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