Sunday, July 28, 2019

Mizzou 50: Amidst I-70 Series excitement, 1985 Tigers suffered an atrocious loss

On October 26, 1985, Mizzou football suffered perhaps its most embarrassing loss ever. Mercifully, almost no sports fans in the state dwelt on it too much, thanks to one of the most infamous calls in baseball history that same night.

The enduring image of autumn 1985 in Columbia is not from the football team, which went a staggeringly bad 1-10 in the first year under coach Woody Widenhofer, a Mizzou alum who unfortunately had more W’s in his name than on the field in his Mizzou coaching debut.

No, the enduring image is related to the “I-70 Series” edition of the World Series from that October, when the St. Louis Cardinals faced the Kansas City Royals in the Fall Classic. The photo is of a frat house in Greektown, a giant white line running down its front steps and front walkway, dividing the house’s loyalties. Words written in white tape (college kids have always been resourceful) on the brick front of the building expressed support for the Royals on one side and the Cardinals on the other. Appropriately rowdy frat guys in red and blue stand on the front porch gesturing and clamoring and raising “No. 1” fingers. In the foreground, sitting on the steps at the front of the walkway leading to the house, sit two guys, one in a Royals hat and one in a Cardinals hat, sitting on opposite sides of the line, looking like “80s frat guy” actors. It’s always October in that photo, Columbia’s best time, the guys in the photo are youthful and hopeful, and Missouri’s baseball teams are the best in the world, with Columbia as the clash point of the two fanbases, especially among the MU student population.

It’s hard to even imagine, but the stories from that month, October 1985, make it sound like Columbia was basically an 8-day party during that World Series, with class attendance optional.
It’s good Missouri sports fans had good baseball teams, because Missouri football had one of its worst seasons. After being the last Big Eight holdout to still play on natural grass, Missouri began its generally awful Omniturf era in 1985. It was like someone in the state’s legislature selling out for an embarrassingly small bribe, because the Tigers gave up playing on natural grass for a pretty terrible artificial surface that was widely lambasted by visiting teams.

So Missouri wasn’t good and they played on a bad field. Cool.

The Tigers appropriately christened that surface with a loss, losing the Sept. 14 season opener 27-23 to a Northwestern team that would, and this will shock you, finish last in the Big Ten. I’ll spare you the details, but Missouri then lost every other game leading up to the World Series, including a 36-17 home loss to an Indiana team that would, and this will shock you, finish tied with Northwestern for last in the Big Ten.

Missouri got hammered 38-7 at Colorado on Oct. 12, their first lost to future Omniturf critic Bill McCartney. At the end of that same day, both the Royals and Cardinals trailed in their League Championship Series. But both rallied to win them and set up the I-70 Series.

On the day of Game 1 of the World Series, Missouri put up fierce resistance to No. 7 Nebraska at home, but lost 28-20 to fall to 0-6. It was their ninth straight loss dating back to 1984. That night, the Cardinals won Game 1 of the World Series in Kansas City.

Then came that memorable day, Oct. 26. Missouri hosted an egregiously bad Kansas State team. The Wildcats had fallen apart under Jim Dickey, who was fired early that season. K-State was 0-6 as well, playing under an interim coach named Lee Moon, who is probably a real person because he has a Wikipedia page. The Wildcats had lost at home to TWO I-AA teams, Northern Iowa and North Texas State, as well as a humiliating season-opening loss to Wichita State, which was Division I but would shut down its football program a year later. So, they were bad, even by Kansas State’s standards at the time.

And… they beat Mizzou. Missouri suffered an incomprehensible home loss to those Kansas State Wildcats. It had to be a sparse crowd at Faurot that October Saturday, given the two terrible teams and the looming Game 6 of the World Series in Kansas City that night, but those that sat through this game deserve an honorary degree from MU. Missouri led 17-6 in the second half, but coughed it up late, missing a near-interception that would’ve sealed things, but instead the Wildcats got a late touchdown and a 20-17 win. It would be the only win of the Lee Moon era.

I think about this game from time to time, both because of the day on which it was played, and the unique situation in Columbia and Missouri at the time. I also think about the undying loyalty of the fans there, the crazy kind of loyalty, and the players, who were still fighting and struggling for just one win at that old stadium. It was a day game, because they were all day games at Memorial Stadium until 1992, and I wonder how many thoughts were drifting toward the big baseball game that night.

You probably know about that game already. With the Cardinals up 3-2 in the Series, Game 6 was an electrifying pitching duel. The Cardinals took a 1-0 lead in the top of the 8th, but the Royals rallied for two runs in the bottom of the 9th to win the game, and eventually win their first World Series title with an 11-0 win in Game 7.

In that 9th inning, American League umpire Don Denkinger called pinch-hitter Jorge Orta safe at first, even though replays showed he should’ve been called out for out number one. (The Royals fan in me at least has to note, reading from my Royals fan operator’s manual, that Frank White was called out stealing second in the fourth, when replays showed he was safe, and the man at the plate singled two pitches later, so it’s reasonable to think that could’ve put the Royals up 1-0. But, obviously, a bad call in the 9th looms larger than a bad call in the 4th.)

Jack Clark, who should probably send Denkinger a nice bottle of something each year on Oct. 26 for shifting the blame, dropped a foul popup from Steve Balboni, who singled two pitches later to really get the rally going. Dane Iorg eventually had the game-winning hit, with one out.

After all that hysteria, it probably felt like a letdown to watch Mizzou play at Iowa State the following Saturday, Nov. 2. Iowa State was decent, but 0-7 Missouri, perhaps motivated by winning the coveted Telephone Trophy, rose up and won 28-27 in Ames, their only win of the season. It snapped a 10-game losing streak.

Missouri was undefeated in November, but that didn’t last long with the schedule coming up. The Tigers lost 51-6 at No. 7 Oklahoma, which was in the midst of a late season surge to a national title.
Missouri then lost a tough one at home to No. 10 Oklahoma State, 21-19. It dropped the Tigers to 0-7 at home on the season. Missouri had a 1,000-yard rusher that season in Darrel Wallace (not the NASCAR driver), but Oklahoma State had Thurman Thomas, who led the Big Eight in rushing in 1985 and was an All-American.

Missouri then capped the season with a 34-20 loss at Kansas on Nov. 23, the Tigers’ third straight loss to the Jayhawks.

It was a memorable autumn in Missouri, but one of the tougher seasons the Tigers have had.

1985: 34 years ago, tied for 7th in Big Eight

Record: 1-10, 1-6 in Big Eight

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