clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Countdown: Missouri Football (1920-2010): #6

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

UPDATE: New YouTube Video after the jump

The countdown continues with a visit to the oldest team remaining on the countdown.  It is hard to lose the best player in the history of your program and get even better, but that is exactly what Mizzou did in 1941.

Teams #90-#10
Team #9: 1939
Team #8: 1961
Team #7: 1968

#6: Mizzou 1941 (8-2)

Best Win: Mizzou 28, Oklahoma 0 -or- Mizzou 19, Michigan State 0
Worst Loss: Fordham 2, Mizzou 0

We talk about 1939 a lot because it was the year Mizzou went to their first Orange Bowl, had their first Heisman finalist, and truly made an impact on the national scene for the first time.  Two years later, they had an even better season, but at RMN, we haven't talked about this season as much for some reason.  That changes today.

The 1941 season was one of the most important transitional years in college football history, even if nobody really knew it at the time.  It is the year where Mizzou arguably impacted college football more than they ever had before, and ever would again.  It was the year that Don Faurot unveiled the Split-T formation.  He did not do it because he thought it would change football, of course -- he did it because he had just lost his star player (Paul Christman) and needed to figure out creative ways to move the ball down the field.

I've quoted Bob Broeg's great Ol' Mizzou: A Story of Missouri Football before, and I will once again pause to implore you to pick it up.  It's pretty available thanks to Amazon's used books area, and it is certainly worth the $8-13 for which you can probably purchase it.  It's quirky and only about 98% accurate, but it is a definitive, high-personality look at the first 80 years or so of Mizzou football, and every Mizzou fan should own a copy.

Now that that's out of the way, I'm going to quote a long section from Ol' Mizzou.  It is one of the most enjoyable, descriptive passages in the book, and it perfectly sums up how the Split-T came about.

As Jim Conzelman and Bud Wilkinson said, the Split-T formation was the greatest offensive contribution in a quarter-century. The quarterback option play, the fascinating keep-or-pitch that distinguished it, has been incorporated into just about every offensive offshoot since then.

What led Faurot to this ingenious juxtaposition of "x's" and "o's"? The thin man was looking for something. Christman gone, he remembered with a shudder the disaster that followed the departure of Jack Frye's passing arm in 1937. Faurot recognized that he had exceptional speed in hip-swiveling 165-pound [Harry] Ice and 180-pound cutback artist [Red] Wade, and an exceptional runner in big 200-pound [Bob] Steuber. Steuber's effectiveness on the end-around had convinced the coach he was a running back, not a receiver.

In 1940 the modernized T-formation had sprung upon the football scene with powerful impact. George Halas with the Chicago Bears and Clark Shaughnessy at Stanford University had refined Ralph Jones' man-in-motion version of the ancient T.

The quarterback no longer squatted behind the center, but merely crouched, hands under the crotch so that he handled on a direct handback, rather than a snap. A halfback went in motion to create better passing situations.

The Bears had slaughtered the Washington Redskins in the National Football League's championship game, 73-0. Stanford had surged from nowhere to the Rose Bowl and defeated Nebraska, 21-13.

Faurot borrowed Nebraska's Rose Bowl film from Biff Jones, investigated, and then made up his mind. He ruled out the man-in-motion because he reasoned that last-second movements by the defensive players made it more difficult for offensive linemen to carry out their blocking assignments. Nor did he like the tight offensive alignment of the regular T, feeling that this cozy, shoulder-to-shoulder offensive line made it easier for defensive linemen, unless blocked thoroughly, to reach out and stop or delay a ballcarrier. Faurot, who liked to spread his line a bit even in the single wing, decided to split his offensive line, leaving a 12-inch space between center and guard, two feet between guard and tackle, and a yard between tackle and end.

Additionally, not figuring on his quarterback to do as much passing as the halfbacks on a run-or-pass option that simulated the cocked-arm threat of a single-wing or short-punt tailback sweeping wide, Faurot tinkered to give his quarterback more mobility and potential as a runner. So he eliminated the quarterback pivot from under center and substituted, instead, a slide that, he felt, would permit more deception and faster handoffs by making the ball exchange to the running back closer to the line on dive plays. Moreover he wanted the quarterback keep-or-give option for a very good reason.

Looking back at the results of his other formations, Faurot had found that his most consistent ground-gainer was a play he had put into the short punt to offset Paul Christman's lack of quickness. To get big Dooz into motion, the coach had devised a play in which the direct snap went not to either of the deep men, the tailback or fullback, but to the closest back. Jim Starmer, the halfback, would reverse into the direction Christman had started. Starmer would either flip a lateral (or pitchout, as it would be called now) to the tailback coming around or fake and go inside end himself. Both plays had averaged well, especially Starmer's fake and keep.

"So I wanted to pressure the defensive end with what amounted to a 2-on-1 break in basketball," said Faurot.

The Split-T could better be called the Sliding-T or, as the coach later suggested, the Missouri-T, or if he had not been so darned modest, the Faurot-T. It succeeded beyond his expectations.

Brawny, brainy Harry Smith, the former Trojan star fresh from a year at guard with the Detroit Lions and only 22 years old, was an English major who never let a simple word stand in the way of the magnificent.

"Don didn't know how volatile the Split-T was," said Smith, years later retired from coaching and well-contented as a physical education professor at Ol' Mizzou. "It was gigantic ... colossus."

In other words, pretty good.

From our good friend Tigerborn, here is Don Faurot himself explaining the Split-T.

The 1941 season saw the perfect confluence of innovative strategy and improving talent at Mizzou.  With Faurot putting his new formation into the heads of a mercilessly fast and physical backfield, the results were staggering.  Bob Steuber, Harry Ice, and Maurice (Red) Wade ran behind fullback Bull Reece and one of Mizzou's best ever offensive lines -- future All-American and number retiree Darold Jenkins, all-conference guard Mike Fitzgerald and tackle Bob Jeffries were the stars.  With the loss of Christman, Mizzou averaged under 40 passing yards on 1.6 completions per game, but they also led the country with over 300 per game on the ground.  Steuber rushed for 855, Wade 681, and Ice 603.  As Broeg put it, theirs was by far the best offense in the midlands.  Oh yeah, and their defense allowed only four points per game.

Faurot was slow to incorporate the Split-T into Mizzou's gameplan right out of the gates, and thanks to a little bit of surreptitious scouting (Ohio State later admitted to sending a staffer down to Columbia to sneak in and jot down a few notes about Mizzou's new-fangled offense), it wasn't tremendously effective anyway in Mizzou's first game of the season.  In what would become something of a habit, Mizzou took an early trip to Columbus to take on the Buckeyes of Ohio State to begin 1941, and as was always the case, they came home with a loss.  Led by first-year coach Paul Brown (maybe you've heard of him?), The Ohio State University took an early 6-0 lead on a fourth-and-goal plunge, then held on for dear life.  They took a 12-0 lead in the fourth quarter, but Mizzou's new formation started to pay off.  Red Wade squirted through the Buckeye defense for a 27-yard score, and Mizzou got the ball back, down just 12-7, as time began to expire.  But a long Steuber pass was intercepted at the OSU 10, and the Buckeyes held on for the win.  It was Mizzou's final loss in calendar year 1941.

Beginning with the second game of the season, Mizzou moved to the Split-T basically full-time, and even in inclement weather (especially in inclement weather), it was brutally effective.  In a driving rain storm against Colorado, Wade went 64 yards for a touchdown, then Steuber went 65 on back-to-back drives, and Mizzou won easily, 21-6.  Wade went 65 yet again the next week in a 35-0 win over Kansas State.  They shifted to a single wing against Iowa State in Ames (no idea why), and the offense continued to click.  Ice scored on runs of 17 and 90 yards, and Steuber scored on runs of 30 and 70 in an explosive 39-13 win over the Cyclones.  The Tigers rushed for 448 yards on the day.

Now 3-1 and beginning to get national attention, Mizzou had to hunker down and power through an off-game against Nebraska.  Despite outgaining the Huskers 240-165, the Tigers fumbled five times, were penalized eight times, and scored only once, on a Bull Reece plunge.  But it was enough to get the job done in a 6-0 win.  Mizzou was now ranked 19th in the country.  They then traveled to East Lansing to take on Michigan State.  No problem.  The Tigers did not complete a single pass but rushed for 431 yards en route to an easy 19-0 win.  Steuber scored from 60 yards out, then Ice scored from 27.

As they had in 1939, Mizzou then had an opportunity to make more of a national statement.  They once again traveled to The Bronx to take on NYU at Yankee Stadium, and as with recent trips, the game was no problem.  The Violets did well in holding Mizzou to just 247 yards rushing, but after a scoreless first quarter (Mizzou was stopped at the NYU 1 on their first drive), Wade scored on the first play of the second quarter, and the rout was on.  Despite two fumbles and three interceptions, the Tigers won easily, 26-0.

Whipping iffy teams was not moving Mizzou very quickly up the rankings, as they had only advanced to 16th in the AP poll to date.  However, they were handed a huge opportunity when OU came to visit.  The Sooners were unranked, but the Oklahoma name had cachet, and when Mizzou beat them 28-0, outrushing them 321-53, writers took notice.  Wade scored three touchdowns, and Mizzou moved all the way to eighth in the next week's poll.  They gave voters no reason to change their minds in a 45-6 rout over Kansas the next week.  Mizzou outgained the Jayhawks 504-180 despite a winter mix of rain, sleet and snow.  Up 14-0 in the third quarter, the Tigers put the game away with, you guessed it, a series of long runs.  Ice scored on a 57-yarder, then Steuber did the same on a 55-yarder. Wade later scored from only 23 yards out.

In the final AP poll of the season, Missouri finished seventh in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.  It was their second Top 10 finish in three years, and it earned them their second bowl game in the same amount of time.  They would travel to New Orleans to face mighty Fordham in the Sugar Bowl.  (Seriously, Fordham was an eastern power at the time.  They were a fixture in the polls from 1936 to 1942, ranking as high as third a series of times and finishing 1941 ranked sixth.)

Interesting tidbit about the Sugar Bowl (derived from the great Savitar archives): this was Mizzou's first game played after Pearl Harbor; the country was at war, which meant that weather conditions were not allowed to be broadcast on the air during the game.  Listeners, however, were quickly able to derive that the Tigers and Rams were playing on a muddy quagmire of a field on January 1, 1942.  Though Mizzou had fared well all season in iffy field conditions, this was a new level.  Despite both averaging over 22 points per game in the regular season (a huge total for that time -- Mizzou averaged 25.1 per game, Fordham 22.5), neither offense could move the ball, and the game's only points were scored when Fordham blocked a Don Greenwood punt for a safety.  Mizzou lost 2-0, though in those days bowl results were not taken nearly as seriously.  Bowls were a reward for a job well done, and Mizzou's wonderful (and wonderfully unexpected) season was barely damaged by the result of this sloppy game.