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Spring Football Revisited: 1997

This has nothing to do with 2009 in the least.  I just thought it was a fun spring and season to re-live for the first time in a while.

The first 2.5 years of the Larry Smith Era were what we will call slowly optimistic.  Switching from Bob Stull's too-early-for-its-time pass-first offense to Smith's predictable, tough, smashmouth system was going to take quite a bit of new personnel--this was pretty much known and accepted at the time, but the results were still as bad or worse than expected. 

Mizzou won six games combined in 1994-95 (three each year), beating teams with season records of 1-10, 3-7-1, 0-10-1, 2-9, 2-9, and 3-8.  The 1995 season was so bad that a) according to The Beef, the highlight of the year was the season-opening kickoff return touchdown that was called back via penalty (only it took the ref a minute to find the flag amidst the oranges raining down on the field), and b) Larry Smith panicked and tore the redshirt off of heralded freshman quarterback Corby Jones halfway through the season, just in time to lose 57-0 to Nebraska.

In all, Missouri had entered the 1996 season with little reason for hope, other than the fact that they had ended 1995 with a 45-31 win over Iowa State.  But in 1996, things began to turn around.  They looked decent (really) in a 40-10 monsoon loss to Texas, and after special teams snafus caused a setback against Memphis, they had their first breakthrough win of the Smith era, beating a good Clemson team easily.  It was up and down from there--Mizzou lost four of six before finishing with two explosive wins over Baylor (in OT) and Kansas (going away) to go 5-6, only the second time since 1983 that they had won more than four games.

Brocky IV

The win over Kansas--a game in which Mizzou rushed for 412 yards and held KU to under 300 total yards after being dominated by the 'Hawks the first three years under Smith--was exhilarating.  It was exactly the shot in the arm the fanbase needed to get excited about 1997.  The corner was being turned.  So much of the 1996 team was returning--the mammoth offensive line, the stout defensive line, the tough linebackers, Brock Olivo and Ernest Blackwell (among others in a punishing backfield), an athletic secondary, a bunch of young guys ready to make an impact...and The Man.  Corby Jones.  Brad Smith before Brad Smith.  The leader Mizzou had been begging for.

Take all the hope from the 2003 spring--when everybody just knew that Brad Smith was going to take Mizzou back to a bowl game--and add in a mighty healthy dose of desperation, and that's where the Mizzou program resided in the spring of 1997.  Sure, there were some injuries and attrition, and as always some, uhh, extracurricular activities, but that did not tamp down the overwhelming post-spring optimism, both for the offense, the defense, and the Corby Jones identity.  This was the team that would bring Mizzou back to respectability.

And they did.

Harold Piersey

It doesn't always work this way, but spring optimism paid off.  It certainly wasn't easy--two trips to Kansas led to two disheartening losses, and combined with a beatdown at the hands of an awesome Ohio State team...

...sorry, I couldn't resist...

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...sorry, that was my single favorite painful-for-Mizzou play ever...

Anyway, losses to KU, Ohio State, and then Kansas State left Mizzou at 3-3 and in need of a team meeting to rally the troops.  But rally they did.  Mizzou 37, Texas 29 at Mizzou's homecoming.  Mizzou 51, Oklahoma State 50 in double-OT.  Mizzou 41, Colorado 31 in Boulder.  Mizzou 38, Nebraska 31 (okay, that's how it should have ended).  Mizzou 42, Baylor 24 in a snowstorm.  Sans 2007, It was possibly the most memorable, exhilarating stretch of Mizzou games since the 1970s.  The seeds of optimism that were planted at the end of 1996, and that sprouted majorly during Spring Optimism Season, paid off.  It never quite works out like you think it's going to, but it does pay off sometimes.