COLUMBIA — Norm Stewart remembers the time Colorado took his title.
“That was a big game, and cost us a championship,” the former Missouri player and coach said.
Colorado Buffaloes (15-8, 4-4 Big 12)
at Missouri Tigers (17-5, 3-4 Big 12)
WHEN: 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM
TV: KOMU/Channel 8
On Saturday, Colorado will play its last Big 12 Conference basketball game in Columbia. There will be no dramatic farewell before the Buffaloes depart for the Pac-10 Conference. The two teams aren’t rivals, and they don’t pretend to be. They have met 151 times, and Missouri has won a lopsided 98 games. But, a look back at the early days of the matchup shows a time when the outcome of basketball games between the Tigers and Buffs was not so predictable.
Colorado will try to defeat Missouri for the second time this season on Saturday. The first time the Buffs beat the Tigers twice in one season came when both schools were a member of the Big Seven Conference in 1954. The next year, Colorado did it again.
“The '50s and '60s were the golden age of Colorado basketball without a doubt.” Missouri sports historian Michael Atchison said.
From 1950 to the end of 1969, Colorado and Missouri played 48 times, with the Buffs winning 27. Colorado won or shared five Big Seven/Big Eight Championships to Missouri’s none during the time period.
Perhaps the biggest game between the two teams came in the middle of Colorado’s prime, 1955. Norm Stewart was Missouri’s leading man. He had helped Missouri get off to a strong start, with the Tigers claiming two impressive wins early in the season.
“We beat Indiana at Indiana. Then we beat Iowa at Missouri. I think we were rated about four or five in the country at that time,” Stewart said.
Colorado was also playing well, carrying over its success from the previous season, one that ended with the Buffs sharing a part of the Big Seven conference title with Kansas.
Missouri had lost its first matchup against Colorado in Boulder, Colo., but the conference rematch in Columbia on Feb. 28, 1955 gave Missouri a shot at redemption and the Big Seven title. The 1955 MU yearbook, “The Savitar” summarized the series:
"It was at Boulder that the Buffs outdid Tiger scoring at the free throw slot and emerged with an 80-71 win. The return match in Columbia put the conference title on the line.”
When Colorado’s bus arrived at Brewer Fieldhouse, both teams knew what was at stake. Missouri fans filed into the building, sitting on bleachers that were dragged in from outside to watch the game that was played in swirls of dust.
“They were football seats that they brought inside. When you came out of there you needed a bath. It was pretty dusty,” Stewart said.
The former Missouri captain recalls Colorado guards Tommy Harrold and Charlie Mock using a unique game plan to take time off the clock once their team got ahead in the second half.
“At that time, the rule was there was no five-second call on closely guarded,” Stewart explained in a telephone interview.
“There was no closely-guarded rule, so when they got ahead in the second half, they started holding the ball in the corner of the half line, where the sideline and the half line intersect. They would hold the ball there. If you double-teamed they would kick it off to someone else and wind up with it back out there. I don’t remember anyone ever doing that before or since, because they changed the rule.”
The 66-57 victory (according to MU athletics records) gave Colorado its first outright Big Seven Conference title. Missouri had to settle for second place, finishing the year with a 16-5 record after beating Kansas to end the season.
“It was a big disappointment for us,” Stewart said.
Colorado, however, was destined for the NCAA Tournament. Colorado coach H.B. “Bebe” Lee navigated his team to an NCAA Final Four appearance, a feat that Missouri has never matched. Colorado defeated Tulsa, then Bradley before losing to San Francisco, the eventual NCAA champions, in the tournament semifinal. The Buffs then rebounded after the loss, defeating Iowa in a consolation game.
Lee coached one more year after the tournament run before Russell “Sox” Walseth took the head coaching position for the Buffaloes for the 1956-1957 season. The conference became the Big Eight with the addition of Oklahoma State, and Walseth coached Colorado to two outright Big Eight titles (1961-1962, 1968-1969), and shared one with Kansas State (1962-1963). The title in 1969 was Colorado’s final hurrah over Missouri. The Buffs defeated the Tigers 92-73 on March 8, 1969.
While Missouri and Colorado traded wins and losses throughout the 20-year span, calling the back-and-forth a rivalry is reaching too far. The 750 miles between Boulder and Colorado snuffed out any spark of such a tradition.
“You know, they’ve always been kind of a geographical sore thumb of the league. They’re in a different time zone for crying out loud. They never fit,” Atchison said in a telephone interview.
As soon as the '60s ended, Colorado’s success began to flicker. The team did not win any more conference titles after the 1968-1969 season, a drought that has continued until this day, even after the conference expanded to the Big 12.
“From that point forward (1970 and forward) we’re talking the last 20 or 30 years or so, you’re mostly talking about some good players. There’s been a couple times when the teams have kind of jumped up to be decent, but I don’t remember them ever making a serious run at a conference championship,” Atchison said.
As Colorado's momentum was slipping, Missouri's was building. Stewart returned to the Tigers, this time as a coach in 1967. After trading his jersey for a suit, he reached the conference title that evaded him as a player at Brewer Fieldhouse. The first Big Eight title came in 1976, and he would add seven more during the course of his 32-year coaching career. But, 56 years later, Stewart can still recall the one that got away.