This statement might be hard for MU students to believe, but once upon a time, Missouri football fans and the university’s administrators were arguably spoiled by success.
During the 1960s, Missouri was a legitimate football power. The Tigers were 77-22-6 in the decade, including wins in the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl and two Big Eight Conference championships.
Al Onofrio was coach Dan Devine’s top defensive assistant coach from 1958-70.
John Kadlec, a Missouri assistant coach from 1952-60 and 1966-78, said Onofrio was a vital part of the Tigers’ unprecedented success.
“The defense was the strength of the club at that time, and he was the architect of the defense,” he said. “He was a terrific defensive coach.”
Devine left Missouri after the 1970 season to coach the Green Bay Packers, and Onofrio succeeded him.
After a disappointing 4-7 season in 1977, Onofrio was fired as Missouri’s coach with a 38-41 record in seven seasons.
Many have argued his dismissal ultimately led to the team’s 13 straight losing seasons from 1984-96.
Onofrio died Friday at a hospital in Tempe, Ariz. He was 83.
Despite winning road games at Notre Dame, Southern California, Alabama, Ohio State and Nebraska, Onofrio was unable to completely endear himself to Missouri fans.
Kadlec said Onofrio’s 1-6 record against Kansas cost him his job.
“In those days, if the Kansas coach didn’t beat us regularly, he’d get fired, and visa versa,” he said. “That’s the only reason coach Onofrio was fired.”
Although the Tigers were 1-10 in Onofrio’s first season as coach, highly-touted recruits were still coming to Columbia in droves.
“Uncle Al,” as Onofrio was affectionately known, signed some of Missouri’s all-time greats, including Kellen Winslow, Eric Wright and James Wilder.
“He was in-tune with the players, and the players really liked to play for him,” Kadlec said. “They felt a very warm feeling for coach. He also followed up on the players after they left school, and they likewise followed up on him. He did a wonderful job of making the kids feel that (Missouri) was the place for them to go.”
Onofrio was also known as the “Upset King,” a moniker which was both complimentary and perplexing.
Onofrio’s years gave Missouri fans some of their finest memories and some of their biggest disappointments.
The 1976 season was a perfect example of the Tigers’ inexplicable ups and downs with Onofrio.
The Tigers opened the season at No. 8 Southern California, winning 46-25. The following week, the Tigers lost to unranked Illinois 31-6 at home. Then, the Tigers beat No. 2 Ohio State on the road 22-21.
Despite the team’s schizophrenic performances, Kadlec said Onofrio was fired prematurely.
“I think the administration at the time probably listened to a lot of outside influences they shouldn’t have,” he said.
Similarly, current Missouri coach Gary Pinkel is receiving heavy criticism from many fans and boosters after the team’s fourth straight loss. Kadlec said Pinkel and Onofrio have more in common than fan backlash.
“I think Pinkel is the most thorough recruiter I’ve ever seen,” he said. “He’s really done a terrific job with the state of Missouri. That’s exactly what Devine and Onofrio did. We lost very few from Missouri, and that’s what’s happening with Pinkel.”
Given Missouri’s gradual decline after Onofrio was fired, perhaps agitated Missouri fans should think twice about calling for Pinkel’s head. The 2004 Tigers have certainly failed to live up to expectations, but when Pinkel arrived, Missouri had no expectations.
After all, can one appearance in the Independence Bowl make Missouri fans spoiled again?
Apparently it can.