

Adler had a punt blocked and recovered for a touchdown. About two minutes later, he had another punt blocked to set up another Badger touchdown. The Badgers eventually tied the game, and then Adler came in at quarterback and threw a pick. Wisconsin missed a field goal, but Adler threw another pick and Wisconsin scored the go-ahead touchdown. With the game having achieved full meltdown status, Powers put Warren Seitz back in at quarterback. Seitz led a touchdown drive.

Powers went for two and the win, like Tom Osborne had done in the national title game Orange Bowl in January of that year. George Shorthose, Missouri’s leading receiver and a Jeff City native, was wide open. Seitz threw a good pass to him… and Shorthose dropped it, and Missouri dropped to 0-2.
Missouri was able to get its first win the next week, 47-30 over Mississippi State in Columbia.

Then came a big home game with No. 19 Notre Dame. The Irish were known for breaking out green uniforms in rare situations for big games, and Mizzou came out in gold jerseys and pants to the roar of the crowd. Missouri had some “misadventures at the goal line,” Forde wrote, with one drive stalling at the 1 and then botched two-point conversion tries. But Notre Dame only led 16-14 late.

But then came some great fodder for anyone who insists Mizzou football is cursed. The Tigers drove into field goal range, but then their decent kicker, senior Brad Burditt, missed the 39-yarder for the win… short. It’s one thing to miss out on a huge upset win by missing a field goal, it’s another when a kicker who had made field goals from 51 yards misses the kick short.

“Yes, he was short from 39 yards out,” Forde wrote. “A guy who had made a 51-yarder two years earlier suddenly didn’t have the leg of a high-schooler.”

Missouri somehow shook off that disappointment by annihilating Colorado 52-7 at Faurot Field to open Big Eight play. It was the third straight year Missouri crushed coach Bill McCartney’s Buffaloes. McCartney’s first breakthrough at Colorado was coming the next autumn.

Missouri was 2-3 but fought hard on the road against No. 6 Nebraska. But fighting hard wasn’t enough, as the Huskers won 33-23 in Lincoln.

The caliber of competition was, ahem, a bit different the following week, and Missouri won 61-21 at K-State in KSU Stadium. It was the Tigers’ last game against Jack Dickey, who would be asked to resign early in the 1985 season.

Missouri battled Iowa State to a 14-14 tie on Oct. 27, the two teams’ second tie in three seasons.
That dropped Missouri to 3-4-1 ahead of a trip to No. 10 Oklahoma. The season was wobbling. In November, it collapsed.

The Sooners boomed to a 49-7 win. (Can you imagine that much “Boomer Sooner?” Think of the children.)

Speaking of blowouts, the following Tuesday was President Ronald Reagan’s famous landslide re-election, when he won 49 of 50 states against Walter Mondale, taking 525 of the 538 electoral college votes. To this day, Mizzou students still wear “Reagan Bush ’84” shirts to day parties, even if they weren’t alive for Dole-Kemp 96. Missouri voted 60 percent for Reagan in 1984.

In the governor’s race, Missouri had an election without Kit Bond running for governor for the first time since 1968. Republican John Ashcroft defeated Democrat Ken Rothman, 56.66 percent of the vote to 43.34 percent.

For Mizzou football, the challenges continued with a trip to No. 7 Oklahoma State, a really good team that would only lose at Nebraska and Oklahoma that year, because per league rules Oklahoma must win the Bedlam Game. The Cowboys cruised to a 31-13 win over the Tigers.

Then game insult to injury, as Missouri lost by two touchdowns at home to rival Kansas, 35-21.
The Tigers finished the season at 3-7-1, Powers’ first losing season. Apparently Missouri decided it couldn’t tolerate a losing season, certainly not with a loss to Kansas thrown in, so the school fired Powers, despite a 46-33-3 overall record and a respectable 24-22-3 mark in conference play. It felt quick, even with all the frustrating close losses, but Powers was done, and 1985 would mark the start of the Woody Widenhofer era at Mizzou.

1984: 35 years ago, tied for 5th in Big Eight

Record: 3-7-1, 2-4-1 in Big Eight

Friday, July 26, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1983 Tigers, Andy Hill's favorite game and facing Steve Young

When I was in college at Mizzou, as part of intermediate writing class, I got to interview Missouri assistant football coach Andy Hill for a profile. Hill had played football at Mizzou, starting as a walk-on, and even at the time he was the longest-tenured Missouri assistant coach. He’s still on the Missouri coaching staff, having worked under Larry Smith, Gary Pinkel and now Barry Odom. Hill has about as much connection to the Missouri program as anyone.

When I asked the pride of Trenton, Mo., what was his favorite memory from his playing days at Missouri, he pretty quickly mentioned the 10-0 win over Oklahoma during the 1983 season. Hill caught a touchdown pass in that game, and he proudly remembered one of his favorite parts of the game, that walk-on players were responsible for all the points. It was a special fall day in Columbia, Missouri’s second straight home win over Barry Switzer and the Sooners. Oklahoma was in the midst of a slightly down stretch, by the lofty standards Switzer and others had set, but this was still one of the two behemoth programs in the Big Eight, the program that had largely terrorized Middle America since World War II.

That 1983 season was special in the broader context of Missouri football. It was a last few months in the sun at the end of a generally good run of football during the 60s and 70s that spilled over into the early 1980s. There were some bad seasons and games, but 1983 was another winning season that ended in a bowl, and it capped about a quarter century of seasons in which Tiger football was fairly successful, and even more so, interesting. Even if they dropped plenty of games they should have won, Missouri also scored many stunning upset wins. They played robust schedules. They were a scrappy underdog. They won bowls and, during the 1960s, championships.

After 1983, Missouri drifted into the wilderness, with a decade and a half of lost autumns to follow.
The 1983 campaign, Warren Powers’ sixth as head coach, opened with a 28-18 home win over Illinois on Sept. 10. Missouri then traveled to venerable Camp Randall Stadium and lost a tough one to Wisconsin, 21-20.

The Tigers continued the up-and-down trend, beating Utah State 17-10 in Columbia, but then losing a 13-6 clunker at home to East Carolina. ECU would go 8-3 that season, with all three losses coming to top-10 teams, but it was a tough loss heading into Big Eight play.

Missouri opened conference play with a dominating 59-20 win at Colorado on Oct. 8. Second-year coach Bill McCartney was still working on rebuilding the Colorado program.

Then came a storied opponent for the Tigers, as they hosted the No. 1 Nebraska Cornhuskers. The 1983 Huskers were one of the most memorable and breathtaking and bittersweet teams that robust fanbase has ever had. The offense scored a prolific 654 points in 13 games, and the team was nicknamed “The Scoring Explosion.” Husker running back Mike Rozier ran for 2,148 yards on an audacious 7.8 yards per carry and won the Heisman Trophy that year.

Nebraska opened the season with against No. 4 Penn State, the defending national champion, in the first Kickoff Classic game in Giants Stadium. The Huskers roared to a 44-6 win. Nebraska scored at least 50 points seven times, often many more.

Mizzou held the Huskers to their fourth-lowest point total of the season, but the top-ranked Huskers still won 34-13 in Columbia. Nebraska finished the regular season 12-0 and faced No. 5 Miami in the Orange Bowl. It was the 50th Orange Bowl, and longtime Omaha World-Herald writer and Big Eight football expert Tom Shatel called it the greatest game he ever saw. Played on Jan. 2, the previous major bowl results meant the winner would likely win the national title. Miami took a 31-17 lead into the fourth quarter before Nebraska mounted a comeback. The Huskers pulled within one with less than a minute to play. An extra point meant a likely tie, which probably still would’ve been enough for Tom Osborne to get his first national title. But Osborne went for the two and the win. He didn’t want to just play for the tie, and said it was about the integrity of the Nebraska football program.  Turner Gill’s pass was tipped away, and the two-point try failed. Miami prevailed 31-30 and won the national title. Nebraska finished the season, one of their greatest and most memorable ever, ranked No. 2.

Now 3-3 after the loss to that Nebraska team, Missouri got back on track with a ruthless 38-0 home win over a Kansas State team that opened its season with a loss to Long Beach State and finished last in the Big Eight.

Missouri stayed on a roll as the season moved deeper into autumn, winning 41-18 at Iowa State on Oct. 29, and then picking up that 10-0 win over No. 11 Oklahoma on Nov. 5. Missouri then won 16-10 against a decent Oklahoma State team, their fourth straight victory, to move to 7-3 and assume the No. 19 ranking.

But the season ended with a thud, losing 37-27 in Lawrence to a Kansas team with a losing record.
The Tigers still got to go to a bowl game, the Holiday Bowl, where they played No. 9 Brigham Young University. BYU opened the season with a narrow loss at Baylor, but then the Cougars reeled off 10 straight wins behind star quarterback Steve Young and legendary coach LaVell Edwards. This was the sixth of BYU’s seven straight Holiday Bowl appearances, because the bowl gave one spot to the Western Athletic Conference champion, and BYU won the WAC the first seven years there was a holiday bowl.

The game was played in San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium, where Tony Gwynn had earlier that year hit .309 in his first full season in the big leagues. It was played on Dec. 23, Festivus. Missouri’s Eric Drain ran for a touchdown to give Missouri a 7-0 lead after one quarter. Young, long known for his scrambling abilities, ran for a 10-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7. Missouri added a Brad Burditt field goal to take a 10-7 lead into the half.

In the third quarter, it was a Young touchdown pass to put BYU back on top, 14-10. In the final quarter, Drain had another rushing touchdown to put Mizzou up 17-14. But Young had a little more magic left, and the Cougars mounted one more drive. With 23 seconds left, Young handed it off to  Eddie Stinnett, who then threw the ball to Young, who ran into the end zone for a touchdown and a 21-17 BYU win. Young had rushing, passing and receiving touchdowns in the game, so naturally he was named the offensive MVP. Missouri’s Bobby Bell was the defensive MVP.

Twitter would’ve had fun with this one, as the teams combined for a robust nine turnovers.

The next season, BYU went unbeaten and won the 1984 national title.

It was a classic, but for years after it would stand as Missouri’s last bowl experience.

1983: 36 years ago, tied for second in the Big Eight

Record: 7-5, 5-2 in Big Eight

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1982, the year of the tie

The 1982 college football season was the Year of the Tie in the Big Eight. In the eight previous seasons, there were two ties in Big Eight conference games. Then there were four Big Eight conference game ties in eight DAYS in October, two of which involved Mizzou.

Although it was a oddity for the Tigers to play back-to-back ties, it was fairly fitting for the 1982 Missouri season. After the first four seasons under Warren Powers saw 7 or 8 wins each season and four bowl appearances, the Tigers slipped to a mediocre 5-4-2 in 1982. (Even typing 5-4-2 as a record and not an innovative defensive formation feels weird; here’s to college football overtime.)

Missouri started with two home wins, 28-14 against Colorado State on Sept. 4, and 23-10 against Army on Sept. 11. Then came a trip to No. 17 Texas after a bye. It was Sept. 25, but the temperature rose to 91 in Austin that day. The Longhorns rumbled to a 21-0 win.

Then came a home game with East Carolina (it appears Missouri’s nonconference schedules were getting much easier after the rugged slates of the 1970s), and Missouri won that 28-9. Time for Big Eight play. Time for ties.

Missouri started conference play on Oct. 9 at Kansas State. It was a fun autumn in Manhattan, as the Wildcats had started 3-1 and were on their way to just their fourth winning season since the Great Depression almost half a century before, when a man named Pappy coached their team. K-State would make their first ever bowl that fall, which would remain their only bowl until Bill Snyder got his streak going in 1993.

The Tigers and Wildcats raged to a 7-7 tie, Missouri’s first tie since 1966, 16 years before.
The day after the tie, Oct. 10, the St. Louis Cardinals won Game 3 of the National League Championship Series to win their first pennant since 1968, 14 years before.

That led to a sometimes-frequent, sometimes-rare event, a Mizzou home football game the same day as a World Series game by an in-state team. Parking lots were probably buzzing with nerves and Cardinals hats ahead of the Oct. 16 game with Iowa State. The Cyclones were not great in 1982, but they did whoop up on a good Iowa team in Iowa City early in the season, so those wonderful Iowa State fans had reason to feel good. Their was no whooping on this October Saturday at Faurot Field, or otherwise it was exactly equal whooping, because the two teams tied 17-17, one of nine ties in the 104-year history of the series between the two schools.

That afternoon, in Milwaukee, the American League champion Brewers tied the World Series at 2-2 with a 7-5 win over the Cardinals.

That set up the combined energy of a Mizzou-Nebraska game week and the Cardinals seeking their first World Series title in 15 years. On Wednesday, the Cardinals, playing with the “Whitey-ball” energy that fans today still reminisce about, rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win Game 7 in St. Louis and take the title.

A baseball title in hand, Missouri fans now looked for a huge football win. Sporting a bizarre 3-1-2 record, Missouri traveled to Lincoln on Oct. 23 to face No. 5 Nebraska. After two straight ties, this was another close one, but the Huskers prevailed 23-19. Junior Nebraska running back Mike Rozier was suffering from a hip pointer, but he came off the bench and rushed for 139 yards on 17 carries in the second half to lead a Husker comeback.

In their Victory Bell rivalry, Missouri and Nebraska only tied three times in 104 games, all of which happened by 1930.

Nebraska was a juggernaut that year, finishing 12-1 and No. 3 in the final poll, with the only loss coming by three points at Penn State early in the season.

Now 3-2-2, Missouri traveled to Oklahoma State on Oct. 30. The Cowboys had been the other primary team in the October tie fest, notching a 24-24 tie with Kansas and a 25-25 tie with Colorado during the same two weeks Missouri had their ties.

Had Missouri and Oklahoma State tied, it probably would’ve tilted the axis of the Earth. But that wouldn’t be a problem, as OSU won 30-20.

Mizzou bounced back with a home win, 35-14, over a bad Colorado team. But the Buffaloes had first-year coach Bill McCartney, who would take Colorado to the top of the sport over the next eight years.
Missouri then got hammered 41-14 at No. 15 Oklahoma, and finished the season with a 16-10 win over Kansas at Faurot Field on Nov. 20. It was the last game with Don Fambrough coaching the Jayhawks, a coach known for his disdain for Missouri and fiery pre-Border War speeches.

Missouri finished the year 5-4-2, and for the first time since 1977 Missouri would not play in a bowl game.

1982: 37 years ago, fifth in the Big Eight

Record: 5-4-2, 2-3-2 in Big Eight

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1981 Tigers finally got a win against Switzer and the Sooners

Missouri began the 1981 season, Warren Powers’ fourth as head coach, coming off three straight winning seasons. The Tigers opened with three straight home games, testing the resolve of tailgaters.
First was a 24-10 win over Army on Sept. 12. The Tigers then had heaping helping of Rice, beating the Owls 42-10. Then Missouri rolled to a 34-3 win over Louisville on Sept. 26.

Missouri then traveled to Dixie for their second game in three years at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson. But after playing Ole Miss there in 1979, Missouri completed its Egg Bowl box set by playing Mississippi State there. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 9, but unranked Missouri pulled the upset, notching an impressive 14-3 win.

That lifted the Tigers to a No. 13 ranking heading into Big Eight play. The Tigers hosted Kansas State on Oct. 10. The Wildcats would finish last in the conference that year, and Missouri cruised to a 58-13 win to move to 5-0.

Missouri climbed to No. 8, but then came a trip to Ames. You don’t trifle with playing the Iowa State Cyclones on the road, it seems. With future Texas coach Mack Brown as offensive coordinator for the Clones, Iowa State hung 34 points on the Tigers on the way to a 34-13 win. The Cyclones had taken back the Telephone Trophy.

No. 19 Missouri then hosted No. 15 Nebraska on Oct. 24, and the Huskers pulled out a presumably hideous 6-0 win before a big crowd of frustrated Tiger fans and more than a few loud and red-clad Nebraska fans.

Next up was a Halloween matchup with Oklahoma State at Faurot Field. I’m not sure if Halloween was the ridiculous costume exhibition it is today in college towns, but we can hope so, because any diversion would’ve been welcome after the game, which Missouri lost 16-12 to the Cowboys. After a 5-0 start, Missouri was now 5-3.

November started better for the Tigers, with a 30-14 win at Colorado in the thin air of Boulder. Then came a memorable Saturday in Columbia when No. 15 Oklahoma came to town. The Tigers won 19-14. It was Missouri’s first win in nine tries against Barry Switzer’s Sooners, and the Tigers’ first win at all against Oklahoma since 1969, when Dan Devine was coaching Missouri.

The season finale was at Kansas on Nov. 21. After three straight demolitions of the Jayhawks, this Border War was different. Don Fambrough had the Jayhawks playing well, and Kansas won 19-11.

Missouri finished the regular season at 7-4 and headed to Orlando to play No. 18 Southern Miss in the Tangerine Bowl. Missouri won 19-17 and linebacker Jeff Gaylord was the game’s MVP.

It was another 8-win season for Missouri, another bowl game, and the Tigers finished the season ranked No. 20 in the coaches poll and No. 19 in the AP poll.

1981: 38 years ago, fifth in the Big Eight

Record: 8-4, 3-4 in Big Eight

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1980 brought Phil Bradley's senior season and the biggest crowd in Faurot Field history

As a whole, the 1980s would not be a particularly excellent decade for Mizzou football, but when the decade dawned, things looked bright.

Quarterback Phil Bradley led the Tigers into his senior season in 1980. He was one of the great all-around stars in Mizzou athletics history. For football, he was a three-time Big Eight Offensive Player of the Year, and he set the conference total offense record at 6,459 yards, which stood for 10 years. He was also a star outfielder for the baseball team, and in the spring of 1980 he was on an MU baseball team that won the Big Eight championship and made the NCAA Tournament.

He was from western Illinois, so he was semi-local. Beyond that, he quarterbacked the Tigers in many memorable games, and led them to three winning records and three bowl games in his three years as a starter.

Bradley went on to play eight years in Major League Baseball, mostly with the Mariners, for whom he was an All-Star in 1985. He also played for the Chicago White Sox in 1990, their last of 81 seasons in old Comiskey Park. For decades, Comiskey was the older of the two ancient ballparks in Chicago. Unfortunately, after the Black Sox scandal of the team allegedly losing the 1919 World Series on purpose for money, the White Sox only played one postseason series in their final 70 years at Comiskey, losing the 1959 World Series.

Bradley didn’t play in the final game at old Comiskey, but he did start and bat leadoff the day before, in the next-to-last of more than 6,000 games at Comiskey Park. He started in left field, then later moved to center field, playing next to a young Sox rightfielder named Sammy Sosa. Bradley walked twice in the game, one an intentional walk, and scored a run in the 7th on a wild pitch while Carlton Fisk, more known for his work with the other Sox, stood in to pinch hit.

In the 8th inning, during Bradley’s final major league at-bat, a strikeout, Ozzie Guillen, who had walked as a pinch hitter, stole second base. Guillen would later roll into town to manage the White Sox, say things like, “ain’t no curses, only horse shit teams,” and lead the Sox to a World Series title in 2005, breaking their epic championship drought.

So yeah, Phil Bradley had a long and interesting athletic career. But before all those baseball games, over 1,000 MLB games in his career, he had a memorable senior season in Columbia.

Missouri opened the season with some hope and a No. 17 ranking. The Tigers opened the season by cruising to a 47-16 win over New Mexico on Sept. 13 at Faurot Field. It was a fairly forgettable game, but of note was the Lobos’ first-year coach, Joe Morrison. Morrison would go on to coach South Carolina starting in 1983 and provide memorable contributions to the Gamecock football experience. It was under Morrison that South Carolina began its tradition of using “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” as its pregame entrance song. Also, after a raucous home win against USC in 1983, when the east upper deck at Williams-Brice Stadium noticeably swayed, Morrison said, “If it ain’t swayin’, we ain’t playin’.”

Missouri, now No. 15, then hosted Illinois, and crushed the Illini 52-7, months ahead of the schools’ first meeting in a December basketball game in St. Louis, which has been an annual tradition every year but one since 1980.

Missouri then traveled to San Diego to face the San Diego State Aztecs. This is the kind of home and home series I’d love to see Mizzou schedule again. The game was in San Diego, so we’ll assume the weather was gorgeous. Bradley led the Tigers to a 31-7 win in San Diego Stadium, later known as Jacky Murphy Stadium and Qualcomm Stadium. Years later, Bradley would play Major League Baseball games there for the Phillies, against the Padres. Having your team ranked No. 12 and playing in San Diego and winning big, that would’ve been a great week to be a Tiger fan.

Now 3-0 and ranked No. 9, Missouri welcomed No. 17 Penn State to Faurot Field on Oct. 4. It was an incredible scene, October in Columbia, a crowd of 75,298, the biggest in Memorial Stadium history, jammed the old bowl. Joe Paterno and Penn State were coming off a home loss to Nebraska, but the Nittany Lions were a formidable team. This was Paterno’s 15th of 46 seasons coaching Penn State, and he’d already been in Happy Valley for 30 years as an assistant or head coach at the time. Future Chiefs quarterback and Penn State national champion Todd Blackledge led Penn State. Missouri fought hard, but the Nittany Lions escaped Columbia with a 29-21 win.

It was a big sports month in Missouri, as the Royals were again facing the mighty New York Yankees to try to get to the World Series. The Royals came up short in the American League Championship Series in 1976, 1977 and 1978, losing to the Yankees each time. But this time they broke through, winning on Oct. 8, 9 and 10, with the Game 3 win punctuated by George Brett’s dramatic upper deck home run off Goose Gossage to put the Royals ahead. After many years of Mizzou’s St. Louis students being able to walk around campus proud their city was in the World Series, the school’s Kansas City students could finally do the same.

The day after Brett’s famed homer, Oct. 11, Missouri bounced back from the Penn State loss with a 30-7 win at Oklahoma State to open Big Eight play. It was part of a hot start to conference play, and maybe some Tiger fans were starting to wonder about a conference title as October rolled on.
Missouri beat Colorado 45-7 on Oct. 18 in Columbia. The same day, the Royals beat the Phillies 5-3 in Kansas City to level the World Series at two games apiece. But the following Tuesday, the Phillies won Game 6 4-1 to take their first World Series title. TVs all over downtown and across Columbia were surely tuned into the game, which to this day has the highest TV rating of any World Series game in history.

With the focus fully back on football, the Tigers then ground out a 13-3 win on Oct. 25 at K-State.
After a Friday night Halloween in Lincoln, No. 15 Missouri took on No. 8 Nebraska. Both had lost a home nonconference game, but both were 3-0 in Big Eight play and gunning for a league title. But the game was appropriately ghoulish for the day after Halloween, with Missouri’s conference title hopes likely shattered like so many shattered pumpkins after the traditionally mischievous holiday. Nebraska won 38-16.

The following Tuesday, Nov. 4, Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in an Electoral College landslide to win the Presidency. Missouri’s electoral votes went to Reagan. Missouri’s governor race was a rematch, with incumbent Democrat Joe Teasdale again facing Republican Kit Bond, who had been governor when Teasdale narrowly beat him in 1976. This time Bond won, with 52.63 percent to 47.02 percent for “Walkin’ Joe” Teasdale.

Freed from political advertisements, Missouri recovered from the Nebraska loss with a 14-10 win over Iowa State in Columbia, but then had to travel to Norman to take on Barry Switzer and the No. 10 Oklahoma Sooners. Oklahoma, en route to another Big Eight title, rode its robust defense to a 17-7 win, Switzer’s eighth straight win over the Tigers.

Now 7-3, Missouri again took out its frustration by pounding Kansas for the third year in a row, winning 31-6 in Columbia.

The Tigers returned to the Liberty Bowl, two years after their last appearance there, facing Purdue. The Boilermakers’ quarterback, Mark Herrmann, led the Big Ten in passing yards that season, so this bowl featured one of the best passers in the Big Eight vs. one of the best passers in the Big Ten.
Purdue led 28-15 heading into the fourth quarter, but Missouri mounted a furious comeback attempt. Bradley kept battling till the end, but Purdue held on. Like Drew Lock 38 years later, Bradley’s storied Mizzou career ended at the Liberty Bowl after a comeback attempt that fell short.
Herrmann was brilliant in the game and was named the Liberty Bowl MVP.

After a 6-1 start, Missouri lost three of five to end the season and cool the optimism some. But two of those losses were on the road against juggernauts Nebraska and Oklahoma, and the other was a narrow bowl loss to a good Purdue team.

Overall, it was another successful season, 8-4 and 5-2 in the Big Eight. In the era of Nebraska-Oklahoma dominance, being clearly the third best Big Eight team counted for something. But Tiger fans once again were wondering what could have been with some close losses that could’ve opened the door to a 10-win season.

1980: 39 years ago, third in the Big Eight

Record: 8-4, 5-2 in Big Eight

Monday, July 22, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1979 Tigers narrowly missed out on huge wins

The year 1979 was a good year to be a Mizzou season ticket holder, with three home games against top-10 teams. It was also in some ways a challenging year for Americans, with the economic challenges, the energy crisis, and often long lines to get gas. In July, President Jimmy Carter gave his “Crisis of Confidence” speech, often known as the “malaise speech” even though he never used that word. In November, hours after Missouri lost a gripping 23-20 game to No. 2 Nebraska, Iranians stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, launching the long and stressful Iran Hostage Crisis.

It’s a cliche to say sports are a distraction, but in some ways it’s true, and the 1979 Missouri Tigers did their darnedest to be a compelling team to follow. They were a lot of things, but they were not boring, with the narrative about the team shifting from month to month, or even week to week.

The team kicked Warren Powers’ second season as head coach, quarterback Phil Bradley’s junior year, with a 45-15 shellacking of San Diego State in Columbia. Missouri was No. 12, and although SDSU was decent that year the Tigers did not need a “Moe Miracle” to pull out the win. 1-0.

The No. 11 Tigers then traveled to Illinois for a gritty 14-6 win over their “rival.” The two schools would being their annual basketball game in St. Louis the following year, at the old St. Louis Arena.
Now ranked No. 9, Missouri played at Ole Miss on Sept. 22, although the game was played in Jackson, in keeping with the old SEC tradition of playing a lot of big games in nearby metro areas instead of on campus. Mizzou rolled to a 33-7 win.

That set up a massive game at Faurot Field, a rare top-5 vs. top-5 game in Columbia, as No. 5 Mizzou welcomed No. 4 Texas. Played before a crowd on 75,136, the second biggest crowd in Memorial Stadium’s history, a number not currently attainable with the present seating capacity, this was surely a frenzied weekend in Columbia. It was also, unfortunately, a disaster of a game for Missouri. Texas won 21-0.

Missouri had a bye, but the bad mojo continued two weeks later at Faurot. No. 15 Mizzou suffered a brutal 14-13 loss to unranked-but-decent Oklahoma State, dropping the Tigers to 3-2 after a promising start.

The Tigers bounced back with a 13-7 win at Colorado. But, lest Tiger fans start to develop any concrete opinions about what the team was, Missouri had a crushing 19-3 home loss to Kansas State. The Wildcats would finish last in the Big Eight that season, and it was Missouri’s first loss to K-State in years. But second-year coach Jack Dickey would get a few things going in Manhattan, by the program’s very modest pre-Bill Snyder standards.

Then came the big aforementioned home game in Columbia, the day before the hostage situation began in Tehran. No. 2 Nebraska came to town. Missouri had won four of six in the Victory Bell series, but the Huskers churned out a 23-20 win over the feisty Tigers.

After that so-close loss, Missouri won 18-9 at Iowa State the next week, Nov. 10. It was November in Ames, so one assumes it was cold.

That improved the Tigers to 5-4 ahead of a third blockbuster home game, hosting No. 7 Oklahoma. It was another spirited effort, another brutal loss, with the Sooners winning 24-22. Barry Switzer moved to 7-0 against Missouri, and Oklahoma would go on to win the Big Eight and finish No. 3 in the final polls.

Now 5-5 and probably disappointed after the 3-0 start, and with all the near-misses, Missouri took some measure of solace in a traditional way… hammering Kansas. Good to get at least one win over a school from the state of Kansas (eye roll emoji). Missouri won 55-7 in Lawrence. Mizzou’s biggest Border War win is by 48 points, four different times, two of which were in Warren Powers’ first two seasons as head coach at Mizzou.

The Tigers then headed off to a bowl game, playing No. 16 South Carolina in the Hall of Fame Classic at historic Legion Field in Birmingham, site of Missouri’s epic win over Alabama earlier that decade. The Gamecocks were an Independent team, in their 20-year run between the ACC and the SEC.

After South Carolina took an early lead, Missouri used a great second quarter to take a 17-6 lead into halftime. The Tigers held on from there for a 24-14 win, with a Gerry Ellis touchdown run capping the scoring for the Tigers. Phil Bradley had a passing and a rushing touchdown for the Tigers and was named the game’s MVP. South Carolina’s George Rogers, who would win the Heisman Trophy the next season and be the top pick in the 1981 NFL Draft, ran for 133 yards on 15 carries in the game.

It was a second straight winning season to start the Powers era, both capped by bowl wins, and the conference title “drought” was only 10 years.

1979: 40 years ago, fourth in the Big Eight

Record: 7-5, 3-4 in Big Eight

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1978 brought incredible wins, frustrating losses

In Missouri’s storied journalism school, they talk about not burying the lede, so let’s get right to it. The 1978 Missouri Tigers shut out defending national champion Notre Dame, quarterbacked by Joe Montana, in Notre Dame Stadium. It was a fitting start to a pretty memorable season for the Tigers, even if it was occasionally maddening as well. Longtime Omaha World-Herald writer Tom Shatel, pretty much a Big Eight historian, was a junior at Mizzou that year, and he later wrote it was his all-time favorite Big Eight season and the year he “absolutely fell in love with the sport, the league and the towns.”

* * *

After Al Onofrio was fired, Warren Powers was the new head coach leading the Missouri Tigers into the 1978 season. Powers, only 37 when the season began, was a Nebraska alum coming off a single 7-4 season as head coach at Washington State in Pullman, one of the delightful little corners of the world college football has made famous.

The trend under Onofrio had been tremendous upsets of power programs, but enough disappointing losses he eventually was let go after seven seasons.

Powers and the Tigers continued that tradition right out of the gate. Missouri opened the season with a stunning 3-0 win over No. 5 Notre Dame on Sept. 9 in the creatively named Notre Dame Stadium, one of the most hallowed venues in the sport. The Irish were favored by 17, coming off a national title, and led by senior Joe Montana, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Adding another layer, coaching Notre Dame was former Mizzou coach/future “Rudy” villain Dan Devine, who had left the Tigers to coach the Green Bay Packers and then went to coach Notre Dame.

Missouri didn’t have that kind of star power, but the Tigers had some firepower of their own. Quarterback Phil Bradley was in the first of his three seasons as a starter and would go on to play Major League Baseball. Tight End Kellen Winslow would be an NFL Hall of Fame. Backs James Wilder and Earl Grant would both be NFL draft picks. However, the Tiger defense would be the star of the day.

According to Bill Connelly in his marvelous book, “The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All Time,” Powers attempted to inspire his defense by telling his offense he only needed one field goal from them. That’s quite an outlandish thing to say when you’re a three-score underdog, but… it was… shockingly prescient. The Tiger defense stopped drive after drive by Notre Dame deep into Missouri territory, thwarting every scoring attempt and holding Montana to four completions. Jeff Brockhaus made a 33-yard field goal for the Tigers in the third quarter, and that was enough. Missouri won 3-0, another all-timer of a win for the program, a win commemorated with framed newspapers on the wall at Harpo’s in Columbia.

Missouri’s schedule was brutal that year, and the Tigers, now ranked No. 11, followed up the massive win in South Bend by hosting No. 1 Alabama and Bear Bryant. With a record crowd in attendance, Missouri raced to a halftime lead. But there would be no upset this week, as the Crimson Tide took control in the second half and won 38-20. Alabama would go on to win the AP national title this year.
Missouri bounced back with a 45-14 win over Ole Miss at Faurot Field the next week. But then came the third top-five opponent and second top-ranked opponent in just four games, No. 1 Oklahoma. It was also on the road, and Barry Switzer was still the coach in Norman. Oklahoma rolled to a 45-23 win to drop Missouri to 2-2.

The schedule let up just a little in October, and the Tigers found their stride. Missouri crushed Illinois 45-3 on Oct. 7 at Faurot to climb back into the rankings. On Oct. 14, No. 19 Missouri took out No. 20 Iowa State 26-13. Then came an Oct. 21 trip to Kansas State, and Missouri scored a 56-14 win. The Wildcats had ended a nearly four-year drought without a conference win earlier in the 1978 season, and they were quietly not terrible, but Missouri was still plenty good enough to get the road win.
The Tigers were now 5-2 and 2-1 in the Big Eight. Ranked No. 13 and playing on Homecoming and with a national audience on ABC, Missouri lost 28-27 to a Colorado team that would finish 7th in the Big Eight.

That followed up with a 35-20 loss at Oklahoma State, taking a lot of the momentum out of the nice start to the season.

But Powers and the Tigers were able to regain a lot of that momentum and good feelings with a big finish to the season.

On Nov. 11, Senior Day in Columbia, Powers did what Onofrio had struggled to do as Missouri crushed Kansas 48-0, tying the 1969 demolition for the biggest margin of victory in the series.
Missouri then traveled to No. 2 Nebraska for the regular season finale. Tom Osborne and the Huskers had lost their first five games against Barry Switzer and the Oklahoma Sooners, but the week before playing Missouri the Huskers had knocked off the No. 1 Sooners in a scintillating game in Lincoln. Nebraska was one win from playing for a possible national title in their bowl game.

But Missouri notched a gritty 35-31 win, marked by two late Tiger defensive stops in their own territory sandwiched around a drive for the ages that put Missouri on top. It was Missouri’s second win over a top-five team that season and it capped a run of memorable upset wins on the road against historic programs in the 1970s. What a time to be a Tiger fan.

The win also capped a run of success for Missouri in their Victory Bell rivalry with the Cornhuskers. It was Missouri’s fourth win in six years against Nebraska, and 7th win in 12 years, and all this coming during a tremendous decade of Husker football. But it would also be Missouri’s last win over Nebraska for a quarter century.

Missouri finished the regular season at 7-4 and 4-3 in the Big Eight, while facing an absolutely brutal schedule. The Tigers capped the season with a trip to the Liberty Bowl to face LSU. Surely no Tiger fans guessed they would be playing in the same bowl 40 years later, but as a member of the SEC. Charles McClendon, late in his long tenure at LSU, led an 8-3 squad in to the game. Missouri was 7-4 and ranked No. 18. The game was on ABC, with the great Verne Lundquist on the call. About a month later, Verne would deliver one of the most enduring calls in his career, calling Super Bowl XIII for the Dallas Cowboys’ radio broadcast. After Cowboys tight end Jackie Smith dropped a third-quarter touchdown pass that would’ve (with the extra point) tied the game, Verne said, “Bless his heart, he’s got to be the sickest man in America!” Joining Verne on the Liberty Bowl broadcast was Ara Parseghian, one of the “Holy Trinity” of former Notre Dame coaches.

Tiger fans of both teams probably had plenty of good times on Beale Street and eating Memphis barbecue, just as Liberty Bowl visitors did last December. But it was also the Memphis of another era, with many of its most famous people and incidents in recent memory. Elvis had died there the year before; Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated their 10 years before the 1978 year. The legendary Sun Recording Studio on Union Avenue had fallen silent, but only fairly recently. The iconic Peabody Hotel had also closed, but would reopen in the 1980s and help revitalize the Memphis downtown. The familiar Memphis Pyramid was still over a decade from being built.

The Liberty Bowl was played on Festivus, Dec. 23. Missouri aired their grievances in the early going, running out to a 20-3 lead. LSU rallied to within 20-15, but Missouri was able to hang on for the win and an 8-4 record. The Warren Powers era was off to a good start.

1978: 41 years ago, tied for third in the Big Eight

Record: 8-4, 4-3 in Big Eight

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1977 Tigers couldn't beat Kansas, couldn't save Onofrio's job

Al Onofrio and the Missouri Tigers began the 1977 season at something of a crossroads. Onofrio had been the man to replace Dan Devine, Missouri’s most successful coach, and this was Onofrio’s seventh season as head coach in Columbia. He had notched some massive wins, games that to this day are some of the biggest wins in program history, but he had also suffered some inexplicable losses to bad teams, and sported a ghastly 1-5 mark against rival Kansas.

Onofrio entered 1977 at 34-34 at Mizzou, including 17-25 in conference play. He had one tied for second finish in the Big Eight, but every other season had been fourth or worse. He made two bowls in years two and three, but then missed bowls the next three seasons. He was coming off two straight 6-5 seasons. The Tigers were not awful. But they were not especially good except for some random, stunning upsets of the titans of college football, and they couldn’t seem to beat those damn Jayhawks.

If 1977 was a job-saving campaign, it started about as well as Leslie Knope’s “Parks and Rec” city council campaign. Mizzou opened the season on Sept. 10 with a visit from No. 4 USC. No word on if the iconic Song Girls, Tommy Trojan and Traveler made the trip to Middle America. The Trojans got revenge from Missouri’s upset win in the Coliseum, beating the Tigers 27-10.

Missouri then traveled to Illinois for their sometimes-on rivalry with Illinois. A fairly dreadful Illini team nevertheless prevailed 11-7 in a game that almost certainly was not aesthetically pleasing. Missouri then welcomed a second team from the Golden State to Faurot Field, the Cal Bears, and lost again, 28-21, to fall to 0-3. Oof.

But as was generally the case with Onofrio teams, Missouri’s course would seemingly turn on a dime. The Tigers were apparently playing some sort of quasi-Pac-8 schedule, and they traveled to Tempe to face No. 20 Arizona State on Oct. 1. Onofrio was an Arizona State alum, and when he passed away in 2004, it was in Tempe. The Sun Devils were in their final year in the WAC, and they’d be moving to the Pac-8 the following season, nearing the end of a long run of success under head coach Frank Kush.

It was probably about a bajillion degrees in Sun Devil Stadium, but the 0-3 Tigers pulled off a stunning 15-0 win.

Missouri followed that up with a 7-0 loss at Iowa State to open Big Eight play. No points, no Telephone Trophy. The Cyclones would end up tied for second in the Big Eight that year.

The team that would win the Big Eight, Oklahoma, came to Columbia the following week, Oct. 15. The Tigers gave No. 7 Oklahoma another robust effort, but the Sooners and Switzer prevailed yet again, 21-17. Missouri was now 1-5, 0-2 in the Big Eight. The season was threatening to be a disaster.

But the slump buster came to Columbia next, the Kansas State Wildcats. The Cats were losers of 16 straight Big Eight games and working on their third straight 0-7 conference season. Missouri won 28-13, then backed up that win with a 24-14 victory at No. 15 Colorado on Oct. 29.

The Tigers split the next two, losing 21-10 at No. 11 Nebraska, ending a run of Missouri winning three of four vs. the Huskers, and then winning 41-14 at home against Oklahoma State.

The Tigers headed into their final game at 4-6, and 3-3 in Big Eight games. It hadn’t been a great season, but they could at least end things on a high note by beating their rival. Playing at Kansas, who was just 3-6-1 on the season, the Tigers lost 24-22.

That made Onofrio 1-6 against the Jayhawks, and he was fired after the season. That happens to many a college football coach, but he led the Tigers to wins at Notre Dame, at Alabama, at USC and at Ohio State. That’s a decent legacy for the Onofrio era.

1977: 42 years ago, 5th in the Big Eight

Record: 4-7, 3-4 in Big Eight

Friday, July 19, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1976 Tigers sandwiched home loss to Illinois between wins at USC, Ohio State

Early on, Steve Pisarkiewicz was about as Missouri as a quarterback could get, but football would eventually take him around the world.

Born in Florissant, Missouri, in the St. Louis area, Pisarkiewicz attended high school at McCluer High School in Florissant, played quarterback at Mizzou, and then played for the St. Louis Cardinals football team.

Drafted by his hometown Cardinals in the first round, Pisarkiewicz got to play under head coaches Don Coryell, the passing game innovator, and Bud Wilkinson, the legendary former Oklahoma coach, but he never really got going as an NFL quarterback, and after one season with the Packers in 1980, he was done in the NFL.

But Pisarkiewicz would go on to play football for another decade, in the Canadian Football League, the upstart USFL and in Europe, finally playing his last season in 1990 with the Barcelona Boxers. He appeared to have a wild existence during the European part of his career, supposedly being the highest paid player in British American football at one point, a real feather in his cap. Years after Missouri’s epic 1975 win against Alabama in Birmingham, he played football in England’s Birmingham.

In Europe, Pisarkiewicz would also serve as a player, a coach and general manager, or all three at once plus player personal director and marketing director, as he did for a team in Wales.
But long before he was slinging touchdown passes in Cardiff, Pisarkiewicz was doing so in Columbia.

In 1975, he led the Big Eight in passing yards and was second in passing touchdowns. His senior year stats in 1976 wouldn’t be as good, and he’d end up splitting some time at quarterback with Pete Woods. But even over 40 years ago, the college football trend of getting excited about a new quarterback recruit, especially a local one, including ridiculously overhyping him, was alive and well established. The summer between junior and senior years for such quarterbacks provides months of building anticipation. Think about the buildup to the 2008 season for Chase Daniel, or the Heisman hype Drew Lock bobbleheads last summer.

* * *

In what was seemingly a new tradition for Missouri, the Tigers kicked off their 1976 season with a shocking upset win. This time it was a resounding 46-25 win on Sept. 11 over storied USC in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a Tier A classic college football venue.

Once again, the win proved to be every bit as good as it seemed. Like Alabama the year before, USC won all the rest of its games that season. The Trojans finished No. 2 in the final rankings.
Once again, Missouri leapt from unranked to a high ranking, No. 6 this time.

Once again, the Tigers would bounce up and down through a tough schedule and finish 6-5 with fans wondering what might have been.

But the 1976 season seemed to take the “up and down” to another level.

After the huge win at USC, Missouri came home and lost 31-6 to a mediocre Illinois team, falling from the rankings.

But then Onofrio’s Tigers found some more magic and left analysts and fans utterly baffled with yet another contender for “greatest win in program history,” winning 22-21 at No. 2 Ohio State. The Tigers stopped a late two-point try by the Buckeyes to preserve the win in the Horseshoe, another Tier A classic college football venue. Ohio State would finish No. 5 in the coaches poll, meaning Missouri had two top-five road wins in one season, based on final poll position. They’d also score another big road win later that would give them three top-10 road wins based on the final poll.
Missouri leapt back into the polls at No. 12. So if you’re scoring at home, that’s a week-to-week journey of unranked, No. 6, unranked, No. 12. Whew.

Missouri was able to back up this epic win this time, beating No. 14 North Carolina at home, because why shouldn’t a nonconference schedule that’s already included two top-10 road games also include a tidy home game against a top-15 team? The Tigers won 24-3, making another statement heading into Big Eight play.

Missouri began conference play with a trip to Kansas State, who was in the middle year of a three-year stretch where they didn’t win a Big Eight game. That’s three straight 0-7’s. In a league with Kansas in it. Folks, it maybe didn’t seem nice at the time, but K-State earned that “Futility U” Sports Illustrated article, and Bill Snyder is a wizard.

This game was surprisingly tough, but Missouri won 28-21 to start conference play right. The Tigers then returned home to face Iowa State on Oct. 16. The Cyclones would be a surprise team in the Big Eight that year, and they certainly surprised the Tigers on that autumn Saturday, beating No. 7 Mizzou 21-17.

But Missouri season made another hard turn as the No. 17 Tigers traveled to Lincoln to face the No. 3 Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Tigers scored a double-digit win, 34-24, that would have been surprising if not for the Missouri trends over the last 14 months. It was Missouri’s third top-10 road win of the season, and fourth in 14 months.

Missouri’s reward for the big win was a road trip the following Saturday, Oct. 30, to No. 16 Oklahoma State. I’ve written this before, but the Big Eight in the 1970s was rugged. Missouri lost a tough one to the Cowboys, 20-19. OSU running back Terry Miller was on his way to 1,714 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns, setting a high standard for Barry Sanders to top over a decade later. Miller finished fourth in the 1976 Heisman voting.

* * *

The following Tuesday, Nov. 2, was Election Day. In Missouri, it was a tight and tense Governor’s race, with each fall football Saturday leading up to the showdown. In an upset fitting for this season of Mizzou football, “Walkin’ Joe” Teasdale, known for his door-to-door campaigning, edged incumbent Gov. Kit Bond by just 13,000 votes out of nearly 2 million cast.

In the Presidential election, Jimmy Carter defeated incumbent Gerald Ford. Carter would famously walk in his inaugural election, but I don’t think he was ever nicknamed “Walkin’ Jimmy.” Missouri sided with Carter in a tight state race.

Colorado, which went with Ford, visited Faurot Field the Saturday after the election. Missouri was 5-3 and ranked No. 16; Colorado was ranked No. 14 and coming off a win over Oklahoma. The Buffs would win the Big Eight that season, sharing the title with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State but beating both those schools head to head. But on this November Saturday, Missouri won, 16-7, their fifth win over a ranked opponent that season.

Missouri now had their crack at Barry Switzer and Oklahoma. The great Sooner juggernaut was a little less dominant this year. In addition to losing to Colorado, Oklahoma tied Texas and lost to rival Oklahoma State in the Bedlam Series. It was OSU’s only win over Oklahoma between 1966 and 1995. No. 11 Missouri was actually ranked higher, with Oklahoma ranked No. 14.

Missouri gave it a spirited effort, but Oklahoma pulled out another close win over the Tigers, 27-20.
The Border War was the season finale, on Nov. 20 in Columbia. Onofrio was 1-4 against the Jayhawks. He needed this one. Kansas was 1-5 in Big Eight play. Missouri was ranked No. 19. Kansas rolled to a 41-14 win. I don’t know what the weather was like that day, but I imagine it was cloudy. Tiger fans probably streamed out during the second half in anger and frustration.

Missouri finished the season 6-5 again. They went 3-4 in conference play, good for sixth place. But all five teams that finished ahead of the Tigers in the Big Eight finished the season ranked.

It was another season of extreme highs and lows, so pretty much the essence of college football.

1976: 43 years ago, 6th in the Big Eight

Record: 6-5, 3-4 in the Big Eight

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1975 Tigers laid a "good old sound country beating" on No. 2 Alabama

In one of the most stunning results in Missouri football history, the Tigers opened the 1975 season by waltzing into storied Legion Field in Birmingham and beat No. 2 Alabama before over 63,000 horrified Alabamans and a Monday night national TV audience on ABC.

Missouri was a decent team, but this was a stunning result. Alabama had not lost a game before December since 1970. Five years since the Crimson Tide’s last loss in September, October or November. Five years!

It was also Alabama’s first regular season loss since the Dec. 2, 1972, Iron Bowl loss to Auburn, the infamous “Punt Bama Punt” game, in which Auburn was trailing 16-3 in the fourth quarter. But Auburn’s Bill Newton blocked two Bama punts in the final minutes, and David Langner ran them both back for touchdowns. The improbable two blocked-punt return touchdowns in the final quarter gave Auburn a 17-16 win, probably the biggest Auburn Iron Bowl win until the Kick Six in 2013. The game was memorialized with “Punt Bama Punt” signs and stickers across the South, particularly on the Plains around Auburn.

That was the backdrop for the Tigers’ 1975 trip to Legion Field, where Alabama continued to play many of its big games for decades. Bear Bryant had a long and successful tenure at Bama, with peaks along the way. The run from 1971 to 1975 was definitely a peak, with the Tide losing only six games during those five seasons (four bowl losses against top-tier teams, the Punt Bama Punt game, and this game against Missouri) and finishing in the top five of the coaches poll all five seasons, including a national title in 1973. They also won the SEC title all five of those seasons. Heading into 1975, Alabama had gone 22-0 in its two previous regular seasons, with only narrow bowl losses to Notre Dame blemishing each season.

Missouri, a 20-point underdog, raced to a shocking 20-0 halftime lead. Junior Missouri quarterback Steve Pisarkiewicz would lead the Big Eight in passing yards that season, although on this night it was the Tiger ground game leading the way. Running back Tony Galbreath ran for 89 of his 120 yards in the first half. The Tigers held mighty Alabama to 118 yards of offense, including a ridiculous 31 rushing yards… on 34 attempts! The Tide finally got a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, but Missouri cruised to a 20-7 win.

After the game, Bear Bryant said “They kicked the hell out of us. What more can I say?” and “All in all, it was a good old sound country beating.” Indeed it was, and back home Columbia and Mizzou students celebrated wildly on the Quad and downtown.

Missouri was 1-0, and there’s a strong case this was the best single game Missouri has played, and an even stronger case the first half was the best single half the Tigers have played.

The aftermath drove the point home even further. Alabama won all 11 of its remaining games, winning every regular season game by 11 or more points. The Tide capped their season with a 13-6 win over Penn State in the Sugar Bowl for a No. 3 final ranking.

After that epic opening win, Missouri had a rugged schedule to contend with. The Tigers went from unranked to No. 5, and then won 30-20 at Illinois and 27-21 against Wisconsin in the home opener to move to 3-0.

But then the No. 5 Tigers had to travel to No. 12 Michigan on Oct. 4, and the Wolverines won big, 31-7. The crowd in the Big House that day (104,578) was the largest to see a Mizzou football game for decades, until a 2014 trip to Texas A&M saw a few hundred more in attendance.

The schedule didn’t lighten up much as conference play began, as Missouri hosted No. 14 Oklahoma State on Oct. 11. The Tigers bounced back with an emphatic 41-14 win.

Missouri then had to play a third straight game against a top-15 team, playing at No. 12 Colorado at scenic Folsom Field, located more than a mile above sea level in Boulder. The Buffs, who would finish third in the Big Eight behind Oklahoma and Nebraska, naturally, were a formidable opponent, especially in such a tough stretch of the schedule. Colorado won, 31-20, dropping Missouri to 4-2 and 1-1 in conference play.

Missouri crushed a bad Kansas State team 35-3 on Oct. 25, then returned home for the Victory Bell rivalry game with No. 3 Nebraska. It was the third straight time Nebraska was ranked in the top 5 when they played Missouri, but it would not be a third straight win for the Tigers in the rivalry. Nebraska rolled to a 30-7 win, coach Tom Osborne’s first against Missouri. Authoring the defensive shutdown of the Tigers was the Huskers’ third-year defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin. Kiffin was a Nebraska alum and would go on to be viewed as one of the great defensive football coaches, coordinating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ dominant, Super Bowl-winning defense.

Kiffin has since embarked on a late-career trend of coaching defense wherever his son, Lane, is the head coach, with some more NFL stints mixed in. At 79, he is a defensive assistant for Lane’s Florida Atlantic team.

Missouri bounced back from the big home loss to the Huskers with a dominating 44-14 win at Iowa State to secure the Telephone Trophy.

The Tigers then played their third straight rivalry trophy game, hosting Oklahoma in the battle for the peace pipe on Nov. 15. After two straight blowout losses to Oklahoma and Barry Switzer, the Tigers fought to the end on this one. Playing in their first game decided by single digits since September, No. 18 Missouri nearly pulled the upset of No. 6 Oklahoma, who was coming off a stunning 23-3 home loss to Kansas. That loss broke a 28-game winning streak for Oklahoma, and was, staggeringly, Switzer’s first loss in his three seasons as coach of the Sooners. But against Missouri the Sooners prevailed 28-27, and went on to defeat Nebraska the next week to win the Big Eight title and Michigan in the Orange Bowl to win the national title, their second in a row.

Missouri finished the season with a fourth straight rivalry trophy game, against Kansas. Maybe it was Kansas’ late season surge, or maybe it was Missouri wearing down late after playing a rugged schedule, but the Jayhawks rolled to a 42-24 win. Kansas finished 7-5 and got to play in the Sun Bowl. Missouri stumbled to a 6-5 final record.

It was a tough finish after about as promising a start to a season as a team can have. Tiger fans may have wondered what might have been, but at least the 1975 team did not lack for big moments and memorable games.

1975: 44 years ago, tied for 5th in Big Eight

Record: 6-5, 3-4 in Big Eight

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1974, Onofrio continues winning seasons

Despite the tough finish to the 1973 season, Missouri fans could start to see some stability for their program under coach Al Onofrio heading into 1974. The team was coming off back-to-back bowl appearances in an era when making a bowl was a much more exclusive achievement than it is now.

Of course, as summer was fading into fall in America, there didn’t feel like much stability. The Watergate scandal had roiled all summer, culminating with Nixon’s resignation Aug. 9, as the Tigers were going through preseason camp. Missouri opened the season on Sept. 14, six days after President Gerald Ford’s controversial decision to unconditionally pardon Nixon. Missouri opened on the road playing at Ole Miss, the state that had voted the highest percentage for Nixon in his re-election, with 78.2 percent.

The opener was played in Jackson, where Ole Miss played several big “home” games for decades and every Egg Bowl from 1973 to 1990. The Tigers lost 10-0. But Missouri bounced back at home with a 28-21 win over Baylor on Sept. 21 and 9-0 over No. 7 Arizona State.

Nonconference schedules being significantly more entertaining back then (remember that when evaluating coaches’ win percentages across different eras; Missouri’s cupcake consumption has gone way up), Missouri played at Wisconsin to round out noncon play. The Badgers rolled 59-20 at Camp Randall Stadium.

Missouri kicked off Big Eight play on Oct. 12 at No. 5 Nebraska. Missouri again claimed the Victory Bell, 21-10, a huge win that moved the Tigers to 2-0 vs young Husker head coach Tom Osborne, with both wins coming while Nebraska was ranked in the top 5.

But, as so often seemed to happen for the Tiger teams of the 70s, the massive win was followed by a puzzling loss, 31-7 at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys were a decent team, finishing 7-5 and just a game behind Mizzou in the Big Eight standings, and goodness knows things can get wild on Lewis Field, a rare East-West field, but the wide margin had to be surprising seven days after the 11-point win at Nebraska.

Missouri bounced back with a gritty 30-24 home win over Colorado on Oct. 26, then crushed Kansas State 52-15 in Manhattan. Missouri’s first-year starting quarterback, Steve Pisarkiewicz, was a kid from St. Louis hailed as the Tiger’s best passer since the legendary “Pitchin’” Paul Christman was a two-time All-American and led the nation in touchdown passes in 1940. On this early November day in the Little Apple, Pisarkiewicz led the Tigers to 52 points against a period-appropriate awful K-State team, showing signs of the things he’d accomplish the next season.

Now 5-3 and 3-1 in conference play, Missouri was still alive for a Big Eight title when they headed to Norman for a Nov. 9 game with Oklahoma. But the Tigers’ conference title hopes and general dignity went to Norman to die, as Oklahoma crushed Missouri 37-0. Can you even imagine that much “Boomer Sooner?” The Tiger-Sooner Peace Pipe was getting comfortable in Norman, and the Sooners were steamrolling there way to the national title in 1974.

Missouri did compose themselves for a 10-7 home win against Iowa State, and then routed rival Kansas 27-3 at Faurot to close out the season. In his fourth try, Onofrio finally had a win against Kansas.

But it would be the only win the coach got against the Jayhawks in seven tries, which probably explains why he only got seven tries.

Despite Missouri’s 7-4 record and finishing tied for second in the Big Eight, the Tigers did not secure a bowl invitation after going bowling the two previous seasons.

1974: 45 years ago, tied for 2nd in the Big Eight

Record: 7-4, 5-2 in Big Eight

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1973 and a trip to the Sun Bowl

After the long, slow build of the college football offseason, it can be maddening how soon things come off the rails and expectations can be shattered. Think of the Georgia fan a while back calling into a postgame radio show after a season-opening loss to Clemson, breaking into tears and asking, “How we gonna face South Carolina now?!?!” But when your team breaks well, when the wins pile up early and keep coming as fall moves to its peak and the calendar hits October, the sense of optimism and even hysteria across the state can be as glorious as the cooler weather and gorgeous autumn leaves.

The 1973 Missouri football team gave Tiger fans reason to get excited for the first half of the season. Coming off an up-and-down bowl season in 1972, the team seemed to blossom in Al Onofrio’s third season. The Tigers opened with nonconference home wins over Ole Miss and Virginia, both by healthy margins. Missouri took a No. 20 ranking to North Carolin on Sept. 29 and won 27-14.

The calendar hit October, bringing a big game for the Tigers. No. 15 Missouri played at No. 19 SMU, but the game was at the Dallas Cowboys’ Texas Stadium, with its famous hole in the roof. It was apparent early in the season Missouri had a strong defense, and it powered the Tigers to a 17-7 win to move to 4-0 heading into Big Eight play.

Missouri, now ranked No. 12, opened conference play with a banger of a game, hosting No. 2 Nebraska, led by first-year coach Tom Osborne, who had been the Huskers’ offensive coordinator during their recent run of incredible success. It must have been an incredible fall afternoon at Memorial Stadium, Oct. 13. The Tigers’ defense carried the day again, and Missouri won 13-12 to move to 5-0 and surely sending the Show-Me State into delirious optimism.

Missouri avoided a letdown the next weekend, squeaking out a 13-9 home win over a middle of the pack Oklahoma State team that had TWO TIES during the season.

The autumn was marked by the gradually unfolding Watergate scandal, and that night, after Missouri had moved to 6-0 to the delight of the home crowd, was the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre,” when President Nixon’s efforts to fire the special prosecutor led to a series of resignations and negative reaction. The firing was later ruled illegal, and Nixon would eventually have to resign.

The Tiger offense was not putting up big numbers, but Missouri had three straight wins without scoring 20 points and was now 6-0 and ranked 7th in the nation. Tough games remained, but there had to be real hope for an undefeated regular season and another conference title.

However, the narrow margins would catch up to the Tigers next week, Oct. 27. Colorado, having just fallen out of the rankings after getting shellacked by Oklahoma, put on an inspired effort at home against Missouri. Ralphie I, the original live Buffalo mascot, raced out onto Folsom Field, situated more than a mile above sea level, and Colorado was ready for a fight. The Buffs prevailed 17-13 in a grueling game, what would be their last win of the season.

It was a tough loss, and Missouri dropped to No. 12, but the conference title was still in play, and the Tigers took care of business the next weekend by crushing Kansas State 31-7 at home.

That set up a second titanic clash in Columbia that season, a Nov. 10 matchup of No. 3 Oklahoma and No. 10 Missouri. The winner had the inside track to the Big Eight title. Oklahoma learned in August that it was being put on probation by the NCAA for violations, and the Sooners were in the first-year of a two-year bowl ban. But they had the perfect new coach for that situation, Barry Switzer, a man with swagger and personality to spare. Switzer had been the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, like Osborne had been at Nebraska before taking over as head coach that same season. Switzer ran a powerful wishbone offense, and one of his famous quotes is “Hang half a hundred on ’em.” Longtime Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel wrote in his ode to the Big Eight that he remembered Switzer sitting in his office the day before a big game, feet casually up on the desk, telling recruiting stories like it was May. He just had a freewheeling nature and an easy confidence, and it’s easy to see why.

It’s hard to overstate how great Switzer was at Oklahoma right out of the gate. His teams won or shared the Big Eight title his first eight seasons, and he didn’t lose a game at all until his third season in Norman. He won three national titles at Oklahoma, and the Sooners were named champions by some other selectors for another year, 1973, but the school doesn’t claim that title.

Big Eight football was on some kind of run in those days, with Nebraska going from Devaney to Osborne and Oklahoma going from Chuck Fairbanks to Switzer. The league saw Nebraska national titles in 1970 and 1971, a Husker Heisman by Johnny Rodgers in 1972, then unbeaten Oklahoma on probation in 1973 followed by back-to-back Sooner national titles in 1974 and 1975.

This was the landscape in which Missouri was trying to sustain success. If you look at the main reason the Tigers didn’t win a conference title during their largely competitive years during the 70s and early 80s, and really for much of their time in the Big Eight/12, the main culprit was “being in a conference with Oklahoma and Nebraska.” During the 16 years Switzer and Osborne were both in the league, either Nebraska or Oklahoma won at least a share of the conference title every season, and it was rare the duel juggernauts shared with any school other than themselves.

But on that November Saturday in 1973 in Columbia, the Tigers didn’t know how all that would unfold. They just knew they had a great opportunity and the home crowd.

That poor home crowd probably heard far too much “Boomer Sooner,” because Oklahoma rolled 31-3. It was the only time Missouri’s defense allowed more than 17 points all season. The Switzer wishbone machine was already devastating.

On Nov. 17, the day Nixon told the American people he was not a crook, Missouri traveled to Iowa State. Maybe it was a letdown, as the Telephone Trophy failed to be enough of a prize a week after that crushing loss to Oklahoma in a game with championship implications, but Missouri lost 17-7 to a pretty bad Iowa State team in Ames to fall to 7-3.

The No. 19 Tigers wrapped up the season with the Border War, a trip to No. 20 Kansas, on Nov. 24. It was a tightly contested game, symbolic of the bitter rivalry, but Kansas won, 14-13. The loss dropped Onofrio to 0-3 against Kansas, which probably turned the entire Missouri fanbase into the red-with-anger emoji face. It was also a third straight loss after a promising start, dropping Missouri to 7-4, a tough development after the excitement of September and October.

Missouri did get some positive feelings to end the season when they beat Auburn 34-17 in the Sun Bowl in lovely El Paso, Texas. Auburn was 6-5 and nearing the end of coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan’s very successful 25-year tenure. The Auburn Stadium now bears his name. The game was unusually warm for the altitude of El Paso in December, 71 degrees at kickoff.

El Paso is a quirky, unique city, and fittingly Missouri and Auburn played a quirky game, doing almost all of their scoring in the second quarter, then played very defensive football for the other three quarters. But the Tigers had a 28-10 edge in the shootout quarter. Ray Busbee ran for 127 yards for Missouri and was the game MVP.

I wonder if there are fans for either school who attended both the 1973 Sun Bowl and these schools’ matchup in the SEC Championship Game 40 years later.

Missouri didn’t return to the Sun Bowl until 2006, when Rhianna was the halftime performance. I don’t know who was the halftime performer in 1973, but I’ll go out on a limb and assume it wasn’t anyone quite as famous.

1973: 46 years ago, 4th in the Big Eight

Record: 8-4, 3-4 in Big Eight

Monday, July 15, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1972 Tigers played a rugged schedule, but made it to the Fiesta Bowl

One thing you notice when combing through old Mizzou football seasons is how strong the nonconference schedules used to be. For decades, Missouri seemed to play almost all power-conference teams in noncon play, including heaping helpings of Ohio State, Notre Dame and other powers.

In 1972, year 2 under Al Onofrio, there was more of this trend. The Tigers’ nonconference schedule: Oregon, Baylor, Cal and at Notre Dame. That’ll get your attention.

Missouri beat Oregon to match the previous year’s win total immediately, but then got crushed 27-0 by Baylor. Then the Tigers won 34-27 against Cal to head into their first Big Eight game at 2-1.

Missouri lost its first two Big Eight games, but that’s like saying a stamp and Wyoming are both things that have surface area. On Oct. 7, the Tigers lost 17-16 at Oklahoma State. On Oct. 14, Missouri lost 62-0 — 62-0! — at No. 6 Nebraska.

After that demolition, the 2-3 Missouri Tigers had to face No. 8 Notre Dame on the road. (Those noncon schedules!) But the Tigers fought like hell, and left South Bend with a stunning 30-26 win, one of the great road wins in Mizzou football history.

Missouri built on that with its first Big Eight win in over 23 months, prevailing 20-17 over No. 7 Colorado in Columbia. On Nov. 4, three days before Nixon roasted McGovern in the Presidential election, Missouri, now ranked No. 16, then won 31-14 at K-State to get to 5-3.

The No. 14 Tigers then played another top-10 team, at No. 7 Oklahoma. Missouri lost, sort of. On the field, the Sooners won 17-6, although the Big Eight later made Oklahoma forfeit three wins due to the Sooners using players with falsified transcripts. But the NCAA recognizes the wins, and the Sooners presumably kept the “Sooner Peace Pipe” that went to the winner of that “rivalry.”

Tigers ridiculously played another highly ranked team, No. 12 Iowa State, at home, and won in suitably ridiculous fashion, 6-5. (Proofreading this, I had to go check the score one more time because 6-5 is an outrageous final score for a football game.)

The Tigers capped the regular season with a gross 28-17 home loss to a bad Kansas team. Losing to your bitter rival when you’re ranked No. 16 and your rival is 3-7 might demand a harsher adjective than “gross.” Mercy.

It was one of the more compelling 6-5 seasons a team can have, and the team got a fun bowl bid, facing Arizona State in the Fiesta Bowl, then played at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, ASU’s home field. It appears the threshold for making the Fiesta Bowl was lower back in those days. Still, if you find yourself wondering into the Fiesta Bowl museum in Scottsdale, Arizona, you’ll see a Mizzou football helmet on the wall of teams to play in the bowl.

Mizzou coach Al Onofrio had gone to school at Arizona State and started his coaching career there as an assistant, so there was additional intrigue for this game. When Onofrio passed away in 2004, it was in Tempe.

Arizona State, still in the WAC instead of the Pac 10 for a few more years, jumped out to a 14-0 lead after the first quarter. The game was played on Dec. 23, Festivus, and Tiger fans had plenty of grievances to air, as the Sun Devils kept cruising to a 28-7 halftime lead. Missouri trimmed it to 28-21 heading into the fourth quarter, but three Arizona State touchdowns in the final period put the game away, 49-35.

The co-MVPs were Arizona State halfback Woody Green and Missouri defensive back Mike Fink. Missouri gave up 49 points and 762 yards. One shudders to wonder how badly the Tigers would have been gashed without a co-MVP level defender.

But Al Onofrio had guided the Tigers to a bowl in Year 2 after a disaster of a Year 1. Fans could reasonably have some hope heading into 1973.

1972: 47 years ago, 5th in the Big Eight

Record: 6-6, 3-4 in Big Eight

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1971 was an epic year in the Big Eight, just not for Missouri

Folks, if you’re doing a countdown of the last 50 seasons of Mizzou football, there are plenty of great moments to write about, but there plenty of bad seasons we must soldier through. Here we must wade into one of the latter seasons. So here is the 1971 Missouri Tigers football recap you never wanted or needed, but now you have.

Missouri hired Arizona State alum and assistant coach Al Onofrio to replace Dan Devine. Onofrio would have some memorable moments at Mizzou, but his first season was pretty much a disaster.

In fairness to Onofrio and the 1971 Tigers, the Big Eight had a season for the ages and was brutally tough, with three teams in the conference (Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado) finishing 1-2-3 in the final AP poll.

Still, this was bad. Mizzou went 1-10, including 0-7 in Big Eight games, and was outscored 260 to 93 on the season.

Missouri opened the season by hosting No. 19 Stanford at home, losing 19-0. Then Missouri went west to take on Air Force in Colorado Springs. The scenery was surely better to look at than the game, with Air Force prevailing 7-6.

Missouri then returned home for its one win of the season, 24-12 over SMU on Sept. 25.
The Tigers went 0-for-October, starting with a 22-6 loss at Army, playing at historic Michie Stadium at West Point, on the banks of the Hudson. (Note to self: plan trip to watch a game at Michie Stadium in October.)

Missouri then got annihilated 36-0 at No. 1 Nebraska, the eventual national champs. The hits continued with a 21-point home loss to an Oklahoma State fan that would finish 4-6-1, a 27-7 loss at No. 11 Colorado, and a 28-12 home loss to a Kansas State team that also finished with a losing record.

November was more of the same, starting with Mizzou losing 20-3 at home to No. 2 Oklahoma, a team already gearing up for its “Game of the Century” with Nebraska. The Tigers then got hammered at Iowa State, as one does, and then capped this sad season with a somehow even more sad 7-2 loss at 3-7 Kansas. 7-2! Losing to your bitter rival when they aren’t good at the end of an awful season has to be bad, but losing by a 7-2 score at least adds an element of whimsy to the proceedings.

* * *

Five days after that debacle in Lawrence, in what I swear was still the same sport, No. 1 Nebraska and No. 2 Oklahoma played the most famous game in the history of the Big Eight Conference, widely called the “Game of the Century.” That week’s Sports Illustrated cover hyped the game as “Irresistable Oklahoma Meets Immovable Nebraska.”

It was an all-timer, with Nebraska rallying from a 17-14 halftime deficit to win 35-31, highlighted by Johnny Rodgers’ jolting punt return touchdown that prompted longtime Nebraska radio announcer Lyell Bremser to shout, “Holy Moly! Man, woman and child did that put ’em in the aisles! Johnny the Jet Rodgers just tore ’em loose from their shoes!” This was peak Big Eight football, in the conference’s best year and best rivalry.

Nebraska capped their 13-0 national championship season with a Jan. 1, 1972, Orange Bowl win over Alabama, 38-6. Decades later, when I traveled to Tuscaloosa to watch my hopelessly overmatched Missouri Tigers play at Alabama, my dad, who is from Nebraska, texted me ahead of the game, “I remember in 1972 when Nebraska beat them 38-6, hope MU does the same.” MU did not quite do the same, but I appreciated the sentiment.

The 1971 season was a tough one for the Tigers, but Onofrio would be able to generate some better moments in the coming seasons.

1971: 48 years ago

1-10, 0-7 in Big Eight