Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Mizzou 50: In an ill-advised move, the 1988 Tigers played at "The U"

In 1988, Woody Widenhofer was, like Barry Odom this fall, a former Missouri linebacker entering his fourth season as the Tigers’ head coach. Unlike Odom, he was coming off three losing seasons. That year would be his last as the Mizzou head coach, but he had pretty interesting football life.

He played linebacker at Mizzou in the early ’60s, when Dan Devine was the coach, some of the glory days for Tiger football. He was a defensive assistant coach for the “Steel Curtain” Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was a part of four Super Bowl championships, including defensive coordinator for the fourth one. He coached a USFL team for a year, coached his alma mater, then went back to the NFL, including a stint with the Cleveland Browns in 1993 and 1994. There, Widenhofer was linebackers coach under a few coaches of some repute, head coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Nick Saban. In fact, that coaching staff was so loaded they took the Browns to the playoffs and even won a playoff game, still the Browns’ last playoff win, 25 years later.

After his time at Cleveland, Widenhofer eventually became the head coach at Vanderbilt, and then served as an assistant coach at Southeastern Louisiana and New Mexico State under offensive innovator Hal Mumme. After retiring from football coaching, Widenhofer worked at a tollbooth in Florida, as one does. He simply said he didn’t have anything else to do and enjoys meeting people. I kind of love that, actually.

But long before that, Widenhofer had his final season in Columbia. The Tigers started the 1988 campaign with a 35-21 home win over Utah State. But unfortunately it was downhill from there. The Tigers got hammered by Houston 31-7 in Columbia on Sept. 17, then the following week tied Indiana 28-28.

Then came what was, in hindsight, a questionable game at No. 1 Miami. That’s right, Missouri played the Miami Hurricanes… during their peak… on the road… when Mizzou was in full late-80s mode. “The U” was known for their swagger, their overwhelming talent, and the wild and freewheeling reputation of their program. The Hurricanes won the national title in 1987, and they were rolling to start the 1988 season, up to 15 wins in a row when the Tigers came into the old Orange Bowl for their Oct. 1 game. It was Miami’s final game before their famous “Catholics Vs. Convicts” game at No. 4 Notre Dame, which the Irish won 31-30 in thrilling and controversial fashion on the way to a national title.

The Oct. 1 game between Missouri and Miami was much more straightforward, with the Hurricanes winning 55-0.

If playing at Miami was about as tough an assignment as there was in college football in the late ‘80s, Missouri’s next week was one of the more favorable college football opponents from that time, Kansas State. It was the last season in Manhattan before Bill Snyder arrived to lift the K-State program out of a half-century of futility. This was the last season of the Old K-State, who would finish 0-11 and last in the Big Eight. Missouri was just 1-2-1, but they went into Manhattan and cruised to a 52-21 win.

Then came a parade of losses, starting with 21-3 at home to Iowa State, and then 49-21 at No. 15 Oklahoma State. The marvelous Barry Sanders was having a season for the ages that year, winning the Heisman Trophy. Counting the bowl game, over the 12-game season Sanders ran for 2,850 yards and 42 touchdowns. Just ridiculous. Although Mizzou “held” Sanders to his lowest rushing total of the season, 154 yards on 25 yards, a still-impressive 6.2 yards per carry.

Missouri then had a surprisingly respectable 26-18 loss at No. 5 Nebraska, followed by a brutal 45-8 home loss to Colorado.

The Saturday after George W. Bush was elected President, Missouri lost 16-7 to No. 8 Oklahoma, the 16th and final time the Tigers faced Barry Switzer. Missouri finished with a 2-14 mark against Switzer’s generally marvelous teams.

It was a tough final season for Widenhofer, but the Tigers did get a satisfying end to the season by crushing rival Kansas 55-17. It was another bad season for the Tigers, who finished 3-7-1, and Widenhofer was let go after four losing seasons in Columbia. But Missouri did at least notch two wins by at least 30 points against the two schools in Kansas.

1988: 31 years ago, 6th in the Big Eight

Record: 3-7-1, 2-5 in Big Eight

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