College football turns 150 years old this fall. Kent Stephens has worked at the College Football Hall of Fame for 30 of those years.
His roles have varied. Stephens has been a curator, registrar and historian, among many other positions during his time with the hall of fame. Historian, however, remains Stephens’ most prominent title.
He can rattle off facts about a game from 100 years ago just as well as he can recall details about a team from a decade ago. College football encyclopedia may be the more fitting, if not more accurate, label for Stephens.
The history of Missouri’s football team, which played its first season in 1890, is something Stephens knows well. He can tell you as much about the 1960 team that came one win away from a national championship as he can the 2007 team, which featured a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Chase Daniel.
And he can certainly tell you about nine Hall of Fame inductees with ties to Missouri, a group featuring Paul Christman, coach Don Faurot, halfback Robert Steuber, tackle James Travis, center Darold Jenkins, coach Dan Devine, cornerback John Roland, tight end Kellen Winslow and cornerback Roger Wehrli.
The Missourian spoke with Stephens ahead of Missouri’s homecoming game and asked for his thoughts on superlatives as they relate to the Tigers:
Where does Missouri rank compared to other college football programs all-time? No. 35
“In my own personal rankings, I have them ranked 35th as far as the best program of all time.”
Stephens said explaining how he came to that number would take extensive time, but this is the succinct version as to why:
“Missouri has always been good, but generally speaking, has never really been great. They have had two top teams that have finished in the top five — the 1960 team and the 2007 team. But they have had a number of teams they could say were ranked, but very few teams that competed for a national championship.”
The closest Missouri came to a national championship: 1960
“They were No. 1 going into the final week of the season, and they got beat by Kansas 23-7. So that kind of squashed the one really true national championship hope in 1960.”
The Big Eight Conference later gave Missouri the victory because Kansas competed with an ineligible player, but it was too late for the Tigers to be awarded a national championship. They finished with a perfect record because of the win awarded to them, but the final AP poll, which then awarded the national champion by whomever it deemed No. 1, had already come out before the ruling by the Big Eight.
Greatest Player in Missouri’s history: Paul Christman
“(Quarterback) Paul Christman. He was a two-time finisher in the top five for the Heisman voting.”
Christman, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1956, was born in St. Louis in 1918. He played for Missouri from 1938-40, where he was a threat on the ground and through the air. His 13 passing touchdowns led the nation in 1940 when he placed third in the Heisman voting. Christman went on to play for the Chicago Cardinals and Green Bay Packers.
Missouri’s greatest contribution to college football: Faurot’s introduction of the Split-T formation
“(The Split-T in 1941) was a takeoff of the T-formation (introduced by Stanford the year before) where the space in between the guard and the tackle and the end was much wider than the conventional T formation. Because of that, it led to option football. He was really an innovator in the triple option. Don Faurot was an excellent coach in terms of wins and losses, but he was a great innovator as well.”
Rarest Missouri player: Johnny Roland
Listed in the Hall of Fame as a cornerback, Roland played a variety of positions from 1962-65. He played on both sides of the ball during the one-platoon era when rosters were smaller and athletes played both ways, but he did the most damage as a running back. When college football switched to the two-platoon era, which is more similar to what fans see today, he moved solely to the defensive side of the ball.
“He was a great offensive player, but Devine thought he was more valuable as a defensive player. So he then switched from offense to defense when they went to two-platoon football in 1964-65. Then he went to the St. Louis Cardinals, and they converted him to running back. Obviously, he was a multitalented player.”
Missouri’s greatest game: Missouri over Navy, Jan. 2, 1961
The Tigers toppled the Midshipmen in the 1961 Orange Bowl following the loss (and win by forfeit) to Kansas to close the season. Missouri smothered Navy’s run game which featured Heisman Trophy winner Joe Bellino at halfback, and a 90-yard interception returned for touchdown by Norm Beal highlighted the day for the Tigers, who went on to win 21-14 in front of President John F. Kennedy.
Missouri’s worst losses: Kansas (1960), Colorado (1990), Nebraska (1997)
“I mentioned the Kansas game, but Missouri also fell on the wrong side of the 1990 fifth down game against Colorado. Also on the bad side of the Nebraska play in 1997, the flea kicker play. Missouri has had a couple of unfortunate losses along the way.”
For those who aren’t aware of these difficult days of Missouri football, the officials gave Colorado an extra play on Oct. 6, 1990, on which the Buffaloes scored to win the game.
For the game dubbed the flea kicker game, Nebraska entered the game No. 1 in the AP Poll. Missouri looked as if it was on its way to an upset with a 38-31 lead in the fourth quarter, but a wacky play as time expired flipped the script. Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost, now the Cornhuskers’ coach, threw a goal line pass intended for Shevin Wiggins, who somehow kicked the ball backwards toward fellow receiver Matt Davison, who dived to save the ball and the game with a touchdown. The kick was not ruled illegal.
Nebraska tied the game with the extra point to send the game to overtime, which resulted in a win for the Cornhuskers and an unforgettable Missouri loss.