Above the neon beer signs of Harpo’s Bar and Grill, high on a mantle, are pieces of wood and metal that represent the lifespan of a Missouri sports tradition.
After a big football victory, fans tear down Faurot Field’s goalposts and march them more than a mile through campus to Harpo’s, on the corner of Tenth and Cherry Streets.
The tradition started more than 30 years ago.
Owner Dennis Harper has a fondness for the 1972 goalpost, the first one brought to his restaurant after the Tigers’ 20-17 victory against Colorado.
“The old square 4-by-4 wooden goalpost is one of my favorites,” he said. “Back then the goal post was right on the goal line.”
The shelf’s most recent addition, a football signed by many of the 2003-2004 Tigers, sits atop a piece of bright yellow goalpost carried to the bar after MU’s 41-24 victory against Nebraska that season.
Harper said he isn’t sure how the tradition started.
“I guess people thought ‘Hey, we’ve got the goal post, we’re walking up the street, now where do we go’ and they chose Harpo’s,” Harper said. “Since then, we’ve always furnished hacksaws so they come back.”
Traditions like the goalpost march are why Sports Illustrated on Campus named Harpo’s the No. 2 college sports bar in the country in its Feb. 10 issue.
During basketball and football seasons, Harpo’s hosts “Tiger Talk”, a weekly hour-long radio show on KFRU 1400/AM featuring Missouri coaches. Harper said hosting the show not only draws a crowd of Tiger faithful every Thursday night, but lets Tiger fans throughout the state know Harpo’s is the place to be for Missouri sports.
“It gives us one full hour of advertising in Kansas City, Springfield, Cape Girardeau, Kirksville and all over the state.”
Famous faces also make Harpo’s a popular postgame destination for Tiger fans. Harper said regulars include former MU players such as basketball guard Willie Smith and quarterback Corby Jones.
Harper said one of his favorite memories involved a visit from former MU basketball coach Norm Stewart and sportscaster Bob Costas.
“They were at the Kansas game a few years ago and they stopped in afterwards,” he said. “The whole place started pounding on the table like in “Cheers”. It was a lot of fun.”
The Foundation of Tradition
Harper, a 1971 Missouri graduate, opened Harpo’s shortly after he finished school. He said he loved college sports and saw a unique opportunity to offer Tigers fans something new.
He got the idea of creating a college sports restaurant and bar growing up in Iowa City, Iowa.
“There were 10 or 12 places right in downtown that catered to Iowa sports fans,” Harper said. “Once I got here, I realized there weren’t any college sports restaurants or bars like there were for the University of Iowa.”
Although he was a pre-dentistry major at MU, Harper said he developed a business mind growing up because his family owned a women’s clothing store chain..
“I’d been mopping floors, packing and unpacking merchandise and running a cash register since eighth grade,” he said. “My first year out of school, I found a location and told my dad I needed to borrow $10,000 from the bank,” he said.
Within its first year, Harpo’s experienced such success that Harper paid off his loan and moved from a smaller building on Seventh Street to the bar’s current location.
“I knew it was a niche that needed to be filled, it was just one of those things where you have to do it to prove it,” Harper said.
Harper said when Harpo’s opened, it was one of only a few bars downtown.
Today, the competition is plentiful. Some bars use dance floors to attract a crowd, while others promise nightly drink specials. Harper said he has always done it differently.
“We really just try to make people feel comfortable,” he said. “There’s no pressure of a dance floor or a huge door bouncer, you can just come and be a sports fan. I’ve always tried to keep my nose to the grindstone and not be concerned with what my neighbor is doing. I just want Harpo’s to be the place where you can come and get the best food and beer. I think that’s why we’ve been here 34 years.”
The secret to his early success, Harper said, was hiring the right employees.
“You get a good mixture of people working for you, kind of a melting pot, and then everyone is saying ‘Let’s go to Harpo’s, I know someone who works there’”.
Lindsey Warner, a waitress at Harpo’s, is a senior at MU majoring in advertising. She said she started coming to Harpo’s soon after she turned 21.
“I remember coming up after football Saturdays and having a lot of fun here,” she said. “It didn’t really matter if we won or lost, because Harpo’s was fun and so I thought it would be awesome to work here,” she said.
Harper said customers come in because they are regulars or they recognize the name.
“Now we have parents coming back who used to go to school here and they tell their kids ‘We’ve got to go to Harpo’s because that’s where we used to go when I went to school here.’”
Pat McGee, a 1987 MU graduate in marketing, lives in Kansas City but makes sure he makes it to a basketball game at least once a year. He said Harpo’s is always on his list when he visits Columbia.
“It’s a great atmosphere,” he said, sitting at a table underneath a framed picture from a 1969 Tiger football victory against Nebraska. “It really makes you feel like you’re in college again.”