Before the Missouri football team left the visitors’ locker room to face No. 1 Oklahoma on Nov. 14, 1987, Woody Widenhofer laid out the stakes.
“He told us if we beat Oklahoma then beat Kansas the next week to go 6-5 we’d have a chance at a bowl game,” former Tigers kicker Tom Whelihan recalled Monday. “We thought we had that game won.”
Not quite. The Tigers couldn’t outlast the Sooners and instead posted a 5-6 record for the season. The next fall, Widenhofer’s last season of his four-year contract, Missouri never turned the corner on what became the final ride on Woody’s Wagon.
“We were always so close,” Whelihan said.
The former Missouri coach died Sunday at 77.
Stacy Miller, Widenhofer’s daughter, said he died peacefully just after 9 p.m. in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he was recovering from multiple strokes. He suffered a stroke earlier this month then another more severe stroke Saturday. His daughter Kim was by his side, Stacy said, while providing updates to his other three children who were scattered around the country, Stacy and sons Ryan and Ross.
“He was an amazing man,” Stacy said. “A wonderful husband, father and coach.”
The family is trying to prepare memorial service plans in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Stacy said.
Widenhofer came to Missouri with the jewelry to prove he could revive the Tigers’ football program. As a four-time Super Bowl champion assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the former MU player brought his defensive know-how to the Tigers in 1985.
From 1985-88, Widenhofer was 12-31-1 in four seasons at Missouri as a first-time college head coach. A Missouri linebacker under Dan Devine from 1961-64, he became the first alum to take over as head coach since Don Faurot when MU hired him away from the USFL’s Oklahoma Outlaws.
Missouri had fired Warren Powers following a 3-7-1 finish in 1984, the program’s first losing season in seven years, after which Widenhofer quickly became the leading candidate for the job. Prior to his one season in the USFL, Widenhofer made his mark as one of the NFL’s top defensive assistants, spending a decade with the Steelers, including five seasons (1979-83) as coordinator.
“He came in with a pro mentality that if you produced you played,” Whelihan said. “That was the bottom line with him. ... He wasn’t a ball-buster. He wasn’t one of those coaches from the ’50s or ’60s where he got in your face and grabbed your facemask and yelled and cursed at you.”
Widenhofer was one of six candidates for the job along with former Tigers star player Johnny Roland, then a Chicago Bears assistant; Oklahoma assistant Merv Johnson, another former MU player; Tulsa coach John Cooper, who’d later become head coach at Ohio State; Furman coach Dick Sheridan; and Cal State Fullerton coach Gene Murphy.
MU celebrated his hiring with a marketing slogan, urging fans to climb on “Woody’s Wagon,” but the Tigers struggled immediately under his watch, going 1-10 in his debut season. Things weren’t much better the next season when the Tigers suffered the infamous Norman Conquest, a 77-0 loss at No. 4 Oklahoma.
The Tigers made progress in his third year, going 5-6, including the second of three straight wins over Kansas. In 1987, MU got off to a 4-2 start, hung with Oklahoma State in a 24-20 loss — with Barry Sanders in the Cowboy backfield — and nearly toppled No. 1 Oklahoma on the road, a 17-13 loss.
Widenhofer made a splash as a recruiter, especially in the St. Louis area. Before ever coaching a game for the Tigers he signed six of the nation’s top 100 high school prospects in the 1985 recruiting class. From the St. Louis area he landed Hazelwood Central stars Tony Van Zant and Mario Johnson and East St. Louis’ Ronnie Cameron.
But the wheels finally came loose beyond repair in 1988. Van Zant, the nation’s top recruit when he signed with the Tigers, never fully recovered from a torn knee ligament suffered at a high school All-Star game. The Tigers had a different leading passer in each of Widenhofer’s four seasons and failed to score double-digit points five times in a 3-7-1 1988 campaign. At the time, his departure was described as a resignation, even though it was clear MU’s administration wasn’t bringing him back for a fifth season.
In four years at Columbia, Widenhofer worked under three athletics directors and two chancellors. His regime overlapped with the installation of the infamous OmniTurf at Memorial Stadium in 1985, when Missouri became the last Big Eight program to put in artificial turf.
He returned to the NFL as an assistant in Detroit and Cleveland, then resurfaced in the college ranks as the head coach at Vanderbilt in 1997. The Commodores went 15-40 in five seasons under his watch. He had two more coaching stops as a college assistant at Southeastern Louisiana and New Mexico State.
After he retired from coaching, Widenhofer took a job working in a tollbooth near Destin, Fla.
“He had the biggest heart of any man I knew and loved his children unconditionally and had a lot of people that cared for him,” Ryan Widenhofer told the Nashville Tennessean. “He would have done anything for us — he stretched and stretched to do everything he could for us. Obviously, his career was very nomadic moving everywhere; the life of a football coach takes a lot of your time. But he was there for us as much as he could be.”