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Mizzou's Greatest, #38: 1969, The Year of the Tiger

Having never tasted of perfection, I am happy to remember the taste of near perfection.

(And yes, consider this your Saturday Live Thread.)

The Savitar

(Thanks in advance to Bill C for his roundup of this great season which he wrote for another series and from which I borrowed and which can be found here.)

Dan Devine's 1969 version of Missouri Tigers may not have been the most successful of the Hall of Fame coach's teams (fans of the 1960 team would have a say in that argument), but for me it was the most exciting Mizzou team until 2008.

The '67 team went 7-3, and the '68 team topped that with an 8-3 mark, a 35-10 stomping of Alabama in the Gator Bowl, and a ninth-place national ranking. Those two seasons were just considered "table setters" by Missouri sportswriters and fans, however, as the Tigers entered the 1969 season with a pre-season ranking of 10th and a whole locker room full of strong, fast, experienced athletes ready to finally make a run for the top.

The only down side to the fall pre-season was the graduation of several key players on defense headlined by defensive linemen Carl Garber and Rocky Wallace and consensus All American defensive back and first-round draft pick Roger Wehrli.

Mark Kuhlman was the only returning starter on the defensive front six, but Sam Adams, Mike Bennett, John Cowan, Joe Hauptman and Adam Vital were Dan Devine chosen and trained. Linebackers Steve Lundholm and Nip Weisenfels, and defensive backs Butch Davis, George Fountain and Dennis Poppe were all experienced, quality players who had already been through two very successful campaigns.

On the offensive side of the line, the Tigers looked to be as strong, or stronger, as the previous year – especially with quarterback Terry McMillan and wide receiver Mel Gray entering their senior year having a year of playing together under their belt.

There was no quarterback controversy like the previous year. In fact, the only real question mark on the squad was where senior Henry Brown would play: he had been used as a running back his sophomore year, as a wide receiver his junior year, and was listed on the depth chart as backup to senior starter Tom Shryock at tight end for his senior year.

The coaches all agreed Brown was a talented receiver and ball carrier, but they had plenty of those on the squad. What they also needed was a placekicker, and Brown appeared to be the best man on the squad to fill that important position – though that might limit his opportunities to carry the ball during his final year.

The Big 8 was flush with high-powered offenses and the Tigers and their fans believed they were the best of the league.

The season schedule promised key matchups against six teams which would be ranked at one time or another during the season: Air Force, at Michigan, Nebraska, at Colorado, Kansas State and Oklahoma. The Big 8 was flush with high-powered offenses and the Tigers and their fans believed they were the best of the league.

The offensive line returned starters All American Mike Carroll and Tom Crnko, and added Bob Wilson, Dan Kelley and huge, agile tackle Larron Jackson, who would play several years in the NFL for the Broncos and Falcons.

Behind them was McMillan, who had spent a year working on his passing under the watchful eyes of Devine and his staff. Having already established himself as a shifty, opportunistic runner, McMillan had in his backfield flanker Jon Staggers, fullback Ron McBride and tailback Joe Moore.

Add to that experienced and highly athletic backfield the world-class speed of Mel Gray at wide receiver and the good hands and strong running and blocking of senior tight end Tom Shryock and you have a scoring machine.

The first game of the year, a home contest against a promising Air Force team led by strong-armed quarterback Gary Baxter, proved to be more of a test than the Tigers had anticipated as Mizzou moved the ball, but could not push it into the end zone once they reached scoring territory.

It was here that Henry Brown learned just how important a placekicker can be to a team. Three times Brown came off the bench to put three points on the board, and his foot was the difference in building a 16-10 lead late in the fourth quarter.

Baxter, however, burned the Tigers' experienced defensive backfield – we already missed you, Roger Wehrli – on back-to-back passes of 56 and 22 yards to put the Falcons ahead 17-16 with only 32 seconds left.

There was a shocked hush in the stands as McMillan walked up behind center for what looked to be be the final play in a heartbreaking home opener. All eyes were on Gray as the ball was snapped and he sped downfield in hopes of saving the day. The pass that left McMillan's hand was not for Gray, however, but for a sophomore named John "the Jet" Henley who was streaking down the west sideline. He went into the air and caught the 56-yard pass against his chest before being shoved out of bounds by the Air Force defender.

The Tigers ran a couple more running plays to get the best field goal position possible, and Brown became a major factor in a dream season when he booted his fourth field goal of the day through the goalposts for the 19-17 win.

Don't think the beer and other available spirits didn't flow that weekend in Columbia!

The next week the Tigers smashed Illinois in St. Louis by a 37-6 score behind 191 rushing yards by Joe Moore.

13th-ranked Michigan was next on the schedule, and the ninth-ranked Tigers were firing on all pistons as they traveled to Ann Arbor. Four turnovers by the Wolverines in the second quarter (two forced by safety Dennis Poppe) combined with a strong Missouri running attack produced a 24-3 halftime lead.

The Wolverines rebounded to cut the lead to seven (24-17) before defensive lineman Mike Bennett blocked a Michigan punt to set up a field goal and Moore left Michigan's defensive backfield in his wake on a 62-yard touchdown run to top off a 40-17 win over the the other Block M.

The 7th-ranked Tigers returned to the home field against Nebraska and their dual threat of quarterback Jerry Tagge and tailback Jeff Kinney.

McMillan connected with Gray for 69 yards on the second play of the game, and with Shryock for a seven-yard touchdown to offset a 77-yard touchdown from Tagge to Kinney on a busted play to supply most of the scoring in the Mizzou 17-7 victory.

Other than those three plays, it was a typical Mizzou-Nebraska matchup of the 60s – we called it "trench warfare" back then, it has since gained the name "old man football" according to one of our more outspoken trench warriors from last year. Nebraska was held to only 36 yards on 38 carries by the Tigers rebuilt defensive line – Devine did believe in depth, and worked hard to maintain it.

Okie State came to Columbia the next week and the Tigers rode Moore's 121 yards rushing to a 31-21 win.

The 5-0 and fifth-ranked Tigers then flew to Boulder, Colorado, to face a 3-2 Buffalo team that had lost twice on the road (at Penn State and at Oklahoma).

Colorado quarterback Bobby Anderson was coming off a stellar '68 season at Boulder. He completed 112 of 222 passes for 1,341 yards, seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions. In addition, he had rushed 183 times for 788 yards and nine touchdowns.

Taking a page from Devine's '68 Gator Bowl playbook, Buffalo Coach Eddie Crowder secretly changed his offense during the week, and started Anderson at tailback. The All-American athlete was a relentless runner who mixed power with some speed and a lot of heart to gain 132 yards on the ground and score two touchdowns.

Colorado built a 24-10 halftime lead before the Tigers came back in the second half to tie the game. Anderson racked up Colorado's only score of the second half for the final 31-24 spread and the Tigers' only regular-season loss for the year.

Anderson went on to pick up 967 yards and 18 touchdowns on 217 carries to finish the year and propel the Colorado to a final ranking of 16th and a 47-33 win over Alabama and Bear Bryant in the Liberty Bowl.

The Tigers returned home for Homecoming against Kansas State and their own superstar – quarterback Lynn Dickey, who wore white shoes and liked to compare himself to the New York Jets' Joe Namath, who also preferred white shoes. Dickey would end up completing 196 of 372 passes for 2,476 yards, 14 touchdowns and 19 interceptions in 1969, and Missouri fans saw their fair share of that action at Faurot Field as the 14th-ranked Tigers and 12th-ranked Wildcats, both with 5-1 records, put on one of the most memorable games I have ever experienced.

The first half was hard-fought with each defense refusing to yield to the more highly-regarded offenses lining up against them. It took a pass from flanker Jon Staggers to Mel Gray in the second quarter to give the Tigers a little breathing room at halftime with a 21-6 lead.

The Wildcats came out of the locker room ready to win or lose with Dickey's arm – and they almost won. K-State scored first on a long bomb from Dickey to one of his wide receivers, answered immediately by a 99-yard kickoff return by Staggers – 28-12, Mizzou.

K-State then drove 80 yards for a touchdown, regained the ball on a trick onside-kick, and scored on the next play, a 37-yard pass by Dickey – 28-24, Mizzou (two point conversions were not K-State's forte).

The Wildcats held the Tigers on their next possession and scored on their own, another 80-yard drive – 31-28, Kansas State.

McMillan took his turn with a bomb of his own to Henley to set up a 15-yard pass to Staggers and a one-yard plunge by McBride – 34-31, Mizzou.

Missouri held, Staggers returned a punt 40 yards to the five-yard-line, and McMillan ran it in on fourth-and-one – 41-31, Mizzou.

Dickey completed his fourth touchdown pass with 7:23 left against an exhausted Missouri defense – 41-38, Mizzou.

The Tiger defense finally sucked it up and forced a fumble, then picked off their third interception of the day, this one by Jerry Boyd with less than a minute to play – 41-38, Mizzou.

Dickey threw for 411 yards in the game, which produced over a thousand yards total offense between the two teams.

[My finest hour in Columbia was that Homecoming weekend. Brought in my girlfriend from St. Louis for "Man of La Mancha" by the Mizzou Theatre Players on Friday night; the fantastic victory against Kansas State Saturday afternoon; first-run performance of "Easy Rider" in downtown Columbia theatre followed by pizza and beer Saturday night; then to St. Louis Kiel Auditorium for Simon & Garfunkel Sunday evening. "Those were the days, my friends, we thought they'd never end . . ."]

There was no time to sit back and enjoy the moment, since 20th-ranked Oklahoma was due in the next week with that year's Heisman Trophy winner, All American Steve Owens. Owens carried the ball 358 times for 1,543 yards and 23 touchdowns in 1969, but he would not be able to run over the Tiger defense.

The Sooners jumped out to an early 10-0 lead, the Tigers then responded by smashing the visitors from Oklahoma for 44 unanswered points. McMillan threw for 312 yards and Gray caught six passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns.

[My father, a preacher, came up for the game against the Sooners. I got him in on a general admission ticket and then brought him over to the student section to sit with the guys from our floor. Boy, did he get an education in a short amount of time! He was squashed between me and my roommates girlfriend, who was drunk by halftime. He was on an aircraft carrier during WWII, and told me those sailors couldn't hold a candle to what he saw and heard that afternoon. He enjoyed the game, though. It was the only college football game he ever attended, and the Tiger defense put Steve Owens in his place that afternoon.]

The final two games of the season would be on the road, but that was no problem. The Tigers swept past Iowa State 40-13 before going into Lawrence and humiliating the jaybirds by a 69-11 score. This time it was the Tigers who would be heading to the Orange Bowl, while the beakers would be sitting at home.

The Orange Bowl featured the sixth-ranked Tigers (9-1) and the second-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions (10-0). Both teams were strong offensively and defensively, but the game that New Years Day was chess rather than checkers, strategy rather than action, defense rather than offense.

Missouri missed an early field goal, and Penn State countered with a successful attempt for a 3-0 lead. One play later, Joe Moore fumbled after an eight-yard pickup and, after the recovery, the Nittany Lions responded with a 28-yard touchdown pass on the next play for a 10-0 lead.

The Tigers consistently moved into scoring territory only to turn the ball over. They were able to salvage a lone field goal out of five successful drives.

Trailing 10-3 at halftime, the Tigers continued to have turnover problems – they lost two fumbles and had seven interceptions.

On the last drive of the day, the Tigers were still facing a possible tie as they worked their way down to the Penn State 15-yard-line. It was not to be, however, as reserve quarterback Chuck Roper was intercepted at the two-yard-line with less than 30 seconds in the game.

The 1969 Tigers came just a few yards short in a couple of games from having the season every fan craves. But it was not to be.

It is not the disappointment of what might have been that keeps 1969 alive in my memory, however.

It is the magic that was the Missouri Tigers for those 11 special weekends:

– Terry McMillan, an undrafted quarterback who completed 105 of 233 passes for 1,963 yards, 18 touchdowns and only 13 interceptions, with an 8.4 yards per attempt average, and carrying the ball 87 times for 194 yards and seven touchdowns.

– Joe Moore carrying the ball 260 yards for 1,312 yards and five touchdowns;

– Ron McBride crashing his way to 316 yards on 83 carries and five touchdowns;

– Jon Staggers darting 76 times through a thicket of tacklers for 273 yards and three touchdowns, and catching 14 passes for 292 yards and three touchdowns (a 20.9 average);

– Mel Gray sprinting down the field for 26 catches for 705 yards (a 27.1 yard average) and nine touchdowns;

– John Henley pulling in 19 catches for 320 yards and four touchdowns;

– an offensive line that opened huge holes for hard-running backs;

– a defense that faced some of the best offenses in the country and did not give in; and

– the beauty of watching a well-trained team of superb athletes performing almost flawlessly over the course of an entire season while wearing the black and gold.

That's what keeps 1969 so fresh in my memory.

Well . . . that and memories of Homecoming weekend.