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Missouri Football didn't exist before 1939. I mean, it existed. Sure it did. They won nine games in 1899. Under Gwinn Henry, they won three conference titles in the good old days of the Missouri Valley Conference. But on a national scale, they were an afterthought. They were Wiley College, or maybe Bemidji State. Their fans loved them, and they played hard and won some good games, but they simply were not part of the national spotlight.
In 1939, however, that changed. Missouri introduced itself to the world as a real, living, breathing football program with serious power potential. They beat ranked teams for the first time (granted, the AP had only been ranking teams for about three years, but a first is a first). They won their first outright Big Six title. They qualified for their first bowl game. They took in the national spotlight and romped a pretty good NYU team in Yankee Stadium. They played in three games that could be considered Mizzou Classics. And perhaps most importantly, they had their first nationally-viable player in Pitchin' Paul Christman, a man around whom you could build a program.
I'm not going to lie--I've had more fun putting this one together than any I've done so far. And what a year this was.
Expectations were high in Columbia heading into the 1939 campaign. Don Faurot was entering his fifth season at the helm, and his program-building efforts appeared to be ready to pay off. Faurot had come to Columbia after nine seasons at Kirksville State Teachers College (a.k.a. Truman State). He had gone a lovely 63-13-3 there, 26-0 in his final three seasons. He inherited a mess of a football program.
Against Athletic Director Chester Brewer's wishes, Missouri boosters' insistence had led to the hiring of young Frank Carideo to replace Gwinn Henry as head football coach in 1932. Carideo was just 24 when his first season as head man began--just two years earlier, he was playing quarterback for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame and leading them to a 19-0 record in 1929-30. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame for his work as a quarterback, but his exploits on the field did not translate to success on the sideline. Mizzou went an astounding 2-23-2 in Carideo's three seasons at the helm. In those three years, Missouri scored in double digits three times, and only once against a conference opponent.
When Carideo high-tailed it out of town, Brewer was able to hire the man he wanted all along: Faurot. Right out of the gates, Missouri had shown improvement. In 1935, Mizzou went 3-3-3 with essentially the same roster that had scored all of 25 points for the entire 1934 season. Mizzou went 6-2-1 in 1936, 3-1-1 in conference, good for second place behind Nebraska. The 1937 season saw a significant step backwards--a 3-6-1 record, just 42 total points--but things started to come together in 1938. Led by a sophomore named Paul Christman, Mizzou finished the season winning five of six games after a 1-2 start. Their 6-3 record included a win at Nebraska and a nice home win over Michigan State.
Heading into 1939, it looked like all the pieces were starting to fit together. Christman was The Man, the closest thing to a national-caliber face of the program Mizzou had seen. He also had quite a bit of talent around him. The Orf twins, Bob and Bud, both of whom would be picked in the 1940 draft, lined up wide for Christman, providing his main targets. Other stars included tackles Bob Haas and Mel Wetzel, and end Stillman Rouse. Mizzou was deep in the backfield, especially with the presesason emergence of sophomore fullback Bill Cunningham. Well-known Tiger player and future Tiger coach Clay Cooper was a backup halfback.
This was a talented, hard-nosed group, but with Christman at the helm, they had both a star and the catalyst for an innovative aerial attack. Here's a great blurb from Bob Broeg's Ol' Mizzou: A Story of Missouri Football (you've hopped onto Amazon and purchased a used copy by now, right?):
"He'd come into a huddle, see that the team was tense, and he'd loosen 'em up with something crazy," recalled Bud Orf. "Like, 'Hey, Bud, your zipper is open.'"
Smiling, Orf continued, "I've often thought how Faurot was considered conservative and a disciplinarian, but, proving that he was indeed a good leader, he gave Paul considerable leeway. And we all profited from the flexibility."
For instance, the 6-1, 170-pound Orf moved out on his own to become, in effect, a split end before the alignment generally was accepted or recognized.
"If the tackle came out, I'd move inside him," Bud said. "If the linebacker didn't come out, I'd tell Dooz, 'Five yards and out,' and he'd throw right on the money."
Orf's smile widened. "Probably," he said, "this won't sound sophisticated enough for present-day coaches or players, but our aerial game was most effective with what I'd call roughly 50 percent pass patterns and 50 percent improvisation.
"After all those years together, I could say to Christman, 'Count to six and I'll be there.' I'd make my move, counting, turn around, and there it would be--a strike."
Hopes were high for Ol' Mizzou, and the season opener did nothing to dissuade them.
September 30: Colorado (0-0) at Missouri (0-0)
As I've mentioned previously, Colorado didn't become "Colorado" until they made the Big Six Conference the Big Seven in 1948. Before then, they were just part of the Mountain States Conference, a mid-major before mid-majors actually existed. They had gone 8-1 with a Cotton Bowl bid in 1937 (a loss to Rice) but had taken a step backwards since then. They had gone just 3-4-1 in 1938, including a season-opening 14-7 loss to Mizzou in Columbia. If at first you don't succeed, come back to Columbia the next year and do even worse.
This one was over early. Paul Christman didn't have to throw much--instead, he scored two rushing touchdowns in the first half en route to a 17-0 halftime lead (which would be like a 34-0 lead nowadays), and Mizzou coasted from there. Bill Cunningham made a strong debut with 89 yards rushing on just 12 carries, Christman scored his third touchdown in the third quarter, and backup Clay Cooper scored in the final period to provide the final margin of victory in front of 10,000 in Columbia.
The season had started without a hitch, but there would be all sorts of drama--and not the good kind--the next weekend.
Missouri 30, Colorado 0
Today's Equivalent*: Mizzou 48, Colorado 0
* I thought it would be fun to equate each game's score to what it would roughly be in today's game. Going by pace and firepower of 1939 versus 2008, I'm just going make some rough estimations. Don't take this part seriously--it was for fun.
October 7: Missouri (1-0) at Ohio State (0-0)
Even before he was named Athletic Director at Missouri, Don Faurot thought like an athletic director. He realized early on that football was the moneymaker, and that Mizzou could better pay for other sports and better facilities if Mizzou were to scrounge around for some big paydays. As the years progressed, Mizzou would take a few marches north (and east). Mizzou would travel to Columbus nine times between 1939 and 1949 to take some money and a likely beating, with no home game in return. With little or no return, they would also travel to Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Minnesota (three times) in the 1940s; they would also begin a home-and-home series with powerhouse SMU. Few of these trips would result in wins, but they would result in moolah.
(In Faurot's later years as head coach, he would also schedule a couple of games at the Big House in Michigan, winning in 1959 with Dan Devine at the helm. In the 1930s and '40s, though, the Big Six/Seven was still forming a reputation as a football conference, and the Big Ten was already well-established. They were the benchmark for midwestern football, and they had the money.)
In a season in which Mizzou introduced itself to the college football world, consider their early-October trip to Columbus a false start. On the overnight train to Ohio, Stillman Rouse provided a very bad omen: he had a nightmare and accidentally punched through the double-paned glass of the train window next to him. The train had to be stopped in Terre Haute for Rouse to be taken to the hospital for stitches.
The next afternoon, in front of 58,165, the largest crowd to ever see a Mizzou team play, the already-shaken Tigers were intimidated and out-of-sync. Ohio State's Jimmy Strausbaugh (future Green Bay Packer) took the opening kickoff 85 yards to the house, but it was called back via penalty. So instead, the Buckeyes simply marched 78 yards for a touchdown, capped by an 11-yard touchdown pass by future first-rounder Don Scott.
Mizzou's defense kept them in the game, but the vaunted offense never got rolling. They only sauntered into Buckeye territory twice and never made a true scoring threat. By the fourth quarter, the defense wore out. It was still 7-0 midway through the fourth quarter when Charlie Anderson caught a touchdown pass to make it 13-0. Scott then zig-zagged for 34 yards and the final touchdown.
Mizzou was simply not competitive on offense. As Bob Broeg put it:
The same day Ohio State slapped down Missouri, 19-0, two other Big Six teams won impressively over two other Big Ten title contenders. Oklahoma beat Northwestern, and Nebraska knocked off Minnesota. Had Ol' Mizzou fans indeed overrated the Tigers of 1939?
Ohio State would go on to dominate most foes on the schedule, but they slipped up twice. Ranked #10 when the first AP poll came out on October 16 (waiting until you know something about the teams to rank the teams...what a novel concept!), tOSU would slip up to #7 Cornell in Columbus (23-14) on October 28, and in the season finale they lost to unranked Michigan in Ann Arbor, ceding the Rose Bowl bid to the Wolverines. Missouri, meanwhile, needed to bounce back quickly. Luckily, the schedule got pretty easy pretty quickly.
Ohio State 19, Missouri 0
Today's Equivalent: Ohio State 27, Missouri 0
October 14: Missouri (1-1) at Wash U. (0-2)
I'll admit this out front: I have yet to dig up any information on this game. Instead I'll just mention that Wash U. was three years from dissolving their football program and the Bears were four years removed from their last win over Mizzou (a 19-6 thrashing in Faurot's first season). This was the final meeting between the two schools. Wash U. would actually go 6-3-1 in 1939 and always managed far-from-putrid records (3-6 in 1940, 4-5 in 1941, 5-5 in 1942), but the football program would cease after 1942. They would pick back up as a lower-division program in 1947, interestingly enough under the direction of Weeb Ewbank, who went 14-4 in two seasons in St. Louis(14-2 after an 0-2 start) before moving on to the NFL. The more you know...
Missouri 14, Wash U. 0
Today's Equivalent: Missouri 20, Wash U. 0
Next up: Mizzou gets rolling.