Countdown: Missouri Football (1920-2010): #25-23

I admit it -- I'm wordy.  As we reach the more successful teams on the list, I find I have a lot more to write about them.  So as we crack into the Top 25, I'm now paring these posts down to three teams per day.  It makes these posts more readable and (in theory, at least) increases the anticipation for the top of the list.  So there you go.  Here are the 23rd, 24th and 25th-best Mizzou teams of all-time.

#90-86, #85-81, #80-76, #75-71, #70-66, #65-61, #60-56, #55-51, #50-46, #45-41, #40-36, #35-31, #30-26

#25: Mizzou 1920 (7-1)

Best Win: Mizzou 16, Kansas 7
Worst Loss: Oklahoma 28, Mizzou 7

In the 1910s, Mizzou had been all over the place.  Here are their win percentages from that decade, starting with 1911 (and not including 1918, when Mizzou did not field a team): .375, .625, .875, .625, .313, .813, .375, .750.  Such is life when you have a different coach every season, "football scholarships" don't really exist, and seemingly every male who attends the school tries out for the sport.  Starting in the 1920s, there was a little more stability within the program.  The Gwinn Henry Era would give Mizzou its first sustained head coach, but before Henry, Mizzou got a few years of Johnny Miller and James Phelan.  Phelan's brief success at Mizzou would lead him to jobs at Purdue, Washington, and St. Mary's.  He was a pretty good coach when all was said and done, but his win percentage was never higher than it was in Columbia.

Thanks mostly to a couple of early blowouts, Mizzou's point margins were great in 1920.  They began the season by beating Missouri Wesleyan and SLU by a combined 85-0, then outscored their other six opponents just 71-61.  But with an increasingly injury-plagued roster, they won quite a few close games within a pretty tough MVIAA, sneaking them into Mizzou's all-time Top 25.  They began conference play by whipping Iowa State, 14-2, in Ames, then went to Drake and knocked off the Bulldogs (or whatever they were called 90 years ago), 10-7.  With a four-game home stand to end the season (??), they had a chance to wrap up an easy conference title, but an wounded squad got whipped by those damn Sooners of Oklahoma, 28-7.  OU would coast to the conference title, while Mizzou would have to settle for a second-place finish, winning close games over Kansas State (10-7), Wash. U. (14-10), and Kansas (16-7).

Perhaps the most interesting thing to take away from this season was simply that this was 1920, a good, solid 90 years ago, and people LOVED their Mizzou football (and hated Kansas). The fanbase may have been smaller, but even with no national implications whatsoever, the games then were as or more meaningful than they are now.  From the Savitar's season recap:

It was an ideal football day, bright and still, and with the ground firm underfoot, the stage was set for what promised to be the greatest of all Homecoming games.

But the 12,000 fans, with all their frenzied cheering, could not keep a feeling of anxiety and doubt from creeping in.  Would the Tigers come through? Could the last four weeks of irregular playing and poor team work, the despondency over injured players, and the nervous apprehension before any Kansas game be thrown off in a last desperate lunge to come out of the slump, that once again might the Tiger triumph over the enemy Jahyawk? Only those that were on Rollins Field that day can know just how much the Tigers did come through.

...

And now for the Jayhawker. Although a championship had been lost, consolation was in store if Kansas could be given a drubbing.

Nearly 12,000 persons, the largest crowd ever on Rollins Field, saw the Jayhawk fall in humiliation on that Homecoming Day. And every one of them will say that the 16 to 7 score does not tell the story. The Jayhawk, taking Captain "Chuck" [Lewis] and his men by surprise, registered the first score. Mandeville fled across the line with the ball and kicked goal, ending the quarter with a 7 to 0 score. But the Tiger was out for blood, and with the light of victory in his eye he fought with a new fire. The Lewis-to-Fulbright pass gave Missouri a touchdown. The score was tied. Then Missouri started to break through the Kansas line, and another touchdown was inevitable. Fulbright scored in the third period on an end run and Captain Lewis scored a field goal in the last quarter. The game was won, 16 to 7.

It was a day of atonement for all our suffering. True, we had lost a championship, but in the annals of Valley history another Tiger victory over Kansas was recorded, and to sons of "Old Mizzou" that is as good as a championship.

Love it.

#24: Mizzou 1942 (8-3-1)

Best Win: Mizzou 7, Iowa Pre-Flight 0
Worst Loss: Fordham 20, Mizzou 12

As we will see, Bob Steuber's career, like that of Paul Christman (and, really, Chase Daniel), peaked in his junior season (1941).  His senior year was still relatively successful, however.  And long.  Very long.  As the war began to alter teams' rosters, Don Faurot agreed to schedule extra games against military teams like Fort Riley, Great Lakes Navy, and Iowa Pre-Flight.  The twelve grueling games were the most Mizzou had ever played; they would not match that number again until 1972. I get the feeling that, with rehab techniques and training lacking (to say the least) compared to what they are now, 12 games then would be like 18 games now.

Mizzou, which had finished the previous season ranked 7th in the country, attacked the huge schedule head-on.  They mauled Fort Riley (31-0) in the season opener and took out SLU and a good Colorado squad at home by a combined 64-20.  The Split-T was still in its infancy, as was film study, and unless you had played Mizzou the previous year, you likely had no idea how to handle it at first.  You would need great athletes to make up the difference.  Many couldn't do that -- Mizzou would score over 20 points eight times that season, over 30 five times.

At 3-0, with the first AP Poll coming out the upcoming week, Mizzou went to Madison to take on one of the greatest ever Wisconsin squads, a team that finished third in the polls and prompted this book from the always solid Terry Frei.  Wiscy was on a roll unlike any they had experienced, and they took out the Tigers, 17-9.  It was but a minor setback.  Mizzou would return to Big 6 play by absolutely obliterating Kansas State (46-2!) and Iowa State (45-6).  Mizzou was still unranked (??), and it was time to take on a Great Lakes Navy all-star team that was ineligible for poll rankings but finished fifth in the country in my Est. S&P+ measure. Mizzou was good, but not that good.  They whipped the Tigers, 17-0, in St. Louis.

At 5-2, Mizzou still had five more games to go. They killed Nebraska (26-6) in Lincoln, and took a 6-6 tie out of their trip to Norman.  They could wrap up a conference title with a win over Kansas, but first they headed to New York City for a rematch against the Fordham squad that had defeated them in a rainy Sugar Bowl the year before.  Fordham had their number, apparently; they knocked MIzzou off, 20-12.

The year would come to a close with two huge wins.  First, they crushed Kansas, 45-6, to wrap up their third Big 6 title in four seasons.  Then, they took out another all-star team, an Iowa Pre-Flight squad whose only other losses were to #1 Ohio State and #6 Notre Dame.  The game against the Seahawks was a crazy one, fought in an epic snowstorm in Kansas City.  Mizzou scored on a long touchdown run, then just played keep-away, winning 7-0.  The Iowa Pre-Flight coach was baffled by how Mizzou would spread out their offensive linemen, leave the defensive end unblocked, and kill them with read options.  I'm telling you, the Split-T was the Spread before the Spread.

I mentioned a while back, when I was discussing the 1997 season, that my ideas for a Mizzou football history book hit a setback when I realize there are so many interesting things to talk about that the word count would be insanely, intimidatingly high.  Seasons like 1942 are the reason why.  The great performances, the innovative offense, and the gigantic "What if" looming on the horizon could make the 1942 book-worthy in and of itself.  Mizzou was the dominant program of the Big 6 at the time, and only the war could interrupt that.  After the season ended, Don Faurot's brother went missing in action, and he decided that, even though he was 40 years old, he needed to enlist.  He ended up the Iowa Pre-Flight coach, with Jim Tatum, Bud Wilkinson, John Vaught and others coaching underneath him, and he introduced the concepts of the Split-T to everybody around him.  Naturally, they came back after the war and dominated with those concepts.  What would have happened had he not enlisted, or had he just been a much less open and sharing man, is just fascinating.

#23: Mizzou 1983 (7-5)

Best Win: Mizzou 10, Oklahoma 0
Worst Loss: Kansas 37, Mizzou 27

For almost a decade and a half, the 1983 Mizzou team was remembered not for any particular exploits, not for a great defense, nor a handful of nice wins, nor a tight loss a crazy Holiday Bowl ... they were remembered for simply making a bowl.  It was the last Mizzou squad to play in the postseason for 14 long years.  It was also a better team than its meager 7-5 record would suggest.  With potentially the best Mizzou defense of the last 30 years, the 1983 squad took on a series of great offenses and gave up fewer than 17 points per game.

The season began with a win that would look a lot better a few months later.  Missouri took out Illinois, 28-18 ... and it was the last Illini loss until the Rose Bowl.  Jack Trudeau and the Illini won a surprising Big Ten title, running roughshod over really good programs like Iowa and Michigan, reaching #4 in the country, and actually having a shot at the national title before getting whipped by UCLA in Pasadena.

After this big win, it was an up-and-down couple of months.  They lost by one at Wisconsin (21-20), crept by Utah State (17-10), suffered an upset loss to East Carolina (13-6), killed Colorado (59-20) in Boulder, and put up a respectable showing in a 34-13 loss to top-ranked Nebraska juggernaut.  Mizzou was 3-3, having already taken on four teams that would finish with winning records.

After whipping Kansas State and Iowa State by a combined 79-18, the schedule got tougher.  Mizzou had only beaten #11 Oklahoma once since 1969, but with the Sooners desperately needing a win to keep up with Nebraska in the Big 8 race, Mizzou not only beat them, but shut them out, 10-0.  They also took out a good, Jimmy Johnson-coached Oklahoma State team, 16-0, to clinch a solid bowl bid.  Of course, Mizzou always seemingly has to trade a big win (Oklahoma) with a big loss -- in this case, it was a baffling 37-27 loss at Kansas.  The 4-6-1 Jayhawks somehow managed more points against the Tigers than even Nebraska had.

An up-and-down season finished with an up-and-down Holiday Bowl.

Steve Young and the #9 BYU Cougars awaited Mizzou in San Diego, for a classic battle of strong defense versus strong offense.  Mizzou held the upper hand early on.  Eric Drain, in his finest game in a Tiger uniform, scored an early touchdown, and Mizzou took a 10-7 lead into halftime.  They had held the Cougars to just 167 yards in the first half and intercepted two Young passes.  Defensive end Bobby Bell, named defensive player of the game, was unstoppable in getting into the BYU backfield.

BYU took a 14-10 lead in the third quarter, but Mizzou responded.  Drain scored from two yards out, and it was 17-14.  Mizzou would drive again and, attempting to put the game away, went for it on fourth down, deep in BYU territory.  The Cougars defense held, and BYU took over at their own 6 with under four minutes remaining.  Here's where I remind you that Steve Young was their quarterback.  Ninety-four yards and one trick play touchdown later, BYU had taken a 21-17 lead.  They would hold on to win.

It was a crushing loss for Mizzou, who (whether it was related to the actual loss or not) would play 1984 in one giant funk.  Whereas Warren Powers was looking pretty safe in his job as Mizzou beat OU and OSU and moved to 7-3 in 1983, he would win just three of his final 13 games on the Missouri sidelines, and Mizzou would be hiring a new coach in early-1985.

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