SHREVEPORT, La. — Some people would have been surprised to hear about Truman the Tiger breaking the Independence Bowl trophy a few hours before Monday’s game.
Anyone who paid attention to Missouri football this season knew better than to let his or her guard down. Distraction and relative misfortune seemed like Missouri’s most common companions during the 2011 campaign.
So when the Tigers raised a replacement trophy following Monday’s thrashing of North Carolina, it was a fitting end to a season that will be remembered far more for what occurred off the field than on it.
“Conference Realignment” and “MIZ 2 SEC” overtook General Hospital and Days of Our Lives as two of the most watched soap operas in Missouri as Tiger fans debated the future home of the athletic department. Speculation and anticipation turned into inevitability and impatience, as the university and the UM Board of Curators took small step after small step out the door of the Big 12 and into the arms of the Southeastern Conference.
All of it finally culminated in a Sunday afternoon pep rally/celebration/dog and pony show that included confetti cannons, applause lights and a botched helmet exchange between SEC Commissioner Mike Slive and MU Chancellor Brady Deaton.
Even the signature moment of the season’s signature story included a mishap.
With the realignment discussion in his rear view mirror, it looked like coach Gary Pinkel could move on to trying to get his team to a seventh straight bowl game.
Unfortunately for Pinkel, the next thing he saw in his rear view mirror was a police car.
After being arrested on suspicion of DWI, discussions of jumbo formations near the goal line gave way to barbs about jumbo glasses of wine, and Pinkel was suspended for one game by Athletics Director Mike Alden.
Instead of giving hugs to his players as they ran out of the tunnel on senior day, Pinkel watched the Tigers become bowl eligible on TV with friends at his condo in the Lake of the Ozarks.
Henry Josey got hugs from everyone when his spectacular season was derailed by what team doctors called the worst knee injury they had ever seen. The team’s undisputed MVP was forced to watch the season’s final three games from the sidelines.
He wasn’t the only one. Pinkel called 2011 the most injury-riddled of his 30-plus years of coaching. Preseason All Big 12 left tackle Elvis Fisher tore his patellar tendon in preseason practice. Middle linebacker Will Ebner’s season ended in Week 1. Center Travis Ruth, wide receiver Jerrell Jackson and defensive end Brad Madison spent most of the season slowed down by various ailments. Kicker Grant Ressel almost lost his job with poor play before an injured hip flexor sidelined him midway through the year.
Yet the Tigers depart the Big 12 on a four-game winning streak — undefeated since the SEC announcement — and carrying a bowl win over an ACC team in their pockets.
Pinkel, DWI aside, has turned a program that was a bowl interloper into a postseason mainstay. Missouri is one of eight schools that have won eight or more games each of the past six seasons. The others are LSU, Oklahoma, USC, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Boise State and TCU (With a win in the Sun Bowl, you can count Utah as well). Not bad company to keep in the world of college football.
Some of those seasons included greater triumphs than this one — Big 12 division championships, 10-plus win seasons and wins against top-5 teams — but not falling apart in 2011 when it would have been so easy is a major victory that is not to be overlooked.
Pinkel said after Monday’s victory that his team needed to prove itself in the SEC, and that any team in a new league was responsible for showing it belonged. Managing an 8-5 record through a season like this one might just be the first step in doing that.