Saturday, July 27, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1984 and the beginning of Missouri's descent into the futility

When Memorial Stadium was carved out of the natural valley south of the University of Missouri campus in the 1920s, the only real option for football fields was natural grass. Or, in a pinch, sawdust and tree bark, apparently.

Missouri’s first game at Memorial Stadium was Oct. 2, 1926, against Tulane. As can happen in October in Missouri, there were torrential rains, and the field could not be sodded due to the wet conditions. So, as the story goes, MU created a surface of sawdust and tree bark, as one does, to try to keep the muddy mess of a surface playable.

Perhaps “playable” is a stretch, and like my brother and I’s first Madden 99 football game when we didn’t really know the controls, the game was a 0-0 tie. As longtime St. Louis sportswriter Bob Broeg later wrote, Missouri and Tulane “played to a scoreless, mudpie tie.”

But every game after that, for nearly 60 years, the Tigers played home games on God’s green grass. However, the infamous Omniturf era was coming soon, and 1984 would be Missouri’s last season on grass for over a decade.

That farewell to grass did not fare well, and it cost Warren Powers his job. Given his record over seven seasons in Columbia, it was kind of a bizarre move.

The season started with a tough 30-24 loss at Illinois. It broke a four-game Tiger winning streak in the on-and-off series, which was played pretty frequently from 19966 to 1984. Missouri would have to wait till 1991 to try for revenge against the Illini.

Missouri then lost its home opener on Sept. 15, a 35-34 loss to Wisconsin. Close losses were unfortunately a theme this season, but this one was particularly painful. It was sportswriter Pat Forde’s first game he covered for the school paper. He recalls how well things were going, with Missouri up 28-7 after three quarters. But then, as Forde later wrote, “Marlon Adler had his own personal tour of football Hell.”

Adler had a punt blocked and recovered for a touchdown. About two minutes later, he had another punt blocked to set up another Badger touchdown. The Badgers eventually tied the game, and then Adler came in at quarterback and threw a pick. Wisconsin missed a field goal, but Adler threw another pick and Wisconsin scored the go-ahead touchdown. With the game having achieved full meltdown status, Powers put Warren Seitz back in at quarterback. Seitz led a touchdown drive.

Powers went for two and the win, like Tom Osborne had done in the national title game Orange Bowl in January of that year. George Shorthose, Missouri’s leading receiver and a Jeff City native, was wide open. Seitz threw a good pass to him… and Shorthose dropped it, and Missouri dropped to 0-2.
Missouri was able to get its first win the next week, 47-30 over Mississippi State in Columbia.

Then came a big home game with No. 19 Notre Dame. The Irish were known for breaking out green uniforms in rare situations for big games, and Mizzou came out in gold jerseys and pants to the roar of the crowd. Missouri had some “misadventures at the goal line,” Forde wrote, with one drive stalling at the 1 and then botched two-point conversion tries. But Notre Dame only led 16-14 late.

But then came some great fodder for anyone who insists Mizzou football is cursed. The Tigers drove into field goal range, but then their decent kicker, senior Brad Burditt, missed the 39-yarder for the win… short. It’s one thing to miss out on a huge upset win by missing a field goal, it’s another when a kicker who had made field goals from 51 yards misses the kick short.

“Yes, he was short from 39 yards out,” Forde wrote. “A guy who had made a 51-yarder two years earlier suddenly didn’t have the leg of a high-schooler.”

Missouri somehow shook off that disappointment by annihilating Colorado 52-7 at Faurot Field to open Big Eight play. It was the third straight year Missouri crushed coach Bill McCartney’s Buffaloes. McCartney’s first breakthrough at Colorado was coming the next autumn.

Missouri was 2-3 but fought hard on the road against No. 6 Nebraska. But fighting hard wasn’t enough, as the Huskers won 33-23 in Lincoln.

The caliber of competition was, ahem, a bit different the following week, and Missouri won 61-21 at K-State in KSU Stadium. It was the Tigers’ last game against Jack Dickey, who would be asked to resign early in the 1985 season.

Missouri battled Iowa State to a 14-14 tie on Oct. 27, the two teams’ second tie in three seasons.
That dropped Missouri to 3-4-1 ahead of a trip to No. 10 Oklahoma. The season was wobbling. In November, it collapsed.

The Sooners boomed to a 49-7 win. (Can you imagine that much “Boomer Sooner?” Think of the children.)

Speaking of blowouts, the following Tuesday was President Ronald Reagan’s famous landslide re-election, when he won 49 of 50 states against Walter Mondale, taking 525 of the 538 electoral college votes. To this day, Mizzou students still wear “Reagan Bush ’84” shirts to day parties, even if they weren’t alive for Dole-Kemp 96. Missouri voted 60 percent for Reagan in 1984.

In the governor’s race, Missouri had an election without Kit Bond running for governor for the first time since 1968. Republican John Ashcroft defeated Democrat Ken Rothman, 56.66 percent of the vote to 43.34 percent.

For Mizzou football, the challenges continued with a trip to No. 7 Oklahoma State, a really good team that would only lose at Nebraska and Oklahoma that year, because per league rules Oklahoma must win the Bedlam Game. The Cowboys cruised to a 31-13 win over the Tigers.

Then game insult to injury, as Missouri lost by two touchdowns at home to rival Kansas, 35-21.
The Tigers finished the season at 3-7-1, Powers’ first losing season. Apparently Missouri decided it couldn’t tolerate a losing season, certainly not with a loss to Kansas thrown in, so the school fired Powers, despite a 46-33-3 overall record and a respectable 24-22-3 mark in conference play. It felt quick, even with all the frustrating close losses, but Powers was done, and 1985 would mark the start of the Woody Widenhofer era at Mizzou.

1984: 35 years ago, tied for 5th in Big Eight

Record: 3-7-1, 2-4-1 in Big Eight

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