Loving the University of Missouri doesn't end at graduation. Alumni who now work at ESPN share their thoughts in their own words.
Pat Forde, national columnist for ESPN.com
MU Class of 1987
As a student at Missouri, I never really understood homecoming.
I mean, the festivities were cool. The parade and the floats and the arrival of my roommate's big brother to pay our bar tab for a night— those were not bad things. Nor was the chance to see Mizzou win a home game. Homecoming opponents customarily are beatable, and during my four years in Columbia (1983-86 football seasons), we needed all the cupcakes we could get.
(Sadly, they weren't cupcake-y enough. I looked it up: Missouri was 1-2-1 on homecoming during my time, with diminishing returns as I got older. We beat Kansas State 38-0 my freshman year, tied Iowa State 14-14 as a sophomore, lost to California 39-32 as a junior and then lost to Colorado 17-12 as a senior. The end of the Warren Powers Era and early Woody Widenhofer years were grim times for Missouri football.)
Then again, I only experienced one homecoming football game in the stands. The other three, I was in the press box covering the games for either The Maneater or the Missourian. Mizzou was winless in those three games, but I guarantee I enjoyed the experience. Nothing was more thrilling than rubbing shoulders with the professional sports writers I aspired to be like when I got out of school.
But as I said, the entire homecoming phenomenon pretty well sailed over my addled head. Which is probably the way it should be, since homecoming is for old people.
As an old person, I can appreciate that.
Back then, I didn't really get the alums walking around campus lost in reverie, laughing with friends at 25-year-old stories, mourning the closing of The Shack. They were moderately interesting and amusing, but mostly they just made the lines at the bar longer at Harpo's.
I get them now.
Because looking back through the soft focus of selective memory, you latch onto the fun part of the college experience. You remember the Friday happy hours at T Baker's— not the nights you sat in the dorm feeling homesick. You remember the too-small black-and-gold overalls you bought and wore to every game as a freshman— not walking in the rain to Econ 51. You remember the adrenaline surge of breaking a story for the Missourian — not the drudgery of Advertising Principles.
I guess that's what makes nostalgia such a powerful force. From a middle-aged perspective, the college experience was a daily carefree romp through young adulthood.
Because I work on fall weekends, I've never experienced an MU Homecoming football game. I'd never complain about my job, but that is one regret.
But on the occasions when I've returned to campus, I have had my homecoming moments. I have done the reverie walk and old-story laughter and The Shack mourning. Even the bad times seem good now. And I'm pretty sure the football team was undefeated.
Wright Thompson, ESPN senior writer
MU Class of 2001
I don't get back to Columbia that much anymore.
When I do return, I find a shadow of the place I left. It is almost the same, but something’s off. I wander the streets, recognizing some places, finding others new and foreign – What the hell is Which Wich? — looking at the rush of passing students, somehow surprised I don’t recognize any of them.
More surprising is how I struggle to remember the me who went here, and all the hopes my friends and I brought with us to campus. I remember my room in the fraternity house, and my apartment on Rollins, and the one behind the ‘Berg. I remember bottomless cup at Fieldhouse, and the real name of the pizza at Godfather's. I remember walking across the quad to Lee Hills Hall, and I even remember the lonely gray of a February morning, but I cannot for the life of me remember how I felt. A lot of those hopes we nurtured have come true. The thing about dreams, you realize later, is that the act of dreaming them brings more joy than seeing them realized. When I go back to campus, I try to remember.
I eat at Booches. The bartenders don't recognize me anymore, even though I make eye contact, just in case. I eat at Shakespeares, and it tastes better than the Shakespeare's I sometimes have overnighted to my house. I try to go to Widman’s, and it’s a restaurant now, a good one I hear, but I'll never find out. It’s too weird to walk inside.
That feeling repeats itself. It took me a long time to articulate. I come back to Columbia and discover that my memories of those years are about people and not about buildings. My Columbia wasn't a collection of bars and restaurants and the back corner of the Missourian newsroom. My Columbia no longer exists. Even the person I was then doesn't exist. Turns out, we can't go home again, and yet we try, over and over again.
That's what this weekend is all about. An attempt to revive, to recapture. At this remove from my time at Mizzou, I now understand the desires that birthed that first homecoming a hundred years ago. We think that maybe, if we keep coming back, we'll remember how it felt to look out over the long, unlived future and imagine wonders to come.
Michael Kim, ESPN SportsCenter host
MU Class of 1991 (MA)
Homecoming Haiku No. 1:
A True Son, that's me
Born at campus hospital
Tiger from Day One
Homecoming Haiku No. 2:
Black and white photos
Ice cream at Brady Commons
Black and Gold mem'ries
Homecoming Haiku No. 3:
I was there that day
A rare victory! But wait...
They scored on Fifth Down
Homecoming Haiku No. 4:
Fall days at Faurot,
Winter nights at Hearnes Center
Led me on this path...
Homecoming Haiku No. 5:
Welcome change, I say
Past is past, but come next fall...
Seth Wickersham, ESPN.com senior writer
MU Class of 2000
I don’t remember who won two of the three homecoming games that I attended during my years at Mizzou. And it's not due to alcohol consumption. Most homecomings were uneventful. But I remember Oct. 18, 1997 — my first one — like it was last Saturday.
The Tigers beat powerhouse Texas, led by future Heisman trophy winner Ricky Williams, 37-29. I was covering the game for The Maneater at the time, and two snapshots have stuck with me after all these years. I remember the midfield bear-hug quarterback Corby Jones laid on his brother, Curtis, in a blender of fans that had rushed the field. And I remember coach Larry Smith, under a slab of neatly parted silver hair, trying to temper his postgame glee. Smith, a turnaround artist entering the redzone of his career, had done it again. After 10 straight losing seasons, Missouri was 4-3, and on its way to its first bowl since 1983.
The next season, covering an even better Tiger team for the Missourian, I developed a great relationship with Smith. He'd typically exit the cafeteria after his weekly "Lunch With Larry" press conference. I'd hang around, and after 20 minutes, Smith always reappeared, limping slightly in a black sweater-vest. We'd talk football as he slurped his soup — he always ate soup. Sometimes he invited me back to his office, and he'd lift his right leg onto his desk so that the blood would circulate better. He wasn't a perfect coach or person. But he was something more important: He was a decent guy, who for reasons I can't explain went out of his way to help me, a student reporter, from whom he had nothing to gain.
My senior year at Mizzou, 1999, was tough for Smith. He was diagnosed with leukemia. Missouri went 4-7, and many turned on him — including me. Our relationship was strained. Our weekly lunches ended. That spring, I saw Larry at a baseball game. I stopped to make small talk, to tell him that I was about to graduate, but he clearly didn't care. Our bond was over. I left Columbia to begin my career and his ended months later after a 3-8 season. He never got another coaching job. Eight years later, leukemia claimed his life. He was 68.
Yeah, Missouri has reached new heights under Gary Pinkel. But look around campus. There's no memory of Smith — no alleys bearing his name, no commemoratives, nothing. It’s sad. He changed the trajectory of Missouri football on homecoming, a day dedicated to honoring the past. I'll always remember Larry Smith, as a beneficiary of his thankless help.
John Anderson, ESPN SportsCenter host
MU Class of 1987
The Ride of a Lifetime! Or how I nearly wrecked the helmet car.
I came to Mizzou with one big goal in mind – graduate. As a kid who traveled 600 miles from home to go to college, there was no way I was going to embarrass myself and return to Wisconsin without my degree.
Then I went to my first football game at Faurot Field and suddenly that big goal changed. There was only one thing that mattered and I didn't care if it took my entire four years to get it. John Anderson was going to steal that Mizzou helmet car. Incarceration or expulsion? Whatever, I was willing to risk both for that vehicle.
Cut to the happy ending. Homecoming 2002!
To serve as grand marshal was a tremendous honor. To ride in the parade in your own convertible was indescribable. Walking out ontothe field in front of 65 thousand cheering people at halftime was an opportunity, after 19 years and many ill fated attempts I do not wish to commit to paper here, to finally GET TO THAT CAR.
After crowning the royal couple I immediately made a beeline for that giant helmet. I enlisted the help of the serving Mizzou Alumni Association president who shall remain nameless (Steve Vincent), and we overpowered the guardians of the car (okay, so we asked nicely), hopped in and floored it.
Sputtering to life, the car, eventually, jerked forward when the anonymous alumni association president (Steve Vincent) screamed, "Stop!" Slamming on the brakes, we skidded to a halt just a foot or two from a pedestrian previously hidden outside the view of our ear hole.
As we crouched low to see whose life we had just spared, along waddled a giant human being unmistakable even from our waist down only view. It was kU head coach Mark Mangino. The wreckage avoided had been to me, (Steve), and the car's face mask. There was a moment of reflection and then, tempting as it was, the wise decision was made not to try and make a second, purposeful, run at Mangino. Why? Victory over the jayhawks was certain. A joy ride lap around the stadium waited.
I drove with the pride of an Indy or Daytona 500 winner. After nearly two decades — mission accomplished. Got that diploma, too. And it only took 4 and a half years!