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Former Missourian reporters recall MU football program's darker days

Thursday, September 11, 2008 | 8:56 p.m. CDT; updated 4:24 p.m. CST, Wednesday, November 5, 2008

COLUMBIA - It was always the same - the tension, the anger. The nervous reporters trying not to send the coach over the edge.

After a 77-0 loss to Oklahoma, Woody Widenhofer was not looking forward to a postgame prodding from the press, which had just witnessed arguably the lowest point in the history of MU football. The losses piled up during the 1986 season, eight in all.

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But 21 years later, Gary Pinkel took the Tigers to a place fans likely doubted still existed after nearly five decades of misfortune and mediocre accomplishments: a No. 1 ranking.

Since MU's School of Journalism rolled out the first issue of the Missourian in 1908, a long line of sportswriters has covered the team for the publication. As the school and newspaper look back in celebration of their centennials this week, hearing the perspectives of some of these writers provides a clearer view of how special the Tigers' recent rise has been.

After a week in November perched atop the college football polls and a New Year's Day bowl win to open 2008, Tiger fans saw just how quickly attitudes change when a team accomplishes things that haven't been done in almost half a century.

"I don't think Missouri fans suddenly got passionate with a good team," said Wright Thompson, who covered the Tigers for the Missourian in 2000, and now works for ESPN.com. "I think it's the other way around. I feel a good team is a reward for people who've sat through a lot of bad games and a lot of bad heartbreaks in a lot of sports."

And when they've come, the heartbreaks have been legendary.

For every Orange Bowl appearance - one of the program's highlights, a shutout loss to Georgia in 1960 - there's a fifth down against Colorado in 1990 or the impossible "Flea Kicker" against Nebraska in 1997.

Pat Forde, a 1987 MU graduate who also works for ESPN.com, said the scene in the locker room after the Tigers' 1986 matchup with Oklahoma in Norman was one he'll never forget.

Widenhofer, just minutes after coaching what is still the most lopsided loss in school history, slunk toward the group of reporters, his eyes dodging commiserating glances as he faced the legion of notepads.

"He didn't have to say much," Forde said. "The scoreboard spoke for itself. It was just up to us to decide how to paint the picture."

Justin Heckert, a 2002 MU graduate, covered the Tigers in 2000, the late Larry Smith's final season coaching at MU. Heckert also covered the hiring process that brought current coach Gary Pinkel to Columbia. The Tigers won three games in Smith's final season, a low point that came just a few years before Brad Smith engineered the beginning of the program's turnaround in the form of an 8-5 sophomore season. At the time, that was just the third winning campaign for MU since 1983.

"Seeing 70,000 people showing up to a game on ESPN," Heckert said, "and then remembering back when I was there for conference games in front of 40,000 people and it's just the local guys in the press box.

"It's really just astonishing."

Even good seasons came filled with head-scratching moments.

In 1982, quarterback Marlon Adler led the 4-4-2 Tigers into a season finale with Kansas. Tied at 10 on a blustery November day in Lawrence, Adler engineered a game-winning drive to end the season on a high note.

"After the game, Marlon looks at me and says, ‘Oh man, I just didn't want us to end up at 4-4-4,'" said Chuck Finder, the Missourian's MU football beat writer in 1982. "And I was just like, oh man, do the math, Marlon, you only play 11 games."

But that was then.

Fateful bounces off cleats have been replaced by painted turf implanted into opposing quarterbacks' helmets, punctuating wins. Shutout losses have been replaced by an offense that, on Saturday against Southeast Missouri State, engineered five touchdown drives of under three minutes in a 52-3 win.

"I thought I was about to meet my maker. That, or I needed some sort of therapy," Finder said of the prospect of the team he covers, West Virginia, and MU both being one win away from meeting in the national championship last season. "I couldn't believe either was about to happen, but neither did."

Heckert, a Cape Girardeau native who grew up a Tigers fan, said he was always optimistic about MU football. But even in his wildest dreams, a season with this much hype and excitement, and this many expectations, was more than he ever imagined.

"The state of the program when we covered it, in my mind, there was just an overwhelming sense of hopelessness," Heckert said. "When Pinkel came, it was exciting, but still, eight wins was about as good as we could do, ever."

But no matter what this year's team accomplishes, the program is plenty of double-digit win seasons from real respect, Forde said.

"Missouri's profile has risen, but it's still not USC, Ohio State, Florida, Georgia," he said. "I know for a fact there are still people who say, ‘Well, Missouri's a nice, cute little program, as opposed to looking at them and saying, ‘That's a national championship contender.'"

 


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