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Mizzou's Greatest, #13: Homecoming has defined both Missouri and the Pinkel era

We'll make this a combination post: part Greatest, part Mizzou Football 2013.

Bill Carter

From this week's Homecoming game notes at (PDF):

Legend says that the Homecoming tradition got its start at the University of Missouri in 1911, thanks to the vision and efforts of Chester L. Brewer, MU's Director of Athletics at the time. Although Illinois staged a similar celebration in 1910, Missouri claims its 1911 effort as one of the first formal Homecoming celebrations surrounding a football game.

That year, the Missouri-Kansas game was to be played on a college campus for the first time ever. Previously, the game had been played in either Kansas City or St. Joseph, and Missouri trailed in the series by a 12-5-3 count at the time.

Brewer wanted to add some spice to the season-ending game in Columbia, so he issued a plea to Mizzou alumni and especially to former Tiger football players to "Come Home" for the game. They did just that, with a record crowd of 9,000 overflowing old Rollins Field.

With four minutes to play, and MU trailing by three, Tiger captain Glen Shuck booted a tying field goal from a difficult angle. Then, little Billy Blees caught a rampaging KU fullback in the open field in the final seconds to preserve the tie, and was carried off a hero.

Hence, "Homecoming" was born.

Homecoming defines Missouri. No matter how the Tigers are doing on the field in a given season, Missouri always invented Homecoming (well, invented or furthered it, your call) and always invented the Split-T. Tradition goes deeper than simply wins and losses, and while Missouri has won plenty of games in its history (and in 2013), Homecoming has always been, and will always be, a Missouri calling card.

And in most years during the Gary Pinkel era, the Homecoming game has defined the season as a whole.

2002: Brad Smith rushes for 117 yards and passes for 135 in a 36-12 win over Kansas. The game is just 21-12 midway through the third quarter when Smith rips off a 75-yard touchdown run. A sack of backup quarterback Jonas Weatherbie seals the deal. In the aftermath, Mizzou players encourage and even initiate a tearing-down of the goalposts, confirming that a) beating Kansas is pretty awesome, and b) the program's goals are still on the ground floor.

2003: Mizzou locks up its first bowl bid in five years with a signature performance from Brad Smith. Mizzou takes a 27-3 lead early in the second quarter, rides out a tough third quarter (Tech cut the lead to 41-31 with 13:30 remaining), and pulls away with three Smith touchdown runs in the fourth quarter. For the game, Smith throws for 128 and rushes for a staggering 291, and an opportunistic defense makes enough stops to pull away for a 62-31 win.

2004: Despite the early loss to Troy, Missouri's 2004 seems to be going okay when Oklahoma State visits. In Austin the week before, the Tigers barely dropped a 28-20 contest against what would eventually become an 11-1 Texas team. With a win over Oklahoma State, Mizzou could move to 3-1 in conference and establish itself as the prime candidate in the North race. Mizzou races to a 17-0 lead with under a minute left in the first half, but OSU surges back, tying the game at 17-17 early in the fourth quarter, then kicking the game-winning field goal with under a minute left. It is the second of five consecutive devastating defeats.

2005: Since Homecoming 2004 kicked off, Missouri had gone just 4-6 with home losses to Kansas and New Mexico putting Gary Pinkel firmly on a pretty hot seat. At perhaps no point was the seat any hotter than when Pinkel's 3-2 Tigers fell behind Iowa State, 24-14, early in the fourth quarter of Homecoming 2005. Brad Smith was terribly ineffective (8-for-12 for 45 yards and a pick, 11 carries for 39 yards and a fumble), and hope was just about lost. But following a pretty cheap helmet-to-helmet shot from ISU linebacker Tim Dobbins, Smith was knocked out of the game. Freshman Chase Daniel took over on a desperate third-and-10, converted that and a fourth-and-7, and drove the Tigers for a field goal. After an ISU three-and-out, Daniel drove Mizzou 87 yards for the game-tying touchdown with 20 seconds remaining. Adam Crossett kicked the game-winning field goal in overtime.

Missouri would win 12 of its next 20 games, then win 26 of its next 32. It might be hyperbole, but you could make the case that Homecoming 2005 saved the Pinkel era.

2006: Daniel officially took the reins from Smith in 2006 and engineered a 6-1 start, marred only by a woulda-coulda-shoulda loss at Texas A&M. For Homecoming 2006, Mizzou trounced Kansas State in a downpour, but a season-defining injury took place late in the game. Star defensive end Brian Smith suffered a broken hip while blocking on an interception return, and Mizzou's defense, allowing 14.6 points per game through eight games, allowed 27.4 in the final five games, four of which were losses.

2007: Fresh off of another coulda-woulda game, the 41-31 loss at Oklahoma, Missouri came home for Homecoming 2007 against No. 22 Texas Tech. Heading into the contest, it was hard to say how Missouri would respond to both a tough loss and rather favorable press. Turns out, they handled it just fine. Stryker Sulak fielded a pop-fly interception and returned it for a touchdown early on, and a tight game at halftime (17-10 Mizzou) turned into a laugher late. The Tigers picked off Graham Harrell four times, cruised to a 41-10 win, and proved to the country that not only do they have an offense and a defense, but they're also going to be a national title threat for the rest of the season.

2009: Missouri began the Blaine Gabbert era with four consecutive wins and took a 12-0 lead into the fourth quarter in an absurdly wet Thursday night game versus Nebraska. But Ndamukong Suh severely sprained Gabbert while bending him in half on a sack, Nebraska scored 27 unanswered in the fourth quarter to steal the win, and a woefully inaccurate Gabbert airmailed passes all game long in a 33-17 loss to Missouri. (There was no longer a Chase Daniel waiting on the bench.) Mizzou returned with an ambitious Homecoming 2009 battle with Texas ... and got its doors blown off almost instantaneously. A home loss to Baylor two weeks later capped a four-in-five losing streak, though Mizzou would rally to save bowl eligibility in November.

2010You probably remember this one.

The Homecoming 2010 win over Oklahoma is the biggest moment of a 10-win season that proved that Missouri can still thrive under Gary Pinkel after Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, and company have left town.

2012. In Missouri's first year in the SEC, a sellout crowd watches ... a pretty terrible football game. Sheldon Richardson's early strip-and-run gives Mizzou a cushion, and a pretty solid day from Kendial Lawrence (108 yards, two touchdowns) ensure that the game doesn't take an awful turn. But a terrible game from Corbin Berkstresser convinces Mizzou coaches that an immobile James Franklin is a better option. A late fumble return touchdown from E.J. Gaines makes this one seem like more of a blowout than it is (final score: 33-10), but the offense's overall struggles, and the resulting defensive strain, pretty much described the season perfectly.

2013. So here we are. One way or another, Homecoming 2013 will define the rest of the season moving forward. Either Mizzou wins and becomes not only a pretty drastic SEC East favorite but an assumed national title contender, or South Carolina wins, and the rest of the season is defined solely by Mizzou's ability to hold off the Gamecocks and win the East. Missouri has already won as many games as I predicted the Tigers would in 2013; it's already been a successful season of sorts. But Homecoming will decide just how successful this year could become.