Early in this football season, I sat down with my Tigers schedule and sketched out how I thought the fall would go. I let my optimism run wild and, casting aside the bitter lessons of experience, wrote down a hopeful 9-3 prediction.
As I write — before Saturday’s game with the Texas A&M Aggies — that outcome is still possible. The difference, a big difference for any veteran Tigers fan, is that 9-3 now would be a serious disappointment. You may have seen the article in the New York Times last week that placed MU among the seven teams with a chance at the national championship. (True, our odds were listed at 17 to 1, but that was better than the 50-1 quoted for KU, whose Jayhawks sit maddeningly above us in the polls.)
Newcomers to Missouri football, those who have only followed the Tigers for the past 20 years or so, look puzzled, even amused, when we old-timers talk of a “return” to glory. Open your history books, youngsters, I say, and revisit the 1960s, when Dan Devine’s teams had the highest winning percentage in the country for an entire decade.
We geezers remember 1960, when our Tigers made their one and only appearance at No. 1. Of course, we also remember the dark day later that year when the dastardly Jayhawks broke our hearts. The fact that KU was later discovered to have used an ineligible player and had to give back the victory, in the official record, only palliates the pain.
Pain, we know, has been the lot of the Missouri fan for generations. In my own case, the first game I remember was in 1951. Oklahoma ran up the score so far in the first half that Don Faurot abandoned his starting quarterback and his trademark split-T. He brought in a freshman named Tony Scardino and introduced us to the spread formation that has become routine these days. The air was filled with footballs. Scardino’s numbers still rank in the Tigers’ all-time top 10. And we lost.
We’ve lost a lot since then. There was Uncle Al Onofrio, who won some big games but got fired because he couldn’t beat Kansas. Then came Warren Powers, who took us to bowl games but got fired because they were second-tier bowls. Then Bob Stull and Woody Widenhofer, who made Powers look like Knute Rockne. Larry Smith had a couple of good years but more bad ones. Now Gary Pinkel seems to be learning to smile and to win in November.
To paraphrase Satchel Paige, Tigers fans shouldn’t look back, because history may be gaining on us. Let’s look ahead instead, to stuffed Jayhawk for dinner on Thanksgiving Saturday. Why not San Antonio in December?
And 17-1 odds on the national title? If you want long odds, how about the odds on a bet back in September that a 9-3 record would be cause for dismay rather than celebration?
A good friend, who knows more about football than I do, insists this team is Missouri’s best ever. He may be right. I’ve still got my fingers crossed.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Columbia Missourian and a professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.