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1939 was Don Faurot’s proof of concept

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1939 New York Times New York Times

Football's Dizzy Dean, the ebullient Paul Christman of Missouri, pitched a gorgeous game at the Yankee Stadium yesterday. The big blond junior neglected to take his press notices into the fray with him but he did not need them. Before the fascinated gaze of a gathering of 50,000 he passed and ran NYU into a 20-7 defeat.

— New York Times, Nov. 12, 1939

"He'd come into a huddle, see that the team was tense, and he'd loosen 'em up with something crazy," recalled Bud Orf. "Like, 'Hey, Bud, your zipper is open.'"

Smiling, Orf continued, "I've often thought how Faurot was considered conservative and a disciplinarian, but, proving that he was indeed a good leader, he gave Paul considerable leeway. And we all profited from the flexibility." [...]

"This won't sound sophisticated enough for present-day coaches or players, but our aerial game was most effective with what I'd call roughly 50 percent pass patterns and 50 percent improvisation.

"After all those years together, I could say to Christman, 'Count to six and I'll be there.' I'd make my move, counting, turn around, and there it would be--a strike."

— Bob Broeg’s Ol’ Mizzou: A Story of Missouri Football

For years, torching Kansas late in the season was the best way for a young quarterback to announce that a breakout was coming. In 1996, sophomore Corby Jones rushed for 159 yards and threw for 130 in a 42-25 Tiger win over the Jayhawks; it capped just a 5-6 season but set the table for a happier 1997.

In 2006, sophomore Chase Daniel threw for 356 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-17 rout of KU; you probably remember what ensued in 2007.

This tradition spanned far further back than 1996, though. In fact, you could call it Pulling a Christman. In 1938, Paul Christman, a sophomore from St. Louis, returned a punt 76 yards for a touchdown and keyed a 98-yard passing effort in a 13-7 win over the rival Jayhawks. It wrapped up all-conference honors for Pitchin' Paul — he was the only sophomore on the Big 6 first team — and, more importantly, set the scene for the following fall.

It hadn't taken Don Faurot long to at least make Mizzou respectable again. The Tigers had fallen off the map when booster pressure led to the hiring of young former Notre Dame captain Frank Carideo in 1932. The 24-year old was clearly not ready for the job, and Mizzou went 2-23-2 in his three years in charge. (Boosters: never, ever right.)

Faurot took over in 1935 and led the Tigers to more wins in nine games (three) than Carideo had in 27. In the following seasons, the Tigers went 6-2-1 with a few close wins, then went 3-6-1 with a few close losses.

In 1938, with Christman emerging at what was called the halfback position, Mizzou scored 111 points, the team's most since 1928. And heading into 1939, it appeared the pieces were all starting to fit together.

The talent went well beyond Christman. The Orf twins, Bob and Bud, both of whom would be picked in the 1940 draft, lined up wide for Pitchin’ Paul. Other stars included tackles Bob Haas and Mel Wetzel and end Stillman Rouse.

Mizzou was deep in the backfield, especially with the presesason emergence of sophomore fullback Bill Cunningham. Future Tiger assistant Clay Cooper was a backup halfback.

This was a talented, hard-nosed group, and with Christman at the helm, the Tigers had both a star and the catalyst for an innovative aerial attack. But the squad as a whole was Faurot’s proof of concept: that Missouri kids leading a Missouri program could make national waves. In 1990, Faurot shared with the Columbia Tribune his thoughts on why his Kirksville teams were so good while Carideo’s were so awful.

"We had a good bunch of boys," Faurot said. "The reason I had a good bunch of players was the fact that Carideo was more interested in getting boys from out of state and all over than he was taking the Missouri boys, and Missouri boys didn't have a place to go to school. A lot of them came to Kirksville that should have come here."

The idea that Missouri football was for Missouri boys was one Faurot adhered to throughout his years as coach.

It took an expat-turned-re-pat to make that idea a reality. Like plenty of other St. Louis prospects through the years, Christman didn’t start out in Columbia.

Christman, a bloated 185 pounder, gritted his teeth and wandered down the Indiana pike to Purdue [when he couldn't land on the Notre Dame roster]. He was cut from the Boilermakers' freshman squad for "lack of ability" after six weeks.

"It was too late to get to another college that fall," Paul long ago told me. "But I made myself a couple of promises. That I would become a college All-American, and that someday I'd play on a team better than Notre Dame or Purdue."

Your end-of-1939 poll:

College Football Reference

September 30: Missouri 30, Colorado 0

The season opener ended quickly. Against a Colorado team just two seasons removed from a Cotton Bowl berth, Christman scored on two first-half touchdown runs as Mizzou burst to a 17-0 lead. Cunningham made a sharp debut (12 carries, 89 yards) and after Christman scored again in the third quarter, the backups came in.

The season had begun without a hitch in front of 10,000 in Columbia. But there would be all sorts of drama — and not the good kind — the next weekend.

October 7: Ohio State 19, Missouri 0

Even before he was named athletic director at Missouri, Don Faurot thought like an athletic director. He realized early on that football was the moneymaker, and that Mizzou could better pay for other sports and better facilities if Mizzou were to scrounge around for some big paydays.

Mizzou would travel to Columbus nine times between 1939 and 1949 to take some money and a likely beating, with no home game in return. With little or no return, they would also travel to Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Minnesota (three times) in the 1940s before slowly earning enough cachet to score some home-and-homes.

In a season in which Mizzou introduced itself to the college football world, consider their early-October trip to Columbus a false start. On the overnight train to Ohio, Stillman Rouse provided a very bad omen: he had a nightmare and accidentally punched through the double-paned glass of the train window next to him. The train had to be stopped in Terre Haute for Rouse to be taken to the hospital for stitches.

The next afternoon, in front of 58,165, the largest crowd to ever see a Mizzou team play, the already-shaken Tigers were intimidated and out-of-sync. Ohio State's Jimmy Strausbaugh (future Green Bay Packer) took the opening kickoff 85 yards to the house, but it was called back via penalty. So instead, the Buckeyes simply marched 78 yards for a touchdown, capped by an 11-yard touchdown pass by future first-rounder Don Scott.

Mizzou's defense kept them in the game, but the vaunted offense never got rolling. They only sauntered into Buckeye territory twice and never made a true scoring threat. By the fourth quarter, the defense wore out. It was still 7-0 midway through the fourth quarter when Charlie Anderson caught a touchdown pass to make it 13-0. Scott then zig-zagged for 34 yards and the final touchdown.

October 14: Missouri 14, Washington University 0

This was the last meeting between the two schools — in just three years, Wash U. would dissolve its football program.

Mizzou did not send a polite parting gift. In front of 10,000 in St. Louis, Mizzou put up more than 400 yards and held Washington to under 100. Backup quarterback Dick Gale of Chillicothe started the game and conducted an early scoring drive, and Christman connected with Jim Starmer on a late touchdown pass. Stalled drives kept the Bears close, but this one was no contest.

October 21: Missouri 9, Kansas State 7

Under Bo McMillan, K-State had built a pretty competitive program from 1928-33, winning eight games in 1931 (almost making the Rose Bowl) and six in 1933 (almost winning the Big Six).

Before 1934, McMillan left for Indiana, and K-State chose between two men for his replacement: Lynn "Pappy" Waldorf and ... Don Faurot. They chose Waldorf, who bolted to a conference title in his first year, then bolted for Northwestern. With Faurot scooped up by Missouri after 1934, KSU was left with Wesley "Cowboy" Fry, who, well, wasn't Pappy Waldorf. KSU wouldn’t enjoy another winning season until 1953.

K-State was 3-0 heading to Columbia, and the Wildcats would outgain Missouri, 261-248, for the game. Christman completed only seven passes.

An early goal line stand made a huge difference. Mizzou stuffed the Wildcats and drove for a field goal, and up three in the second half, the Tigers pulled out the ol’ hook-and-ladder for a touchdown. Christman passed to Bob Orf, who lateraled to Bud Orf. That play always works. KSU struck late to make the score 9-7, but that was it.

October 28: Missouri 21, Iowa State 6

It was Homecoming at Ol’ Mizzou, and in front of a crowd of 12,000, the Tigers played without Christman and Cunningham for the first half due to minor injuries. It didn’t matter. Myron Counsil scored early, Ron King scored late (on a pass from Dan Wager), and Mizzou rolled up a 21-0 second-quarter lead.

ISU played lively in the second half, but they failed in two fourth-quarter red zone chances. First, Christman intercepted a pass to end one drive, and then another drive was shut down on downs. In the end, despite a lack of offense in the second half, this was an easy one for the Tigers.

The real season would begin in November. And Mizzou pulled off its best run of performances to date.

November 4: Missouri 27, No. 10 Nebraska 13

A year earlier, Mizzou had ended a 10-game winless streak against Nebraska, riding Christman’s arm to a 13-10 win in Lincoln. The Huskers went just 3-5-1 that year, but Biff Jones’ squad had begun 1939 with four wins, a tie, and a top-10 ranking.

From Bob Broeg’s Ol’ Mizzou:

The morning of the game, as always in those days, Faurot's team gathered at Harris's Cafe for peaches, tea, and toast, the traditional pregame meal. Christman, accompanied by other Catholics on the squad, straggled in from Mass. At the Columbia Tribune next door he stopped in, tapped me on the shoulder at my Associated Press typewriter and, cupping a backhand to his mouth, he grinned and stage-whispered:

"I'll give you a scoop, kid. I'll pass those bums out of the stadium by the half."

I laughed. Nebraska was favored after beating Bernie Bierman's Minnesota Gophers and Jock Sutherland's Pitt Panthers, both national powers. Not only that. One thing the Cornhuskers certainly would look for from Christman was the passing that dazzled them the year before.

As they say, it's not bragging if you back it up. In front of 18,000 Tiger fans, Christman and Cunningham gashed the Huskers, which set up the long ball. Christman only completed four passes in the first half, but they went for 116 yards and three touchdowns — one to Bob Orf, one to Rouse, and one to Bob Orf via Bud, who had fumbled.

This was a major step forward for Mizzou. Not only was it the Tigers’ first ever win over a ranked team (the AP had begun ranking teams in 1936), but after a few games of just getting by on offense — nine points against Kansas State, zero against Iowa State with Christman — Mizzou was cocky and assertive.

It was a good time for the pieces to come together, as the schedule wasn't going to get any easier.

November 11: Missouri 20, No. 17 NYU 7

Mizzou played NYU six times in the 1920s and 1930s, and five of those matchups came in New York. This was an easy way to get yourself in front of sportswriters, and while the first three games from 1929-31 were all double-digit losses for the black and gold, the 1939-41 series was a romp for the good guys.

Having to go on a long road trip the week after a big rivalry win could be pretty inconvenient, but Mizzou made the most of it. A confident offense was ready for its “Hello, world!” moment.

In 1939, the NYU Violet, long striving for respectability, were starting to get somewhere. With widely respected QB Eddie Boell — their leading rusher and passer — and star halfback Al Campanis (yes, that Al Campanis), the Violet, under coach Mal Stevens, started the season 5-1 and crept into the AP rankings.

The week of the game, The New York Times ran article after article about Paul Christman and the explosive Missouri offense and whether NYU could stop them. A sample:

The victory of Missouri over Nebraska and the celebrity of Paul Christman as one of the great passers of 1939 throw the spotlight upon New York University and the game at the Yankee Stadium this week. Here is one of the prize attractions of the campaign and the opportunity for Dr. Mal Stevens's smart, virile eleven to gain the recognition that its adherents think is well overdue.

With the game being both well-hyped and in Yankee Stadium, major syndicated writers like Grantland Rice would be on hand. Mizzou came to put on a show.

Mizzou struck first with an effortless 67-yard opening drive for a score. Christman completed a 23-yard pass on the game's first play, and Cunningham took over from there. Christman scored off-tackle from the 2, and after a missed PAT, it was 6-0 Missouri.

The Violet, however, immediately struck back. NYU ate up much of the late portion of the first quarter and the early part of the second in marching 72 yards for a touchdown and a 7-6 lead.

Mizzou’s defense would shut the Violet down from there, but it took a while for the offense to quit stalling out.

Early in the third quarter, the Tigers made their move. On a drive spearheaded once again by Cunningham and just one pass, Mizzou advanced to the NYU 15 when Christman scored on a gorgeous cut-back run, avoiding just about every Violet defender at one point or another.

Thanks to a Clarence Hydron interception, Mizzou finally put the game away. He returned the pick to the NYU 21, and from the Violet 10, Christman lobbed the ball in Ron King’s hands on a route to the right corner. King, falling down, bobbled the ball briefly before securing it for the clinching points.

The final score was 20-7, and it could have been much worse. Two late fourth-quarter drives came up just short of the end zone. But it was clear the superior team was in gold.

Christman accounted for 149 passing yards, 54 rushing yards, a touchdown pass, two touchdown runs, an interception, and two booming punts. If Heisman campaigns were run then as they are now, the string of publicity stemming from this one game would have put the statue in Pitchin' Paul's hands. It almost happened.

November 18: No. 12 Missouri 7, No. 5 Oklahoma 6

Missouri had gone from afterthought to No. 12 in the country by mid-November. Now it was time to go win a Big 6 title and clinch the program’s first bowl bid. But an undefeated, top-five Sooner squad stood in the way.

A cold, sloppy, late-November day in Columbia led to a sloppy game almost entirely decided by special teams. The Sooners hit Christman often, and on a slick field with a slick ball, Pitchin' Paul just didn't have much to work with. He completed just seven of 15 passes for 39 yards, but Mizzou out-rushed OU, 157 to 148, and Christman nailed a couple of nice punts.

It was Ron King, however, who would pin OU at its six with a third-quarter punt. And after OU quickly went three-and-out, Charley Moser came off the line untouched and got a hand on the kick, which went straight up into the air. From Bob Broeg:

The blocked punt went straight up. Players of both sides converged under it in a tableau caught by a cameraman whose enlarged photograph, floor to ceiling, animated Don Faurot's den for years.

There, you could see it, the strained look of the players crouched to leap. When the ball came down, it was the athlete with the talent and timing of a basketball rebounder, Bob Orf, who leaped at the right moment to grab the ball and go down under a pile-up of muddied gold and dirty red jerseys.

1939 MU-OU The Savitar

Orf’s recovery gave Mizzou six points, and King’s PAT gave the Tigers seven. And in the fourth quarter, when OU’s stagnant offense finally got rolling and went 76 yards for a score, the Sooners’ Dick Favor missed his PAT. Mizzou 7, OU 6.

A late Mizzou fumble gave the Sooners one more chance. But a muffed exchange on a field goal attempt ended it.

In all, the stats did not favor Mizzou. First downs: OU 12, MU 7. Total yards: OU 225, MU 196. Christman and the Mizzou offense did next to nothing, but in dicey playing conditions, the Tigers made the plays that mattered. And they all but clinched their first Big 6 title in the process.

November 25: No. 10 Missouri 20, Kansas 0

Faurot's Tigers had already clinched at least a tie of the Big Six title and were in good position for their first ever bowl game, but to make things undoubtedly official, they needed to take care of business in Lawrence against a struggling Kansas squad led by former Mizzou coach Gwinn Henry.

Christman had a day that could be considered both abnormally good and bad. He completed only three passes for 11 yards, which probably spoiled any chances of winning the Heisman, but with KU focusing on the pass, he carried 23 times for 127 yards and a touchdown.

Really, this game came down to composure. Midway through the second quarter, Mizzou was driving when KU tackle Jack Turner, who had been having a great game, literally kicked Bud Orf in the pants, or as the New York Times put it, "attempted to punt Bud Orf off the field." He was ejected, Mizzou got a first down at the KU 34, and a few plays later Ron King scored the game's first touchdown.

It was 7-0 at half, but Kansas would fade. Christman scored in the third quarter, and a Dan Wager-to-Bud Orf strike put the final points on the board in the fourth.

January 1: No. 13 Georgia Tech 20, No. 6 Missouri 7

Mizzou would quickly accept a bid to the 1940 Orange Bowl, the school’s first ever bowl appearance, at a watch party at the downtown Tiger Hotel. Unranked as recently as two weeks earlier, Faurot's Tigers would finish No. 6 in the final AP poll — remember, the final poll was taken before bowls then.

A season that had begun with high hopes was finishing as Mizzou's best season to date.

Bowls were true exhibitions then. You had secured your final ranking beforehand. It was a recruiting tool as much as anything. Mizzou took its Orange Bowl preparation seriously enough, I’m guessing, but Georgia Tech had a trick-play-heavy, misdirection offense, and Mizzou had minimal film to study.

The Orange Bowl started well enough. On a rainy Miami afternoon, Bob Waldorf recovered a fumble near midfield, and Christman completed a couple of passes, then sneaked into the end zone for a 7-0 Mizzou lead.

1939 MU-GT The Savitar

From there, though, Tech’s deception took over. The rain was strong, and many in the stands couldn't see what was going on because of all the opened umbrellas, but that was probably no big deal — Mizzou defenders couldn't really see what was going on either.

As Christman said after the game (via Bob Broeg, of course), "I never saw such a tricky offense. At safety I just couldn't follow the ball. Once I made what I thought was a helluva tackle at one sideline, only to hear the crowd roar as the play went to the other side."

All-American Engineer Bobby Ison scored on a 55-yard reverse, and Tech followed that up with a triple-reverse for a touchdown later in the game.

Mizzou finished the season with a loss, but nobody was feeling too down. The Tigers had already proven what they were capable of that year.

On the strength of his November performance — particularly in the trip to Yankee Stadium — Christman would finish third in the Heisman voting. He was the most talented player to play in black and gold at that point (and hell, maybe that still holds true), but it took a squad full of true sons to bring Mizzou to Miami. Faurot’s vision had come to fruition. And it would take him only two more years to raise his profile even further.

The Savitar