When I was in college at Mizzou, as part of intermediate writing class, I got to interview Missouri assistant football coach Andy Hill for a profile. Hill had played football at Mizzou, starting as a walk-on, and even at the time he was the longest-tenured Missouri assistant coach. He’s still on the Missouri coaching staff, having worked under Larry Smith, Gary Pinkel and now Barry Odom. Hill has about as much connection to the Missouri program as anyone.
When I asked the pride of Trenton, Mo., what was his favorite memory from his playing days at Missouri, he pretty quickly mentioned the 10-0 win over Oklahoma during the 1983 season. Hill caught a touchdown pass in that game, and he proudly remembered one of his favorite parts of the game, that walk-on players were responsible for all the points. It was a special fall day in Columbia, Missouri’s second straight home win over Barry Switzer and the Sooners. Oklahoma was in the midst of a slightly down stretch, by the lofty standards Switzer and others had set, but this was still one of the two behemoth programs in the Big Eight, the program that had largely terrorized Middle America since World War II.
That 1983 season was special in the broader context of Missouri football. It was a last few months in the sun at the end of a generally good run of football during the 60s and 70s that spilled over into the early 1980s. There were some bad seasons and games, but 1983 was another winning season that ended in a bowl, and it capped about a quarter century of seasons in which Tiger football was fairly successful, and even more so, interesting. Even if they dropped plenty of games they should have won, Missouri also scored many stunning upset wins. They played robust schedules. They were a scrappy underdog. They won bowls and, during the 1960s, championships.
After 1983, Missouri drifted into the wilderness, with a decade and a half of lost autumns to follow.
The 1983 campaign, Warren Powers’ sixth as head coach, opened with a 28-18 home win over Illinois on Sept. 10. Missouri then traveled to venerable Camp Randall Stadium and lost a tough one to Wisconsin, 21-20.
The Tigers continued the up-and-down trend, beating Utah State 17-10 in Columbia, but then losing a 13-6 clunker at home to East Carolina. ECU would go 8-3 that season, with all three losses coming to top-10 teams, but it was a tough loss heading into Big Eight play.
Missouri opened conference play with a dominating 59-20 win at Colorado on Oct. 8. Second-year coach Bill McCartney was still working on rebuilding the Colorado program.
Then came a storied opponent for the Tigers, as they hosted the No. 1 Nebraska Cornhuskers. The 1983 Huskers were one of the most memorable and breathtaking and bittersweet teams that robust fanbase has ever had. The offense scored a prolific 654 points in 13 games, and the team was nicknamed “The Scoring Explosion.” Husker running back Mike Rozier ran for 2,148 yards on an audacious 7.8 yards per carry and won the Heisman Trophy that year.
Nebraska opened the season with against No. 4 Penn State, the defending national champion, in the first Kickoff Classic game in Giants Stadium. The Huskers roared to a 44-6 win. Nebraska scored at least 50 points seven times, often many more.
Mizzou held the Huskers to their fourth-lowest point total of the season, but the top-ranked Huskers still won 34-13 in Columbia. Nebraska finished the regular season 12-0 and faced No. 5 Miami in the Orange Bowl. It was the 50th Orange Bowl, and longtime Omaha World-Herald writer and Big Eight football expert Tom Shatel called it the greatest game he ever saw. Played on Jan. 2, the previous major bowl results meant the winner would likely win the national title. Miami took a 31-17 lead into the fourth quarter before Nebraska mounted a comeback. The Huskers pulled within one with less than a minute to play. An extra point meant a likely tie, which probably still would’ve been enough for Tom Osborne to get his first national title. But Osborne went for the two and the win. He didn’t want to just play for the tie, and said it was about the integrity of the Nebraska football program. Turner Gill’s pass was tipped away, and the two-point try failed. Miami prevailed 31-30 and won the national title. Nebraska finished the season, one of their greatest and most memorable ever, ranked No. 2.
Now 3-3 after the loss to that Nebraska team, Missouri got back on track with a ruthless 38-0 home win over a Kansas State team that opened its season with a loss to Long Beach State and finished last in the Big Eight.
Missouri stayed on a roll as the season moved deeper into autumn, winning 41-18 at Iowa State on Oct. 29, and then picking up that 10-0 win over No. 11 Oklahoma on Nov. 5. Missouri then won 16-10 against a decent Oklahoma State team, their fourth straight victory, to move to 7-3 and assume the No. 19 ranking.
But the season ended with a thud, losing 37-27 in Lawrence to a Kansas team with a losing record.
The Tigers still got to go to a bowl game, the Holiday Bowl, where they played No. 9 Brigham Young University. BYU opened the season with a narrow loss at Baylor, but then the Cougars reeled off 10 straight wins behind star quarterback Steve Young and legendary coach LaVell Edwards. This was the sixth of BYU’s seven straight Holiday Bowl appearances, because the bowl gave one spot to the Western Athletic Conference champion, and BYU won the WAC the first seven years there was a holiday bowl.
The game was played in San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium, where Tony Gwynn had earlier that year hit .309 in his first full season in the big leagues. It was played on Dec. 23, Festivus. Missouri’s Eric Drain ran for a touchdown to give Missouri a 7-0 lead after one quarter. Young, long known for his scrambling abilities, ran for a 10-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7. Missouri added a Brad Burditt field goal to take a 10-7 lead into the half.
In the third quarter, it was a Young touchdown pass to put BYU back on top, 14-10. In the final quarter, Drain had another rushing touchdown to put Mizzou up 17-14. But Young had a little more magic left, and the Cougars mounted one more drive. With 23 seconds left, Young handed it off to Eddie Stinnett, who then threw the ball to Young, who ran into the end zone for a touchdown and a 21-17 BYU win. Young had rushing, passing and receiving touchdowns in the game, so naturally he was named the offensive MVP. Missouri’s Bobby Bell was the defensive MVP.
Twitter would’ve had fun with this one, as the teams combined for a robust nine turnovers.
The next season, BYU went unbeaten and won the 1984 national title.
It was a classic, but for years after it would stand as Missouri’s last bowl experience.
1983: 36 years ago, tied for second in the Big Eight
Record: 7-5, 5-2 in Big Eight