Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Mizzou 50: 1995 brought farewells to the Big Eight, Don Faurot

The 1995 Missouri football season was a season for nostalgia in Columbia. Once again, it was a losing season in Columbia, but it was at least an interesting intersection of the old days of Missouri football and the new.

In the summer of 1995, Missouri put in sod at Faurot Field, returning the surface to natural grass. Don Faurot himself, the coach who put Mizzou football on the map decades ago, ceremonially laid the last piece of sod to complete the move back to natural grass. Faurot was in his 90s, and 69 years earlier the Mountain Grove, Mo., native had helped lay the sod on the original grass field at Memorial Stadium.

It would also be Missouri’s final autumn in the Big Eight. The conference, under a few different names, had been Missouri’s home since 1907. They mostly kept their rivalries and matchups going in the Big 12, but it was still a change. From 1957 to 1995, the entire lifetime of a lot of Tiger fans, Missouri played in the same intimate and familiar league composed of the same eight schools. For decades, the Big Eight champion played in the Orange Bowl. Missouri fans for years threw oranges on the field after the first touchdown of the season, a gesture of good luck.

But in February 1994 those eight schools agreed to merge with four Texas schools from the old Southwest Conference to form the new Big 12. The feel would change some, with league offices moving from Kansas City to the Dallas area and the conference’s center of gravity shifting south.
But first, the Tigers had one more season of Big Eight football.

Missouri won the first game on the new grass field, 28-7 over North Texas on Sept. 2. Then came a 17-10 home loss to Bowling Green.

On Sept. 16, Missouri traveled to Lubbock to play Texas Tech, who would be joining the Big 12 the following year. The Red Raiders were coached by the marvelously named Spike Dykes, a Lubbock native. Texas Tech won 41-14.

Missouri returned home to play Northeast Louisiana, now known as Louisiana-Monroe, and the Tigers managed a 31-22 win to move to 2-2.

Conference play brought much tougher games, as the Big Eight was going out with a strong final session. On Oct. 7, Missouri played at No. 13 Kansas State, a team that for the second year in a row would only lose to top-10 Nebraska and Colorado teams during the regular season. The Tigers were a 21-point underdog. The Wildcats were rolling to a top-10 finish in the final polls, and they rolled against Missouri 30-0.

Somehow, things got even tougher the following week, when Missouri was a 42-point underdog at No. 2 Nebraska. The 1995 Cornhuskers were maybe the best team Missouri has ever played, and one of the great college football teams of all time. Coming off a national title, the ’95 Huskers won every Big Eight game by at least 23 in that final campaign, crushed No. 2 Florida 62-24 in the Fiesta Bowl, and finished 12-0 for a second straight national title. That team was a steamroller, and they steamrolled the Tigers 57-0 on Oct. 14.

But on the heels of those two beatdowns, a combined 87-0 run by opponents, came Missouri’s annual week of good feelings, Homecoming. MU claims to have invented Homecoming, and it remains a very big deal in Columbia every autumn. It’s a weekend to celebrate and embrace nostalgia and soak in the glorious atmosphere of fall on campus and feel for just a moment like you’re 21 again. It is the biggest week for school spirit, and so perhaps it was fitting, if sad, that Don Faurot passed away during Homecoming week in 1995. He died at age 93 on Oct. 19, two days before the Homecoming game. He was a link to another era, but also a symbol until the end about something fresh and modern and enduring, the love of your alma mater. His college student memories were over 70 years old when he passed. He was the coach who put Mizzou on the map, who played brutal road schedules to help give the program a financial base, who won three conference titles and developed a new formation and hired Dan Devine while he was athletic director. He stayed. He was Missouri football. His statue greets Tiger fans every Saturday.

The Tigers were facing Oklahoma State in the Homecoming game on Oct. 21. The Tigers put up a fight, but lost 30-26 to the Cowboys.

Missouri next lost 13-9 at home to No. 23 Oklahoma.

Next up, on Nov. 4, was a road trip to No. 11 Kansas, the last Border War under the Big Eight banner. The Jayhawks were having one of their best seasons in school history under Glen Mason, going 10-2 and finishing in the top 10 of the final polls, losing only to Nebraska and Kansas State. Kansas won 42-23 against the Tigers.

The loss dropped Missouri to 2-7, but the challenges kept coming. Missouri traveled to the mountains for a Nov. 11 game at No. 9 Colorado. New head coach Rick Neuheisel was leading the Buffaloes to a top-5 final ranking and a Cotton Bowl win. Colorado shutout the Tigers on the way to a 21-0 win. That made it six straight losses.

Finally, on Nov. 18, the dismal Tiger season reached its finale with a home game against Iowa State. It was a 1 p.m. kickoff, and in late autumn sunshine the Tigers and Cyclones played their final Big Eight football game. Missouri won, 45-31, putting a positive final touch on the season, finishing with a 3-8 record. The Iowa State game was Missouri’s only win in its final Big Eight season.

The following week, Nebraska and Oklahoma played the final Big Eight Conference game. For years it had been the dramatic season-ender for both schools, the game that most defined Big Eight football, but the final Big Eight meeting was less than riveting. Nebraska won 37-0.

In some ways, it makes sense why Missouri struggled in 1995. Of course, the Tigers weren’t very good and hadn’t been good for a long time, but four teams (Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas State, Kansas), half the conference, finished in the top 10. It’s tough to get much momentum against that slate.

In any event, Missouri headed into the Big 12 era on a run of 12 straight losing seasons.

1995: 24 years ago, tied for 7th in the Big Eight

Record: 3-8, 1-6 in Big Eight

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