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

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