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

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