Friday, July 12, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1969 Tigers won Missouri's last conference championship

Fifty years ago this fall, on Nov. 22, 1969, Missouri beat the hell out of Kansas, and won the Big Eight Conference championship. Kansas coach Pepper Rodgers joked that during the shellacking he looked across the field at Missouri coach Dan Devine and gave him the peace sign. Rodgers said Devine returned half of it.

Devine later said he didn’t in fact give the Kansas coach the finger during the 69-21 Tiger win in Lawrence, but said he was thinking it. It was a bitter, often very competitive rivalry, the oldest West of the Mississippi, but that long-ago November day was tied for the largest margin of victory in the Border War. Nebraska beat their rival, Oklahoma, on the same day, so Missouri needed this win to lock up the title, tying for first with the Huskers atop the Big Eight standings.

The Big Eight was the Heartland’s conference, intimate and familiar and covering a relatively close-knit geographical footprint. The schools were scattered out on the Plains, with Colorado tucked away in the Rockies.

It wasn’t inconceivable for Missouri to win a conference title in 1969. The Tigers had been good for the decade, and they’d won a conference title as recently as 1960. But now, half a century later, it remains the Tigers’ last football conference title, and even if Tiger fans dream of trips to Atlanta every year, it’s anyone’s guess when the drought will end.

* * *

Back in 1969, it was a special season in Columbia. Missouri beat Air Force at home, rolled to a 37-6 win vs. Illinois at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, underneath an Arch that was only a few years old, and then won 40-17 at No. 13 Michigan, in the Big House.

Conference play started on Oct. 11 with a tense 17-7 home win over Nebraska, a team on the brink of greatness. The Huskers wouldn’t lose a Big Eight game for over three years, winning 24 straight conference games before a tie against Iowa State and a loss to Oklahoma in November 1972.

That 17-7 win over Nebraska remains immortalized on the wall at Harpo’s, a black-and-white photo frozen in time, a photo where it’s always that October Saturday and the Tigers are winning. Missouri players have a “100” logo on one side of the their helmets, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of college football. It’s a grand old game.

Missouri rose as high as No. 5 in the AP poll before an Oct. 25 loss at unranked Colorado. But the Tigers rallied to win four straight Big Eight games to close the regular season at 9-1 and win the conference title. A Homecoming win over Kansas State, followed by three blowout wins.

Missouri finished the season ranked No. 6 in the final AP poll, then taken ahead of the bowl games. The Tigers were headed to the Orange Bowl.

* * *

These were heady times for sports in the Show-Me State, with the Royals beginning play and returning the state to its status of having two Major League Baseball teams.

As mentioned, 1969 was also the 100th anniversary of college football’s first game, although all those years ago Rutgers and Princeton were pretty much playing soccer, based on the rules they used. But it was still sufficiently unruly and violent that a professor at the scene yelled at the players, “You will come to no Christian end!”

As part of the celebrations that year, President Richard Nixon attended the season-ending game between No. 1 Texas and No. 2 Arkansas, and said beforehand he’d consider whichever team won the national champion, even presenting a plaque to the winner declaring them national champions. (Texas won that game and their bowl and was voted No. 1 in the AP poll.)

This didn’t sit well with Penn State, Missouri’s Orange Bowl opponent, who were closing in on a second straight undefeated season. The Pennsylvania governor reached out to the White House about getting some recognition for Penn State, and Nixon invited the Nittany Lions to the White House for recognition and a trophy in honor of having the nation’s longest winning streak. Penn State coach Joe Paterno, as he said multiple times afterward, had this response to Nixon’s offer: “You can tell the President to take that trophy and shove it.”

At the 1973 Penn State commencement, Paterno couldn’t resist a little needling, asking, How could President Nixon know so little about Watergate in 1973 and so much about college football in 1969?
No. 2 Penn State beat No. 6 Missouri 10-3 in the Orange Bowl, played on Jan. 1, 1970, completing their undefeated season. The Tigers committed an absurd nine turnovers, including seven interceptions.

Even with the bowl loss, it was a successful, championship season in Columbia. It was also Missouri’s last appearance in the Orange Bowl, which for years filled a spot with the Big Eight champion. Missouri fans used to toss oranges on Faurot Field after the first Tiger touchdown of the season, in hopes it would give the team good luck in making it to the Orange Bowl.

This was Devine’s next-to-last season in Columbia, and the Tigers’ outstanding decade of the 1960s was about to give way to a different experience.

Fifty autumns later, Mizzou is still waiting for the next conference title.

1969: 50 years ago, Big Eight champions

9-2, 6-1 in Big Eight

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