Tigers’ turnaround

Tuesday, December 2, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:23 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 7, 2008

After the Missouri football team suffered through four miserable seasons, its long wait to return to a bowl game is finally over.

Coach Gary Pinkel needed three years to turn the 3-8 team he inherited into a team that cracked the Associated Press Top 25, beat Nebraska, competed for the Big 12 Conference North Division title until the next to last week of the season and is headed to a bowl game.

That’s a pretty quick turnaround, but Pinkel isn’t done.

“This is hugely important for our program,” Pinkel said. “That’s the kind of program we want to build, one that we go to bowls every year and eventually compete for championships in the good years and someday maybe the national championship. We are never going to change what we are striving for.”

Pinkel’s goals have always been lofty, especially considering how down the program was when he took over.

Few players understand the pain associated with the past five years of Missouri football better than senior receiver Darius Outlaw. Outlaw’s first season at MU was 1999, a year after the Tigers most recent bowl appearance, a 34-31 win against West Virginia in the Bowl.

Outlaw struggled to find the words to describe the frustration he and his teammates have experienced.

“The past couple of years have been …” Outlaw said. “What have we had to show for it? We’ve worked so hard, but we just weren’t getting wins.”

After struggling through four seasons in which the Tigers won 16 games, Outlaw was overcome with emotion after Saturday’s 45-7 win against Iowa State. He choked back tears and his voice trembled when he talked about the importance of the team’s success.

“I can’t even put my finger on how much eight wins means to this program,” Outlaw said. “For three years we’ve had losing seasons. We’ve gotten better and better, but this year we really came out of the shell.”

The Tigers aren’t done. They await their bowl bid, which will likely come Sunday from the Independence Bowl or the Alamo Bowl. With that news comes the chance to win a ninth game for the first time since 1969, when legendary coach Dan Devine was at the helm and the sixth-ranked Tigers lost 10-3 to No. 2 Penn State in the Orange Bowl.

“Coach hit it on the head after the game,” Outlaw said. “He said, ‘We’ve got a chance for nine wins, so let’s go out there and get it.’”

Not long ago, and on more than one occasion, Missouri seemed left for dead and even six wins seemed a stretch.

On Sept. 20, Missouri trailed Middle Tennessee State 34-26. The Tigers were five minutes away from a crushing defeat, at home no less, at the hands of a team on the brink of dropping to Division I-AA status. That’s when senior tight end J.D. McCoy made what Pinkel calls the play of the year.

“One play,” Pinkel said. “Middle Tennessee State. Fourth-and-2 on the 30-yard line coming out. J.D. McCoy makes a catch that you can’t catch. He tears his knee out. How big was that?”

McCoy reached back across his body to catch a Brad Smith pass that was thrown behind him, keeping the Tigers’ drive alive and leading to the touchdown and two-point conversion that would send it to overtime. McCoy partially tore the medial collateral ligament in his right knee, but Missouri won 41-40.

A week later, the Tigers fell 35-14 on the road at rival Kansas. Pinkel said the bye week after the Kansas game was the most difficult time he faced this season. As he tried to look ahead and leave the Kansas debacle behind him, Pinkel saw nothing but difficult games ahead.

“I’m looking ahead and we’ve gotta play Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas Tech,” Pinkel said. “That wasn’t a real good week for ol’ Gary Pinkel, I’ll tell you that right now, but my players responded. Sometimes you have to go to the lowest point and come back up.”

The Tigers bounced back with their first win against Nebraska since 1978 and won two out of three in that grueling stretch, setting the tone for the rest of the season. Missouri didn’t lose two straight games all season, plowing ahead to an 8-4 record and ending the long wait for a chance to play in late December again.

Now there’s one thing left to do until the Tigers’ bowl fate is decided: wait.

JAMES HONORED: Marcus James was named the Big 12 Conference Special Teams Player of the Week.

James, a senior kick returner/wide receiver, averaged 23.5 yards per punt return against Iowa State on Saturday.

On his second return against Iowa State, he became MU’s career return leader with 1,765 yards.

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