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1939: Pitchin' Paul Takes Gotham (Part Three)

For other seasons, go here.

Part One
Part Two

Guess who discovered the Savitar archives!!

One of the great things about the 2007 Mizzou season was the momentum it generated.  Mizzou started showing flashes, then slowly built on each little piece of success and knocked down roadblock after roadblock, starting with Nebraska and ending with the conquering of road losing streaks in Boulder and Manhattan, then winning the biggest MU-KU game of all-time.

The 2007 run had nothing on 1939.  After a disappointing early-season loss to Ohio State, Mizzou started slowly and built the season block-by-block.  Creep by Wash U. and K-State.  Thump Iowa State.  Destroy a ranked Nebraska team.  Go to Yankee Stadium and whoop a ranked NYU squad in front of a huge audience.

Missouri had gone from afterthought to #12 in the country by November 18, and now it was time to go win a Big Six title and go to their first Orange Bowl.  What stood in the way?  Undefeated OU, ranked #5 in the country.  And then a tricky trip to Lawrence.  Were they up to the task?

November 18: #5 Oklahoma (6-0-1) at #12 Missouri (6-1)


After the huge home win over NU, Mizzou had to refocus and head to The Bronx to take on a hungry NYU team.  They won easily and were welcomed home at the Wabash train station by a large crowd and a brass band.  Parties are fun, but now they had to refocus again because OU was coming to town.  According to Bob Broeg, "Missouri's business manager of athletics, Virgil Spurling, estimated he could have sold 50,000 tickets for a game that drew an overflowing 26,500, then the largest number to see a football game in the state."

Ever since a respectable season-opening tie against SMU, Oklahoma had plowed through the rest of their schedule.  They whooped Texas in Dallas (24-12), destroyed Kansas (27-7), OSU (41-0) and Iowa State (38-6), and crept by a game Kansas State team (13-10) in Manhattan the week before.  With the relatively weak schedule, OU had actually dropped from #3 to #5 over the last month--I guess it was hard for a Big Six team to earn respect in those days, as OU had actually gone 10-0 in the 1938 regular season and finished #4--but they would have every chance in the world to impress voters by finishing up with road trips to Columbia and Lincoln.  They were not going to roll over for Mizzou in what was potentially the biggest game in Mizzou history at that point.

A wet day in late-November led to a bruising, sloppy game that would be determined almost entirely by special teams.  Whereas NYU had talked a big game the week before about stopping Paul Christman, OU didn't talk--they just did it.  In front of a hostile, standing-room-only crowd on Homecoming, the Sooners hit Christman often, and on a slick field with a slick ball, Pitchin' Paul just didn't have much to work with.  He would end the day going only 7-for-15 for 39 yards.  He did manage to rush for 49 yards--overall, Mizzou outrushed OU, 157-148--and nail a couple nice punts, but finding any room to maneuver offensively was tough for Mizzou on this day.

Special Teams Event #1: In the third quarter of a scoreless game, an outstanding 54-yard coffin-corner punt by Ron King pinned OU at the 6.

Special Teams Event #2: On the resulting series, OU went three-and-out, and lined up to punt.  Charley Moser came off the line untouched and got a hand on the kick, which went straight up into the air.  From Broeg:

The blocked punt went straight up.  Players of both sides converged under it in a tableau caught by a cameraman whose enlarged photograph, floor to ceiling, animated Don Faurot's den for years.

There, you could see it, the strained look of the players crouched to leap.  When the ball came down, it was the athlete with the talent and timing of a basketball rebounder, Bob Orf, who leaped at the right moment to grab the ball and go down under a pile-up of muddied gold and dirty red jerseys.

Special Teams Event #3: Ron King made the PAT, never a given in 1939.  7-0 Mizzou.

Special Teams Event #4: In the fourth quarter, OU's offense finally got rolling.  They drove 76 yards for a score, capped by a 15-yard pass from Jack Jacobs to J.S. MunseyDick Favor, however, missed the PAT.  7-6 Mizzou.

Special Teams Event #5: A poor QB-center exchange--remember, it was a really wet day--led to a late Mizzou fumble near midfield.  OU drove inside the Mizzou 20 and lined up for a field goal, but once again the slippery snap was mishandled.  OU fumbled, and Mizzou recovered.  OU was able to mount one more try, driving inside Mizzou's 40.  But four Jacobs passes were batted down, one by the margin of Paul Christman's fingernails, and Mizzou held on for the win.

In all, the stats did not favor Mizzou.  First downs: OU 12, MU 7.  Total yards: OU 225, MU 196.  Christman and the Mizzou offense did next to nothing, but in dicey playing conditions, Mizzou made the plays that mattered.  A special teams unit that hadn't proven itself amazingly well thus far in the season, came through when it counted, and Mizzou was 4-0 in conference, all but clinching their very first Big Six title.

Missouri 7, Oklahoma 6
Today's Equivalent: Missouri 14, Oklahoma 13


November 25: #10 Missouri (7-1) at Kansas (2-5)

Having disposed of three straight ranked opponents, Missouri was in the midst of one of its greatest runs ever, in what had already likely become its greatest season ever.  Faurot's Tigers had already clinched at least a tie of the Big Six title and were in good position for their first ever bowl game, but to make things undoubtedly official, they needed to take care of business against a struggling Kansas squad.

Kansas' new coach in 1939 was a familiar name to Mizzou fans: Gwinn Henry.  Henry had coached Missouri from 1923-31 and had a sporadically solid record.  He led Mizzou to conference titles in the Missouri Valley conference, and between 1924 and 1927, Mizzou went a healthy 25-6-3.  But in Henry's last two years, the Tigers won just four games, and he was sent packing, leading to the disastrous hire of Frank Carideo.

After a decent stint at New Mexico in the mid-1930s, Henry ended up in Lawrence, taking over a struggling program that had gone just 14-24-7 in the last five seasons.  Henry's inaugural season at KU had started well enough--a loss to Drake was followed by wins over Iowa State and Colorado State for a 2-1 start--but the wheels had begun to fall off.  In KU's last four games, all losses, they had been outscored 75-20.  But as always in the MU-KU series, anybody who can play the role of spoiler is dangerous, and sure enough, KU played well out of the gates, holding Mizzou scoreless in the first quarter.

Paul Christman had a day that could be considered both abnormally good and bad.  He completed only three passes for 11 yards, which probably spoiled any chances of winning the Heisman Trophy, but with KU focusing on the pass, he carried 23 times for 127 yards and a touchdown.

Really, this game came down to composure.  Midway through the second quarter, Mizzou was driving when KU tackle Jack Turner, who had been having a great game, literally kicked Bud Orf in the pants, or as the NY Times put it, "attempted to punt Bud Orf off the field."  He was ejected, Mizzou got a first down at the KU 34, and a few plays later Ron King scored the game's first touchdown.  It was 7-0 at half.

In the second half, KU faded.  Mizzou drove 53 yards for another score--a 2-yard Christman plunge--early in the third quarter, and with Kansas' offense completely ineffective, backup QB Dan Wager threw his one pass of the day--a bobbled, fourth-quarter touchdown strike to Bud Orf.  20-0 Mizzou.

KU had hung around early with some big defensive plays, but in the end it was a rout.  Mizzou racked up 15 first downs to KU's 6, 237 rushing yards to KU's 50.  KU turned the ball over four times as well. Despite a history of failure in trips to KU (they hadn't scored a touchdown in Lawrence in a decade, and they'd only won there once in 18 years), the Tigers came to Lawrence on a mission, and nothing Gwinn Henry* could do was going to keep the Tigers from an outright Big Six title.

* Ironically, Henry likely endeared himself to Mizzou fans even further with his stint at KU.  The Jayhawks went just 9-27 in Henry's four seasons in Lawrence.

Thanks again, Savitar.

With a dominant performance in Lawrence, Mizzou would quickly accept a bid to the 1940 Orange Bowl, Mizzou's first ever bowl appearance, at a watch party at the downtown Tiger Hotel.  Unranked as recently as two weeks earlier, Faurot's Tigers would finish #6 in the final AP poll (remember, the final poll was taken before bowls then).  A season that had started with high hopes was finishing as Mizzou's best season of all-time.  After a slow offensive start, Mizzou had caught fire, winning seven in a row, including all five conference games.  They had beaten three straight ranked opponents and finished with their best win in Lawrence in a very long time.

And thanks to all of that success, they had one more game to play.

Missouri 20, Kansas 0
Today's Equivalent: Missouri 31, Kansas 0


January 1: #6 Missouri (8-1) vs #16 Georgia Tech (7-2)


In another write-up, I mentioned that Don Faurot's innovative Split-T formation (still a couple of years from inception in 1939) had a distinct advantage because of the time in which it came about.  There was little to no scouting video, so Mizzou opponents really didn't get much of a chance to scout and prepare before they had to actually play Mizzou.  Well, you could say the same thing, in some ways, about the Georgia Tech offense of 1939.

Bill Alexander's Engineers had broken through in 1939.  After slogging through a mediocre decade, Georgia Tech went 7-2, with losses to only 7-2 Notre Dame and 8-1 Duke.  Whereas Faurot's Split-T was an innovative formation and style, Tech relied on innovative play-calling.  Trick plays, misdirection, trick plays, and misdirection.  Faurot often relied on Hi Simmons to decipher and scout an opponent, but Simmons simply didn't get much chance to do so before the Orange Bowl, and Tech took advantage.

Good times in South Florida -- from the Savitar, of course.

As is often the case, it started well enough.  On a rainy day in South Florida, a first-quarter Tech fumble--recovered by Bob Waldorf--set Mizzou up near midfield.  Paul Christman completed a couple of passes, then snuck into the endzone himself to give Mizzou a pretty surprisingly easy 7-0 lead.

From there, Georgia Tech's deception took over.  The rain was strong, and many in the stands couldn't see what was going on because of all the opened umbrellas, but that was probably no big deal--Mizzou defenders couldn't really see what was going on either.  As Christman said after the game (via Bob Broeg, of course), "I never saw such a tricky offense.  At safety I just couldn't follow the ball.  Once I made what I thought was a helluva tackle at one sideline, only to hear the crowd roar as the play went to the other side."

All-American Engineer Bobby Ison scored on a 55-yard reverse, and Tech followed that up with a triple-reverse for a touchdown later in the game.  The misdirection and uncertainty kept Mizzou a step slow throughout, and Tech took control of the game.  Mizzou almost scored again as time expired, but it wouldn't have made a difference.

From a bowl memories page:

If my 90-year-old memory serves me right, the Tigers played Georgia Tech in the 1940 Orange Bowl in Miami. My father, who was an avid MU sports supporter (he worked as a volunteer for the athletic department and was acquainted with both coaches and players) was able to get me four tickets for the game. I was in the Navy stationed at Pensacola, Florida, and was teaching aerodynamics in the flight ground school. It was a cloudy day. At kick-off time we had a terrific downpour, and the game was played mostly in rain. Umbrellas came up and down as the rain started and stopped. As I recall, the game was won by Georgia Tech, and the winning touchdown came in a downpour of rain, so umbrellas came up and few saw the play.

Back in business, I had several of the Georgia Tech players in my aerodynamics class at Pensacola, and my opening comments for that class was to recall the record of that game and to remind the players they would have a hard time passing my course.

— Harry R. Ball, BS AgE. ’40

Mizzou finished the season with a loss, but nobody was feeling too down.  Bowl games were intended as exhibitions, and nothing was going to change Mizzou's #6 finish.  As the Savitar itself put it at the time:

Football is only incidental to a Bowl game.  Any Bowl is a publicity gag, and publicity means money.  But publicity or no, the nation's best teams meet, and Missouri was one of them.


Georgia Tech 21, Missouri 7
Today's Equivalent: Georgia Tech 31, Missouri 13



With talent and swagger, Paul Christman was the Chase Daniel of his day.  On the strength of his November performance--particularly in the trip to Yankee Stadium--Christman would finish third in the Heisman voting in 1939.  He was the most talented player to play in black and gold at that point (and hell, maybe that still holds true), but Mizzou had proven in a tough win over Oklahoma that the team was more than just Christman.  Ends Bud Orf, Bob Orf, Stillman Rouse, and Blaine Currance; backs Bill Cunningham and Jim Starmer; linemen Bob Waldorf, Mel Wetzel, Don Duchek, Jack Landers...this was a loaded team, and after a shaky trip to Columbus, they played like it.

While the Orfs and others would not be back for the 1940 season, quite a bit of talent would return--players like Clay Cooper, for instance, were buried on the depth chart in '39, but would go on to make a name for themselves in future seasons.

Plus, as Faurot would quickly find out, bowl games are great recruiting tools.  The level of talent in Columbia was rising, and the future was magnificent.  If only the war didn't get in the way, huh?