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.”
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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