COLUMBIA — Thirty-eight years later, former defensive tackle John Cowan has reason to smile about Missouri football.
Thirty-eight years later, he and other members of the 1969 team, MU’s last nine-win squad and one of the program’s best ever, have reason to believe.
“Like almost everyone else, I almost got to the point where I gave up,” says Cowan, who lives in Belton, Mo. “It’s interesting how when things go well for a program, it seems so easy. When things go bad, you don’t think there’s hope.
“I don’t think anybody understood how much work it took to be successful. ... College football is a tough-ass sport. At best, you’re going to get the hell kicked out of you. So kids want to win, and if they put out all that effort and take that kind of beating and don’t have success, it’s easy to get down.”
The unfulfilled expectations, early-season gaffes and late December red-eye flights to Shreveport, La., seem distant memory now. With Big 12 Conference title hopes and the possibility of a BCS bowl appearance — or more — dominating discussion throughout Columbia, the 2007 Tigers may not have a more passionate group of supporters than those who charmed mid-Missouri in 1969 on their way to a co-Big Eight Conference championship and Orange Bowl bid.
That ’69’ team finished sixth in the AP and UPI polls with a 9-2 record, its only losses coming at Colorado and to Penn State in the Orange Bowl. It featured a first-team All-American in senior guard Mike Carroll. Senior quarterback Terry McMillan and junior receiver Mel Gray dazzled fans with a play-action attack that set school records for points per game (36.2), total yards (4,507), passing yards (2,048) and touchdown passes (20).
Under legendary coach Dan Devine, MU capped its most successful decade in program history, during which the Tigers won eight games or more in a season five times (in 1960, ’62, ’65, ’68 and ’69).
When it’s over, could 2007 rewind classic memories? Back to days when fans packed so tight inside Memorial Stadium that they shoved one another off the wobbling bleachers’ back rows? Back to days when The Shack, a popular campus hangout, burst with anticipation more than 48 hours before kickoff?
Back to days when Missouri football had bite?
“We can’t believe it hasn’t happened (since). We didn’t think we were that great. In fact, if we were any good, we would have won the Orange Bowl,” says McMillan, who lives in Plano, Texas, laughing. “I haven’t been this excited since ’69.
“When you get to be old, you love to hear about your old team. And they keep comparing (the 2007 team) to the ’69 team, and we’re like, ‘All right, that’s cool. We were good.’ But you see, we weren’t good, we just had a good time.”
After ’69, the good times started to end. The following year, the Tigers suffered their first losing season under Devine, finishing 5-6 and snapping a two-year bowl streak — the program’s longest since 1959-60.
In January 1971, Devine left to coach the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.
Devine’s defensive assistant, Al Onofrio, took over with expectations that MU’s budding powerhouse would blossom.
But Onofrio faltered, and pressure from past successes became too much. Onofrio finished 1-10 in his first year, completing the program’s worst season since a 1-9 campaign in 1955. The Tigers rebounded in following seasons, being invited to the Fiesta Bowl in 1972 and the Sun Bowl in ’73.
However, that was the extent of Onofrio’s postseason legacy at MU.
After losing five of their first six games in 1977, the Tigers finished 4-7 and Onofrio was fired, some citing his 1-6 career record against Kansas as the reason.
Over the next two decades, Warren Powers, Woody Widenhofer, Bob Stull and Larry Smith were all unable to propel MU to the level it enjoyed during the Devine era.
The pipeline of success had run dry.
“After I left, I thought our teams would have good teams on an ongoing basis, because we recruited so well in Missouri and had such success under Devine,” says former linebacker Nip Weisenfels, who lives in Kansas City, Mo. “Turns out, we made a bunch of assumptions that were not good assumptions.
“People got to thinking we were one of those places like Notre Dame and Michigan and Ohio State — that we would always have good football.
“But people didn’t have a clue how difficult it was to build a program and keep it at the top.”
Former players say a variety of factors led to MU’s fall, such as increased academic standards and tougher competition for the state’s top high school prospects when the recruiting process became a national affair.
Now, seven years into Gary Pinkel’s tenure, they say times are changing. They say they have seen flashes of past glory this fall.
It’s third-and-10 for Missouri, and Daniel bounces around in the pocket. He looks left, scrambles right, pump fakes, scans his progression ... there’s Jeremy Maclin streaking behind the secondary ... Daniel lets it go ... touchdown, Tigers!
Wait, was that McMillan and Gray out there?
“What made our team like the team they have this year is those guys were looking for leadership back then, and it was provided,” McMillan says. “And (the 2007 team) has it with Chase (Daniel).
“I’ve never gone back over the years to any quarterback up there and said, ‘I want to shake your hand.’ And I did it last week. I went to Coach Gary Pinkel’s office, and he pulled Chase out of a meeting and let me meet him. I was honored.”
No matter what happens over the next month, members from the ’69 team say a season like this will stay with current players forever.
Enjoy the journey, they say. Because, before you know it, it’s 38 years later and past glories become present joys.
Back in ’69, there was a black-and-gold sign nailed to the wall above the training room entrance that said, “What I gave I had. What I didn’t give, I lost forever.”
For members of MU’s last great team, 2007 suggests that youth is never lost. It lives on, given life through the accolades of those who follow.
“I think in every person’s life you’ve got to have some events that remind you of the past,” says former defensive end Mike Bennett, who lives in Cape Girardeau, Mo. “This Mizzou team brings back wonderful memories.”