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Mizzou's Greatest, #7: The 1960 football season

We're finally in a place where we can finish the Greatest countdown. But first, as a lead-in, let's #evergreen the top 10 again. Next up: the season that left Mizzou one win away (sort of).

The Savitar

Symbolically, this season belongs at both No. 1 on the list (Mizzou went undefeated, technically!), and it belongs in the teens at best (Kansas wrecked the national title). We'll split the difference and slot it in at No. 7. It was the season that Dan Devine's presence was so totally felt, that Danny LaRose made a run at the Heisman, and that Mizzou's student-body-right sweep dominated college football.

Below is a reproduction of what we wrote for the 2010 Missouri Football Preview (remember that?):

After seventy years of football, Missouri Football had experienced plenty of high points. They had won conference titles. They were part of the first Homecoming. They had a quarterback who came close to winning the Heisman in 1939. Their coach had put together an offensive system (the Split-T) that would dominate college football for decades. They had never backed away from a challenge.

But they had never been ranked No. 1 in the country. They had never legitimately competed for a national title. Hell, they had not even won their opening game of the season in 13 years. A loaded senior class, with the experience of a competitive Orange Bowl loss fresh in their memory, entered the 1960 season, Dan Devine’s third as Missouri head coach, with expectations higher than they seemingly had any right to set. And they would meet every single one of them.

The team was led by what would have to be considered one of Mizzou’s most successful senior classes. Soon-to-be All-American Danny LaRose was a terrifying end on both sides of the ball; plus he was a rock-solid punter to boot. Halfbacks Mel West and Norris Stevenson, the first two African-American players in Mizzou football history, took turns dominating. Mixed with underclassmen like dangerous back Norm Beal and new starting quarterback Ron Taylor, the recipe was a good one.

September 17: SMU (0-0) at Mizzou (0-0)

The biggest loss Mizzou had suffered after the 1959 season came on the coaching staff. Dan Devine’s chief defensive assistant, Doug Weaver, had taken the head coaching job at Kansas State, and "Uncle" Al Onofrio moved up in the ranks to take his place. To say the least, Onofrio’s debut was a strong one. Against an SMU program that had been a very respectable one for decades, Mizzou dominated. The Mustangs were held to 39 yards rushing and just 137 yards overall, and a series of turnovers gave Mizzou all the offense they needed. Mizzou intercepted a pass in the first quarter and recovered a fumble in the second; both turnovers set the offense up with short fields and resulted in touchdowns.

Tom Smith put the finishing touches on the game when, in the fourth quarter, he picked off a pass and returned it 22 yards for a score. Mizzou’s offense had generated a respectable 247 yards, but in reality their major job was just to get out of the way and let the defense do its damage. The 20-0 win was Mizzou’s first season-opening victory since 1947 (Don Faurot had the habit of scheduling monstrous non-conference slates) and just their fourth in 17 tries over the Mustangs.

September 24: Oklahoma State (0-1) at #16 Mizzou (1-0)

Mizzou’s first conference matchup of the season came against the newest member of the Big 8. The Tigers made sure that Oklahoma State’s first ever game in the conference was far from memorable. Less than five minutes into the game, Mizzou completed an easy scoring drive with a one-yard plunge from short yardage specialist Donnie Smith. But OSU completed a 63-yard prayer of a pass with under 40 seconds remaining in the second quarter, it was just 7-7 at halftime.

Whatever Dan Devine told his team at halftime, it worked. Mizzou rushed for over 300 yards in the second half, and they turned a tight game into a laugher. Early in the third quarter, Mel West went 55 yards to set up a 12-yard touchdown pass from Ron Taylor to Norris Stevenson. Norm Beal put the finishing touches on the ‘Pokes, busting a 78-yard touchdown and making the winning margin 28-7.

October 1: #19 Mizzou (2-0) at #20 Penn State (1-0)

After two relatively easy contests, Mizzou traveled to Pennsylvania for their first true test of the season. For better, worse, and better again, Danny LaRose put on a show against the 20th-ranked Nittany Lions of Penn State. The 6-foot-4 senior from Crystal City made his first pitch for All-American honors (which he would end up receiving) by setting up residence in the Penn State backfield. Two iffy early punts from LaRose gave Penn State solid field position, but constant pressure from LaRose ended drives. He caught a first-half touchdown pass that helped give Mizzou a 14-0 halftime lead, but then he tipped a third-quarter pass from Nittany Lions quarterback Galen Hall, and it ended up getting caught for a touchdown. Finally, he intercepted a fourth-quarter pass to help seal the win. A late 13-yard touchdown run by Norris Stevenson put the game out of reach; Mizzou won, 21-8. The game won some due attention for both Mizzou, who moved to No. 11 in the AP Poll, and for LaRose himself.

October 8: #11 Mizzou (3-0) at Air Force (2-0) (in Denver)

In 1960, Mizzou’s offense was strong and steady, with loads of "student body left/right" pitches (plays where Ron Taylor would pitch to a running back, and Mizzou would form a convoy of blockers, including pulling guards, a fullback, and Taylor himself) for steady yardage. It was grueling, and it wore down opposing defense, but the long drives and methodical nature also kept scores rather close. Mizzou was not strongly tested in their first three games, but the games were still in question in parts of the second half. Against Air Force, this would not be the case. Mel West scored an early touchdown, and in the second quarter Mizzou used some trickery to put the game out of reach. Norm Beal fielded a punt and handed to Donnie Smith on a reverse. Smith raced 90 yards for a touchdown, and Mizzou led 27-0 at halftime. They would end up winning easily, 34-8. The win gave Mizzou their first 4-0 start since 1924, and their dominance won them more attention. They would move to sixth in the AP Poll, their highest standing since the end of the 1939 season.

October 15: #6 Mizzou (4-0) at Kansas State (1-3)

Heading into 1960, people worried what effect Doug Weaver’s departure would have on the Mizzou defense. The answer: none. Weaver’s Wildcats welcomed Mizzou to Manhattan, and Mizzou was a less-than-gracious visitor. Donnie Smith scored three touchdowns, and Mizzou’s offense gained almost 500 yards in total offense. Meanwhile, they held the Kansas State to just 11 yards on the ground. As was his custom, Devine removed his starters before got out of hand ... but the Mizzou sophomores just kept right on scoring. Mizzou won 45-0, putting together their biggest margin of victory since a 60-7 win over St. Louis in 1949.

Mizzou’s 5-0 record was their first since 1905, and their new poll ranking of fifth was officially their highest ever.

October 22: Iowa State (3-2) at #5 Mizzou (5-0)

When you get off to a historic start, fans tend to notice. A crowd of 32,000 showed up to watch Mizzou methodically massacre a solid Iowa State club. The Tigers easily jogged to a 14-0 halftime lead, and when the Beal-to-Smith punt return reverse worked again (this time for 88 yards), it was all but over. Mizzou harassed Iowa State quarterback John Cooper (future Ohio State head coach and one-time Mizzou coaching candidate) all day, though he finally got the Cyclones on the board with a minute left (on a deflected pass, naturally).

The 34-8 conquest was yet another easy win and resulted in yet another "First time since..." Mizzou was now 6-0 for the first time since 1899.

October 29: #5 Mizzou (6-0) at Nebraska (3-3)

Against a Nebraska program still trying to rebound from some historically bad seasons in the 1950s, the Tigers took their merciless, methodical nature to a new level. Despite rainy conditions and numerous fumbles, Mizzou scored once per quarter in their third shutout of the year. Donnie Smith scored in both the first and second quarters, Norris Stevenson broke off a 69-yard touchdown run in the third, and Ron Taylor found Norm Beal for a 20-yard touchdown in the final stanza. Mizzou won 28-0.

Already in uncharted waters, Mizzou took another leap as October turned to November. No. 2 Ole Miss tied unranked LSU, No. 3 Syracuse lost to Pittsburgh, and No. 4 Navy barely snuck by unranked Notre Dame, meaning Mizzou was about to take a leap into the Top Two. Iowa was a near-unanimous No. 1, but if they were to slip, Mizzou was ready to pounce and claim their first ever No. 1 ranking. But first, they would have to get by their toughest opponent yet.

November 5: #18 Colorado (5-1) at #2 Mizzou (7-0)

After a season-opening loss to Baylor, Colorado had caught fire. The Buffaloes were looking to sneak to the top of the conference pecking order. For the first weekend in November, here were the Big 8 standings: 1T) Mizzou 4-0, 1T) Colorado 4-0, 3) Kansas 3-0-1, 4) Oklahoma 1-1-1, 5) Iowa State 2-3, 6) Nebraska 1-3, 7) Oklahoma State 0-3, 8) Kansas State 0-5.

A huge (for the time) crowd of 37,500 showed up in Columbia, but the Buffaloes were not cowed by the moment. Garle Weidner found Gary Henson for a 38-yard touchdown, giving the Buffs an early 6-0 lead. They were driving to go up double-digits when Tommy Carpenter, of Springfield, made a potentially season-saving tackle, stopping a fourth-down conversion attempt at the Mizzou 4. From there, the momentum shifted. Donnie Smith scored to give Mizzou a 7-6 halftime lead, and the defense took over. Colorado gained just two yards in the second half, and Norm Beal’s 55-yard punt return gave Mizzou a 14-6 lead in the third quarter. Danny LaRose sacked Weidner for a safety in the fourth quarter, putting the game out of reach. The 16-6 win gave Mizzou distance in the conference title race, and it kept them at No. 2 in the polls, but the first half uncovered a few defensive cracks that had not been seen all season.

November 12: #2 Mizzou (8-0) at Oklahoma (2-4-1)

In 1958, Dan Devine’s first season as Mizzou head coach, the Tigers traveled to Norman in mid-November with a chance at a conference title. They got mauled, 39-0, and Oklahoma won their 13th straight conference crown. After the game, however, an emotional Devine made a proclamation. He jumped onto a training table in the visitors’ locker room and announced that Mizzou would beat the Sooners on their next trip to Norman, and they would dedicate the win to the 1958 seniors who wouldn’t be around to take part.

At the time, of course, that seemed ridiculous. Oklahoma was as invincible within their conference as any program had ever been. But by 1960, the Sooner aura was fading. A loss to Iowa State the previous week had all but knocked the Sooners out of conference title contention, and if Mizzou could knock off OU, they would be one game away from the Big 8 crown.

Of course, there was something else at stake as well. The previous week, No. 3 Minnesota had beaten No. 1 Iowa by 17, hopping Mizzou to assume the No. 1 ranking. But while Mizzou was preparing to battle Oklahoma, the Golden Gophers were losing to unranked Purdue. A Mizzou win would give them the top spot in the AP Poll. Even during Faurot’s heyday in the late-1930s and early-1940s, Mizzou had never seriously threatened for national prominence. They did not play in the most well-respected conference, and their non-conference schedules featured too many landmines. With most of the city of Columbia glued to the radio, Mizzou’s Tigers set about trying to make history.

To say they were nervous is likely a bit of an understatement. On the fourth play of the game, Oklahoma’s Mike McClellan raced 70 yards for a touchdown, and the Sooners took a 6-0 lead. Great teams respond well when they taste blood in their mouth, however, and Mizzou’s 1960 squad was one of its greatest. Donnie Smith evened up the game with a short touchdown, then broke off a 30-yarder to give Mizzou a lead. Then, it was Norris Stevenson’s turn to inflict some damage. Mizzou’s killer blocking opened up a lane for Stevenson on a sweep, and he raced 77 yards down the left sideline. The score gave Mizzou an exhilarating 24-12 lead into the halftime break.

The proud Sooners were not going to let Mizzou coast to victory, however. Sooner quarterback Jimmy Carpenter scored in the third quarter to cut the Tigers’ lead to 24-19, and with the Mizzou offense grounded, OU mounted another charge. A shanked punt gave the Sooners great field position, but as they rolled into Mizzou territory, the Tigers’ defense stiffened. They forced a bad pitch out, and Gordon Smith recovered for Mizzou. Almost immediately, Stevenson put the game out of reach. He broke another sweep for a 60-yard touchdown, and Mizzou’s lead was 31-19. For the game, Stevenson gained 169 yards, the most a Bud Wilkinson defense had ever allowed.

From there, it was academic. Further Sooner turnovers led to more Tiger points, and after the 41-19 win, some of the four thousand Missouri fans in attendance rushed the field, celebrating with the victorious team. Mizzou was No. 1 in the Big 8, No. 1 in the country, and just one with from their first national title. It was Mizzou’s first win in Norman since 1936, and Oklahoma’s first conference home loss since 1942.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch would lead with the following sentence in their game recap the next day: "The meek inherited the earth today." A crowd greeted Mizzou’s return to Columbia. This was the greatest day in Mizzou’s proud history.

November 19: Kansas (6-2-1) at #1 Mizzou (9-0)

The week leading up to Mizzou’s most important game ever, Dan Devine was very concerned. Mizzou was beginning to show cracks on defense. After giving up a stingy 73 rushing yards per game for the first eight games of the season, they had allowed a whopping 323 to Oklahoma. They were showing signs of fatigue, and as Columbia began to buzz like never before, distractions were everywhere. To get his players focused, he worked them extra hard in practice the week leading up to the Kansas game. Unfortunately, that resulted in their being both distracted and tired.

Of course, if this had been the caliber of Kansas team that they faced through most of the 1950s, even a distracted and tired Mizzou team of his level could have probably handled the challenge at hand. But with losses only to a good Syracuse team and a great Iowa team, Kansas had begun to discover a high level of explosiveness, outscoring their last two opponents, Nebraska and Colorado, by a combined 65-6. This was a very good team. A little too good, actually. They featured a halfback named Bert Coan, who had transferred from TCU after his freshman season. Rumors swirled that Kansas benefactor Bud Adams had used illegal methods to attract Coan to Lawrence, and there was a distinct possibility that he would be deemed ineligible.

A record crowd of 43,000 packed into an overflowing Memorial Stadium, hoping to see Missouri wrap up their first national title against their arch rivals. Three times in the first half, Kansas lost fumbles near midfield. It looked like it was just a matter of time until Missouri broke through against the Jayhawks. But they didn’t. In fact, they didn’t move the ball at all. Kansas unleashed a nine-man line to combat Missouri’s powerful sweeps, and it worked -- Mizzou had zero first downs in a scoreless first half.

In the third quarter, things began to turn south for Missouri. Kansas got on the board with a field goal, then recovered a Missouri fumble. When John Hadl found the controversial Coan for a 19-yard touchdown, Kansas led 10-0. And then it got worse. Coan scored again, and in front of a shocked Mizzou crowd, the hometown Tigers trailed 17-0. Mizzou had no choice but to begin passing the ball, and that was far from a strength. They managed to score on a 17-yard, fourth-down catch by Mel West, cutting the score to 17-7. Mizzou then got the ball back with a chance to further puncture the Jayhawk lead, but it was not to be. An interception cut short most of Mizzou’s hopes, and a final touchdown made it official. Kansas had won, 23-7, not only stealing the conference crown from Mizzou, but also ending the Tigers’ national title hopes. Minnesota was voted No. 1 by the AP the next day.

Mizzou had averaged 280 rushing yards per game through the 1960 season, but Kansas had held the Tigers to just 61. The Jayhawks were on probation, so Mizzou quickly accepted their second straight Orange Bowl bid. But the dream of a national title was shot, and nobody in the tearful locker room was thinking about Miami.

Almost three weeks later, on December 8, representatives from every Big 8 school met in Kansas City to discuss, among other things, the Kansas-Missouri game. By a 5-3 vote, the conference officially deemed Coan ineligible and forced the Jayhawks to forfeit both games in which he played (against Colorado and Missouri). Kansas was guilty of providing "excessive entertainment" to Coan, and Missouri was officially deemed the victor, completing what would officially go down as an undefeated season. But both the Missouri players and the AP voters knew that Missouri had lost, and despite their being technically undefeated, they still would not receive a piece of the national title.

Every year when Missouri and Kansas play, the announcer is virtually guaranteed to say something to the effect of, "These teams are such bitter rivals that they can’t even agree on who leads the overall series!" This game is why. Kansas still claims victory despite the Big 8 vote, while Missouri does as well. Technicality favors Mizzou.

January 2: #5 Mizzou (10-0) vs #7 Navy (9-1)

Despite the funk into which Mizzou fell after the Kansas game, Tiger players and coaches had a chance at redemption. They would play Heisman winner Joe Bellino and the seventh-ranked Navy Midshipmen on January 2, in front of a large Miami crowd and President-elect (and former Naval officer) John F. Kennedy.

From the opening kickoff, Mizzou dominated. It just took a while for the score to say so. On Mizzou’s first drive, they moved the ball 70 yards to the Navy 2 before a miscue gave the Midshipmen a surprising lead. Donnie Smith got trapped behind the line of scrimmage and attempted an ill-advised lateral to Ron Taylor. The ball was picked off by Navy end Greg Mather and returned 95 yards for a touchdown, giving Navy a 6-0 lead.

The craziness was just beginning. Navy attempted a surprise onsides kick and recovered it. They moved inside the Mizzou redzone, looking to quickly go up 14-0 and hopefully polish off an already disappointed opponent. But these Tigers had come too far to quit, and Norm Beal suddenly turned the tables. He stepped in front of a Hal Spooner pass and returned it 90 yards for a Mizzou touchdown. The first quarter was only half-over, and there had been two touchdowns of over 90 yards. Bill Tobin’s point after touchdown gave Mizzou a 7-6 lead.

From there, Mizzou took over. They quickly shut down the next Navy series, then drove 80 yards in 11 plays for another score. Donnie Smith rolled in from four yards out to make it 14-6. Navy had two opportunities to tie in the second quarter, recovering a Mizzou fumble and pouncing on a bad punt snap in Mizzou territory, but in both instances, Mizzou’s Andy Russell intercepted Spooner to get the ball back.

Entering the fourth quarter, Mizzou was still up just eight points when Mel West, in the final game of his illustrious career, took over. He marched Mizzou 64 yards toward the endzone, and Ron Taylor snuck in from the one-yard line. With the way their defense had performed, hemming in Bellino all game, a 21-6 lead seemed more than enough to assume victory. To their credit, however, the Midshipmen finally began to move the ball. Spooner found Bellino for late 27-yard touchdown to cut the margin to 21-14, but that was as close as they would get. For the game, Mizzou held the explosive Navy offense to minus-eight yards rushing while plowing ahead for 223 yards of their own. West had 108 rushing yards and caught Mizzou’s only complete pass of the game, a five-yarder. Donnie Smith rang up 93 yards. Bellino managed just four yards.

Though Kansas had wrecked Mizzou’s national title hopes, the Tigers made a significant statement in both this game and in the 1960 season. They were truly one of the nation’s two or three best teams, and after national champion Minnesota lost in the Rose Bowl, they would have had as good a claim as anybody to the national title had the AP registered their final vote after the postseason. And even though they did not get to hang a national title banner, this season set Mizzou off on what was easily their most successful decade as a football program. They were one of the nation’s winningest programs in the 1960s, showing off both stout defense and individual athleticism. Over the next ten years, players like Johnny Roland, Roger Wehrli, Mel Gray and others would wear the Tiger black-and-gold, and the proud Mizzou football program would only become prouder.