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Mizzou was damned if it fired Warren Powers in 1984 ... and damned if it didn’t

Close losses and awful special teams cost Powers his job, but Mizzou was becoming a job in which you had to be a great coach just to field a good team.

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It’s not like you can’t see the logic in Missouri’s decision to fire Warren Powers at the end of 1984. And there weren’t exactly fans protesting in the streets afterward. Despite the obvious talent on the field — especially with that ‘83 team — Powers’ Tigers went just 15-16-3 over his last three seasons.

We’ve long heard stories about how recruiting had trailed off in Powers’ final seasons. I don’t completely buy that simply because, again, the 1983 and 1984 teams were pretty talented. But there was just enough of a drop-off to make a difference. Darrell Wallace was good, but he was no James Wilder. Marlon Adler had his moments, but he was no Phil Bradley. And to say the least, there wasn’t a Kellen Winslow on the team. There were athletes, but Mizzou began to need one extra play: Mizzou won four of its first five one-possession finishes under Powers back in 1978-79, then lost four of five before settling into a 6-6-2 stretch through the early 1980s. But over his last five tight games, he went 0-4-1.

The tricky thing about what I call Glen Mason Territory isn’t necessarily that you are wrong in firing your Glen Mason*; it’s that your Glen Mason is the only thing preventing you from realizing the chasm that’s opening up between you and where you want to be.

Missouri’s infrastructure was increasingly behind the times. The facilities were bad, the investment bad. The university itself had gone through money issues in recent years, and athletic director Dave Hart didn’t have a ton to spend. Powers’ personality and prowess kept things going for a while. But Mizzou was quickly becoming a job where you had to be great just to be good on the field.

* In case you’re new to this concept, what I call Glen Mason Territory is when you fire a good coach because he wasn’t great, or when a coach raises the bar at a given program but then can’t consistently clear the new bar. I call it Glen Mason Territory because a) Minnesota fired Mason after the 2006 season despite seven bowl bids in eight years (they’d been to three in the 35 years before his arrival) and b) I started blogging about stuff like this in 2007, so he was the most recent and relevant example. Congrats for that, Coach!

October 6: Missouri (2-3) 52, Colorado (0-5) 7

Missouri had gained at least 425 yards in every game of the 1984 season but had only a 1-3 record to show for it. Luckily, there would be no need for clutch play against a terrible Colorado team in Missouri’s fourth straight home game.

Longtime CU assistant Bill McCartney took over the Buffs in 1982 and said up front that it would take five years to build a winning program. Halfway through year three, he was just 6-19-1, and CU looked like the perfect antidote for a Missouri team suffering from a thrice-broken heart and desperate for confidence and momentum.

With Mizzou defensive backs Terry Matichak and Jerome Caver both healthy for the first time all season, Colorado would only pass for 190 yards, almost half of which would come from the backup CU quarterback in the fourth quarter. Mizzou piled up nine tackles for loss, and Colorado would only score once.

Meanwhile, the MU offensive line had what some would call a pretty good day. Mizzou rushed for an obscene 512 yards. Jon Redd and Marlon Adler both put up over 150 yards each, Mizzou averaged 8.0 yards per play for the game (639 total yards). After a frustrating non-conference run, Mizzou was 1-0 in the Big 8. There was still time to make something of the season.

October 13: No. 6 Nebraska (5-1) 33, Missouri (2-4) 23

After the CU-MU game, McCartney called Missouri the best team they had played all season, and they had played Michigan State, Oregon, Notre Dame and UCLA. Clearly this was a team with talent and explosiveness; despite the tough scheduled and a quarterback controversy, through five games the Tigers were second in the country, averaging 499.4 yards per game.

But to become bowl eligible, they would have to take out the three lesser teams on the schedule (KSU, ISU, KU) and upset a big dog, either NU, OU, or OSU. The first crack came at Nebraska, who had been ranked No. 1 until a suprise loss to Syracuse.

Mizzou hung tight early. Nebraska muffed a punt in the first quarter, and two plays later Eric Drain rumbled 15 yards for a score. NU tied the game at 7-7, but Mizzou had found golden opportunity on its next series when Drain drifted uncovered into the Husker secondary. But he dropped a Marlon Adler pass, and Mizzou had to punt. Mizzou lost its way for a bit but still trailed only 16-10 at the half.

The Tiger defense did all it could to slow down the always potent NU offense, holding the Huskers to two first downs in the third quarter, but the Mizzou offense fell apart. NU linebacker Marc Munford picked off Seitz near midfield and took it back for a touchdown. A Husker FG made the score 26-10 heading into the fourth quarter, and though Mizzou struck back to make the score 26-17 (why didn’t they go for 2?), Nebraska put the game away with a perfect 80-yard touchdown drive against a tiring Tiger D.

October 20: Missouri (3-4) 61, Kansas State (2-5) 21

With one upset opportunity blown, Missouri then traveled to Manhattan to face a K-State team had just whooped Kansas for only its second conference win in two years. KSU hadn’t totally fallen into its late-’80s abyss yet, but it was drifting in that direction.

In front of just 28,200 in Manhattan, George Shorthose’s 48-yard touchdown catch highlighted a 21-0 start for Mizzou. The lead would balloon to 41-7 midway through the third quarter, and then Mizzou’s backups out played KSU’s as well.

In limited action, Adler had 184 yards passing, 51 yards rushing, and four combined touchdowns, and Mizzou was back to within one game of .500 with another easily winnable game — Homecoming against 2-5 Iowa State — coming up the next week.

October 27: Missouri (3-4-1) 14, Iowa State (2-5-1) 14

The season didn’t fall apart with a loss; a tie was more than enough to do the job. To this point, Mizzou had lost only competitive games to pretty good or excellent teams. But there was no excuse for this blemish.

It was slippery and wet on Faurot Field, and Missouri was bothered from the outset. Shorthose fumbled the opening kickoff after a nice return, but the Mizzou defense shut ISU down for no score. After Shorthose redeemed himself momentarily with a 31-yard touchdown catch, Iowa State went three-and-out ... and Shorthose muffed the proceeding punt.

Late in the first half, sure-handed Andy Hill was in to field a short punt and give Mizzou another scoring opportunity, only he also fumbled, and Mizzou led only 7-3 at half despite dominating defensively.

Still, when Adler went for a 15-yard scoring jaunt late in the third quarter, it appeared Mizzou would escape with a messy-but-necessary fourth win of the season. Mizzou was up 14-3, and ISU’s starting quarterback had broken his ankle.

Then Cyclone backup Alan Hood -- a St. Louis native -- stepped in and engineered a scoring drive to cut the lead to 14-6. After a short Adler punt, the Cyclones took over at the Mizzou 40 and took only seven plays to score again and tie the game with an easty two-point conversion

For the first time all season, they had played poorly against a poor opponent, and now they had to win out to become bowl eligible. Not bloody likely.

November 3: No. 10 Oklahoma (6-1-1) 49, Missouri (3-5-1) 7

It really couldn’t have set up any worse for Missouri. Not only did the Tigers face back-to-back road games against Top 15 teams, needing to win them both to become bowl-eligible, and not only were they coming off of their worst performance of the year; no, they also had to face an OU team that was all sorts of angry after slipping up in Lawrence the previous week.

Mizzou had one chance in this game. On the opening possession, OU fumbled, and the Tigers took over near midfield. They went three and out. That was that.

The OU wishbone quickly broke Mizzou. Three straight scoring drives made it 21-0, then OU receiver Derrick Shepard (father of future OU star Sterling) took a reverse handoff, sprinted left ... and passed to future hall-of-fame tight end Keith Jackson, wide open for a 58-yard catch-and-run and a touchdown

The OU lead was 42-0 before Mizzou finally scored in the fourth quarter. The defense was wilting, and the offense, so explosive early in the year, had nothing to offer.

After the game, Mizzou defensive tackle Steve Leshe said, “If you had told me in the beginning of the season that our season would take this path, I don’t think I’d believe you.” There was no salvaging it now.

November 10: No. 7 Oklahoma State (8-1) 31, Missouri (3-6-1) 13

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Mizzou offense racked up insane amounts of yardage, but it couldn’t make plays when it had to, and a series of special teams miscues killed the Tigers.

That’s exactly what happened to Missouri in Stillwater -- for what seemed like about the fifth time that season -- and on ESPN, no less.

Led by Thurman Thomas and a stifling defense, new OSU coach Pat Jones (who had taken over for Jimmy Johnson upon Johnson’s departure for Miami) was in the process of leading OSU to 10 wins and a Gator Bowl bid. The Pokes would reach No. 2 in the polls before a loss to OU. But Mizzou, despite nothing to play for, was giving the ‘Pokes all they could handle heading into the fourth quarter.

The Tigers had moved the ball at will throughout the first half, but due to two missed field goals (ugh), a blocked field goal (double ugh), a costly Adler interception (gah), and a dropped touchdown toss (mercy), the Tigers still trailed at half, 10-7. It was 17-13 OSU in the fourth quarter (after a blocked Tiger PAT) when Mizzou lined up for yet another field goal. Almost predictably, it was blocked.

Why you would even try a field goal at that point, I have no idea.

(The most maddening part about this? Tom Whelihan, who would go on to become one of the best place-kickers in the country in 1986-87, was a freshman on this team, but he was relegated to kickoff duties. Brad Burditt, who had been pretty solid in 1983, was left in there to miss three PATs and six field goals. Simply making a kicker change might have saved Powers’ job, or come very close.)

The next play, OSU threw a trick play touchdown pass, and that was ballgame. Mizzou out-gained the Cowboys, 451-374, but once again, the Tigers were a player or two away.

November 17: Kansas (5-6) 35, Missouri (3-7-1) 21

A season full of high hopes comes crashing down due to miscue after miscue. A home crowd loses faith in its team. Its chief rival comes to town having won two of three. I think you know what’s coming.

This one played out a lot like the KU-MU game 20 years later, near the end of an equally disappointing 2004 campaign. KU sandwiched two touchdown drives around yet another Mizzou missed field goal, and by the time the Tiger offense got its footing, they were down 21-0. Mizzou got back to within 21-14, but an 87-yard pass from Mike Norseth to Richard Edsell broke the Tigers’ back. Amid snowflakes, raindrops, and “We want Dick Vermeil” signs, Mizzou would never again come within 14 points.

Under Powers, Missouri went to bowls five times in seven years and had a losing record just once. Powers was the Big 8 Coach of the Year in 1983 and fielded a talented, explosive team in 1984. But missed opportunities and special teams miscues did the Tigers in repeatedly.

It took so many bad breaks and near misses that it would have been easy to write the season off as a fluke and let Powers continue through the final two years of his contract.

Unfortunately, two factors were working against Powers.

First, the lack of close-game execution seemed like a bit of a trend. Overall under Powers, Mizzou was 8-16-3 in games decided by one score. Just a .500 record in those games may have kept Powers coaching in Columbia.

My SB Nation colleague Bud Elliott likes to say that while close-game records are decided a lot by luck, some combination of coaching, quarterback play, and special teams can make a difference. Well, Mizzou had a quarterback controversy and inexcusably horrid special teams in 1984 and went 0-3-1 in one-possession games. (And there were a couple more games that would have been one-possession battles if not for special teams.)

Second, and more importantly, average attendance had dropped by over 20,000 over the past five years. Interest in watching a solid team incapable of coming through or winning “the big one” (after his first season, anyway) was waning.

Powers’ teams were good in the classroom and tough on the field, but for a variety of reasons, the connection to the fan base had withered. And athletic directors tend to notice when more and more tickets go unsold.

Late on Sunday night, November 18, Dave Hart met with Mizzou’s Intercollegiate Athletic Committee, then with chancellor Barbara Uehling. They elected to move on.

At the press conference announcing Powers’ firing, Hart and Uehling both spoke of a general negativity radiating throughout the state. A committee that included Don Faurot and senior tight end Tony Davis was formed to screen candidates to replace Powers, who himself was hired over Pat Dye, LaVell Edwards, and St. Louis Cardinals running backs coach (and future Super Bowl champion coach) Joe Gibbs.

The candidates list:

  • Tulsa coach John Cooper
  • Former Steelers defensive coordinator and USFL Oklahoma Outlaws coach Woody Widenhofer
  • CS-Fullerton coach Gene Murphy
  • Furman coach Dick Sheridan
  • Former Mizzou running back Johnny Roland
  • Oklahoma assistant Merv Johnson
  • Dan Devine (allegedly)
  • Maryland coach Bobby Ross
  • NFL assistant & former CMC coach Don Shinnick

Cooper would go on to win quite a few games at Ohio State, and Ross would win a national title at Georgia Tech in 1990.

After the first round of exploration, Hart announced that the finalists were Cooper, Murphy (who was coming off of an 11-1 season at Fullerton State), and Widenhofer. On December 19, Widenhofer was introduced as the new coach.

If Mizzou was a job in which you had to be great just to be good, hiring a mediocre head coach was a death knell. Widenhofer had proven to be a charismatic, competent defensive coordinator. As head coach at both Missouri and Vanderbilt, he would prove to be ... a charismatic, competent defensive coordinator. His teams never showed the discipline or development necessary to win in an improving Big 8 — Mizzou’s iffy facilities and infrastructure most certainly didn’t help — and he won just 12 games over the next four seasons.

Soon, Powers’ five bowls in seven season seemed like a fantasy.

Note: portions of this post originally appeared in a 2009 Rock M Nation series.