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1979: A Fleeting Taste of the Big-Time (Part One)

For other seasons, go here.  We spent a good portion of last May and early-June walking through Mizzou history, and with the Wall of Excellence in our rearview mirror ... it's time to go back to looking even further in the rearview mirror.

It's funny how expectations impact perceptions.  Looking back at a peripheral level 30+ years later, Missouri's 1979 season was almost as successful as their 1978 campaign.  They finished 7-5 one season after going 8-4, they won their bowl game, they played well against great teams ... and yet, while 1978 is regarded as fondly as almost any season in Mizzou history (sans 1960 and 2007, at least), 1979 is completely and totally forgotten.  Few seasons have carried so many bitter losses, so many what-ifs, and so strong a feeling of missed opportunity.  After a breakthrough 1978 campaign, Warren Powers' second season in charge gave Mizzou fans a taste of the big-time ... and then took it away.

Imagine being a Missouri fan heading into 1979.  How exactly were you supposed to avoid huge expectations?  The 1978 season was, despite just an 8-4 record, a rousing success.  You pulled off two of the best wins in the program's history -- 3-0 over Notre Dame to start the season, 35-31 over Nebraska to end it -- and though they encountered a near-deadly mid-season slump (losses to Oklahoma State and Colorado almost de-railed bowl hopes), this team was returning a ton of talent.  Phil Bradley returned for his junior season in black and gold, and that alone would have been reason for optimism.  He had a breakout year in 1978, taking to Warren Powers' Veer offense like a duck to water.  He weaved his way to long runs against just about everybody, even Alabama and Nebraska, and he had shown off a strong arm as well.  Though he was losing his top two receiving targets -- All-American Kellen Winslow and speedster Leo Lewis -- with his skill set, he didn't exactly need All-Americans catching his passes.

Joining Bradley in the backfield was the man who would eventually become Mizzou's all-time leading rusher (at least for a few years), the man with the second-best nickname of any Mizzou running back in history (behind Harry "Slippery" Ice, naturally), James Wilder ... the Sikeston Train.  A mean, physical runner, Wilder would be counted on more in 1979 with the loss of Earl Gant to graduation.  Even MORE reason for optimism: Bradley and Wilder would not only have star fullback Gerry Ellis around to block for them again, but they would also have four returning starters on the offensive line, including soon-to-be star Brad Edelman.

The defense looked pretty good as well.  Granted, there were losses -- LB Chris "Big Game" Garlich was gone (yes, I just gave him that nickname), as were DBs Larry Lauderdale and Russ Calabrese and star DT Steve Hamilton.  But DBs Eric Wright, Kevin Potter and Bill Whitaker were returning, as were LB Eric Berg (star of the 1978 Liberty Bowl) and a host of potential stars at defensive end.  Senior Kurt Peterson and juniors Wendell Ray and Tony Green showed strong potential in '78 and looked like as good a set of ends as any in the Big 8; plus, senior DT James Matthews returned as well.

Mizzou started the season ranked 12th in the AP Poll, and while the schedule still featured three preseason Top 10 teams (#3 Oklahoma, #4 Texas, #8 Nebraska), a) three seemed like child's play to the 1970s Tiger teams (slight exaggeration), and b) all three opponents were coming to Columbia. Of Mizzou's five road opponents, only Colorado (6-5) and Iowa State (8-4) had been any good in 1978, and both teams had to replace quite a bit of personnel.  (Neither would win more than three games in 1979.)

If ever there were a time for Mizzou to take a run at their first Big 8 title in ten years, 1979 was it.

To say the least, Columbia was buzzing in anticipation.  Recent stadium additions meant the big games would see crowds of up to 74K+ at Memorial Stadium, and the growing tailgating scene was notable enough to mention in this great late-1979 SI article.

A parking lot on the west side of the stadium directly in front of the ticket gate that leads to the midfield seats is reserved for donors of $1,000 or more to the athletic fund. By 11 o'clock on Saturday morning it is filled with gregarious brunchers. It is a remarkably odoriferous place, the basic aroma being that of fried chicken laced with lesser whiffs of shrimp, cocktail sausages, potato salad, fried zucchini, quiche, gin and bourbon. Some tailgaters provide heavily embossed menus, planned and printed at least as long ago as September. There is a van with working beer spigots set in its side. There is a former Greyhound bus converted into a salon-saloon with a bathroom equipped with 22-carat gold fixtures. There is an electric bullhorn that will play the Mizzou Fight Song at the touch of a single button, and often does so. Handshaking and car hopping are treated like Olympic events.

Linda Powers, wife of the Mizzou coach, makes a late-morning goodwill tour of the high-roller parking lot. She is wearing black pants, a gold glitter blouse, a gold fishnet sweater and a pair of oversized pink shades, on one lens of which is stenciled MIZZOU. "Football is the greatest," remarks Mrs. Powers. "Everyone has fun out here on Saturday. The only one who doesn't is Warren."

The seeds were all planted for Mizzou's return to elite football.  And the beginning of the season gave nobody reason for doubt ... eventually.

September 8: San Diego State at #12 Mizzou

A decent 62,168 fans filled Memorial Stadium the afternoon of September 8 to witness a massacre.  Mizzou was a borderline top ten team, and this was going to be a season that was beyond memorable.  San Diego State came to town on the heels of just a 4-7 season, and though they would end up being pretty good (8-3) in 1979, nobody knew that at the time.  They had fallen into a funk since the Air Coryell years, and they had not yet re-emerged as a viable threat.

Knowing what you know about Missouri fans, try to imagine the atmosphere when Claude Gilbert's Aztecs rode a 13-0 lead into halftime.  Yikes, right?  Penalties and fumbles -- in other words, a severe case of the jitters -- infected Mizzou's play, as did the absence of James Wilder to a torn hamstring, and a rather loaded SDSU offense, led by QB Mark Halda, WR Steve Stapler (113 receiving yards on the day) and a great line that included soon-to-be All-American guard Pete Inge, took advantage.

Facing a double-digit deficit heading into the second half, Mizzou finally shook off the cobwebs, thanks primarily to the defense.  SDSU was driving early in the third quarter when Eric Wright recovered an Aztecs fumble.  Mizzou's offense managed their first sustained drive of the afternoon, and Gerry Ellis plunged in from a yard out to get Mizzou within 13-7.  From then on, it was an all-out assault.  Mizzou would pick off SEVEN Aztec passes on the day, three of them by Wright, who had a game for the ages.  The final score did not clearly signify the scare Mizzou faced for a while, but when the fourth quarter ended, the game looked like it had been a laugher.

Mizzou 45, San Diego State 15


September 15: #11 Mizzou at Illinois

After a satisfying but somewhat lackluster win over San Diego State, Mizzou took to the road for Game 2.  After taking Illinois out 45-3 in Columbia the year before, it was time for a return trip to Champaign.  To say the least, the Illini were not in good shape.  It was Gary Moeller's third year at the helm, and Bo Schembechler's former defensive coordinator had not gotten the job done so far; Illinois went 4-16-2 in his first two years and had started 1979 with a 17-point loss to an average Michigan State squad.

They would put up a fight, however.

By no means should this have been a tight game, but in the end it played out similar to the 2003 Mizzou-Illinois game -- a heavily-favored Mizzou team has to come through late to get by.

In Mizzou's second game without a recovering Wilder, Mizzou got 173 yards rushing from Gerry Ellis, repeatedly drove into Illinois territory, and repeatedly faltered.  After a scoreless first half (again), they finally began to capitalize on opportunities.  Ellis scored two short touchdowns, and Mizzou took an underwhelming 14-6 lead into the final minutes of the game.  However, the Tiger defense that had dominated all game long was forced to come through again.  Illinois got moving late, and they found themselves with a first-and-goal opportunity from the Mizzou 2.  Score and get the two-point conversion, and they would likely rack up an unexpected tie; Mizzou, meanwhile, would tumble in the polls as if they had lost.

On first-and-goal, Mizzou linebacker Eric Berg stuffed a fullback slam by Calvin Thomas for no gain.

On second down, Thomas swept left and was taken down by Wendell Ray and Bennie Smith.

On third down, Illinois tried to catch Mizzou off-guard by throwing the ball, but Illinois QB Lawrence McCullough overthrew his intended target.  Clearly, however, Illinois would go for it.

On fourth down, with the game on the line, McCullough pitched the ball to RB Mike Holmes ... and Berg once again stuffed him.  A goalline stand by a defense that had given up just 19 points in two games was enough to get the job done.  Mizzou's offense, laden with weapons, had once again failed to execute as well as expected, but they were 2-0 regardless.

Mizzou 14, Illinois 6


September 22: #9 Mizzou at Ole Miss (in Jackson)

Are you a glass half-full or half-empty type of person?  If your team is ranked 11th in the country but hasn't done much to deserve that ranking through two games, struggling to score for three of four halves and needing timely defense to save the day against a bad team on the road, are you thinking "It's fine -- survive and advance," or are you more of a "This is not a good sign," type of person?  As Mizzou fans, you're conditioned to expect the worst, but the pessimists among Mizzou fans were given quite a few reasons for hope on a hot, humid, late-September day in Jackson, Mississippi.

For this one, the Sikeston Train was in uniform and ready to go.  After being sidelined with a gimpy hamstring, James Wilder saw his first action of the season, and any fears of him not looking right or getting reinjured were quickly assuaged when he ran up the middle for a tough seven yards on his first carry of the season.

Of course, Wilder's presence did nothing to get Mizzou rolling in the first half.  They did manage a field goal -- their first first-half points of the season -- but entered halftime trailing 7-3.  The Rebels' sophomore quarterback John Fourcade helped Ole Miss generate just enough offense against the stout Mizzou D to give the Tigers yet another deficit.

However, as was their September habit, Mizzou responded in the second half.  Wilder turned the corner for a 15-yard touchdown, giving Mizzou a lead they would not relinquish.  As against San Diego State, Mizzou pulled away quickly and unexpectedly, and despite trailing at the game's midway point, Mizzou won going away.

Ole Miss was not a great team -- the loss to Mizzou set them off on a five-game losing streak, and despite Fourcade's All-SEC quarterbacking, the Rebels would finish just 4-7.  But Mizzou was very impressive in the second half, and teams ahead of them lost -- #6 Penn State to Texas A&M, #5 Notre Dame to Purdue.  Because of that, the Tigers leaped all the way to #5 in the polls.  They had played only two great halves in three games, but they looked so good in those spurts that they  headed into the final Saturday in September ready to face the nation's spotlight.  It was time for #4 Texas versus #5 Missouri at Faurot Field.

Mizzou 33, Ole Miss 7


Next: Reality bites.