If you’re going to have to fire somebody, you want it to be after a 2-10 season or something, in which the team gave up on the coach, and there’s no question that a move needs to be made.
That’s not the type of decision that awaited Mizzou athletic director Dave Hart after the 1984 season.
When I’m writing with my national hat on at SB Nation, I discuss “Glen Mason Territory” a lot. Last season, after Arizona State and Texas A&M fired winning coaches, I wrote this:
Glen Mason Territory comes when your head coach raises the bar but fails to keep raising the bar.
You know it is coming when you see fans, beat writers, or athletic directors use words like “stale” or “raise the bar” or “aspiration” or “potential” or “sleeping giant.” The AD, when addressing the firing with the media, might say something like ”We want to be in major bowl games on a consistent basis.”
Arizona State and Texas A&M their fired coaches on Sunday after 7-5 seasons.
For A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, the firing might have almost felt freeing. He’s been on or near the hot seat pretty much non-stop since 2015, a victim of his initial success. After going 11-2 and engineering the Aggies’ first top-five finish since 1956 with Johnny Manziel, Sumlin couldn’t take the next step. (That’s a tricky thing to do, since there was only about one step above that one.) He went 8-5 each year from 2014-16 and was on the doorstep of the same this fall.
Mind you, that’s damn good. In a division in which the last-place coach was regularly guaranteed to make $4 million-plus, A&M never finished all that close to last place. [...]
Hiring a new coach is a terrifying crap shoot, and I always say that you shouldn’t do it unless you know you can’t fulfill realistic goals with the guy you’ve got.
There has perhaps never been a more Glen Mason Territory situation for Mizzou than the 1984 season. I think about it pretty often, honestly. It was a perfect confluence of bad timing, bad breaks, and bad decisions, and the effects set the Tigers’ football program back more than a decade.
Despite a positive overall scoring margin, they finished 3-7-1 thanks to three gut-wrenching early losses and a confusing tie against a bad Iowa State team. The offense was solid, while the defense fell off after losing quite a few starters.
By the end of the year, Mizzou fans (the ones that showed up) were wearing paper bags on their heads and holding “How about Dick Vermeil?” signs in the stands. Even though he had suffered just one losing season (and was incredibly unlucky to do so), Mizzou fired Warren Powers — who had just a year earlier been named Big 8 coach of the year — in an effort to bring some new energy to Columbia. Instead, firing a pretty good coach revealed just how vulnerable the program was, with its behind-the-times facilities and crumbling infrastructure, and things got dark for quite a while.
Let’s dive back into this season to see what lessons we can learn.
Heading into 1984, Mizzou players were not lacking in confidence. They were big, talented, and pretty fast, and they were honestly speaking about an Orange Bowl run before the season began.
And why not? The Tigers had been achingly close to something incredible in 1983. They dropped tight early games to Wisconsin (21-20) and an awesome ECU team (13-6) that lost only three games to top-10 teams that season. After taking their medicine in a 34-13 loss to one of Tom Osborne’s best Nebraska teams, they had pummeled Kansas State and Iowa State, shut out No. 11 Oklahoma in a breakthrough win of sorts, and survived Jimmy Johnson’s Oklahoma State. They slipped up late in the year at Kansas, thanks in part to a blocked punt, and they dropped a last-second heartbreaker to BYU in the Holiday Bowl, but they were 7-5 and could legitimately say they were about three plays from 10-2.
In 1984, it was theoretically time to get those three plays back.
The Tigers were loaded at the skill positions. QB Marlon Adler, who started all 12 games in 1983, returned for his junior season, and he was being pushed into a part-time role by rising junior Warren Seitz. At running back, fullback Eric Drain, who had a great Holiday Bowl (117 yards rushing) the year before, was back and was being pushed by Jon Redd. The WR position was manned by a couple of senior speedsters in former Jefferson City Jay George Shorthose (who ended up having a cup of coffee with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1985) and Andy “Future Mizzou WRs Coach” Hill.
In the run-up to the season, all media attention was focused on the QB battle. But if there was a true concern, it was in the trenches, where Mizzou was going to have to replace four starters, including All-American (and New York Giants draftee) Conrad Goode.
On defense, things were a bit more up in the air. Mizzou’s defensive identity in 1983 was based around a pair of relentless defensive ends in Bobby Bell, Jr. (who had been drafted by the New York Jets) and Taft Sales (who had been drafted by the USFL’s Birmingham Stallions).
Excitement remained for guys like leading-rusher-turned-LB Tracey Mack, soon-to-be three-year-starter Robert Curry, and DBs Terry Matichak (All-Big 8 in 1983) and Jerome Caver. There were concerns with depth — and sure enough, beginning with a preseason hamstring injury for Matichak, injuries would render this unit a shadow of its former self at times — but there was talent.
The Big 8 itself in flux. Nebraska had lost a ton from its unbelievably strong 1983 team, and Oklahoma had slipped a bit, losing 12 games in three seasons. Oklahoma State was rising but had just lost Johnson to Miami, and the other four teams in the conference — Kansas, Kansas State, Colorado, and Iowa State — had combined for just 15 wins in 1983. Out of respect, NU would begin the season ranked No. 2 in the AP poll, and No. 16 OU was the only other team ranked in the preseason. This seemed like a good time for a run. But it was not meant to be.
September 8: Illinois 30, Missouri 24
Despite the loss of Matichak, confidence was high when Mizzou headed to Champaign to face Illinois and stud quarterback Jack Trudeau — future Davey O’Brien runner up and Indianapolis Colt draftee — in front of a record, hostile crowd of 78,297 at Illinois’ Memorial Stadium.
Seitz, rotating series with Adler, ripped off an unlikely 50-yard touchdown run to give Mizzou an early 7-3 lead, but Trudeau had the Illini offense rolling, especially after Caver sprained an ankle late in the first quarter. (He would miss a few weeks of action.)
Trudeau led the Illini on four scoring drives in the first half, but Mizzou managed to stay in the game by forcing a couple of field goals. At half, it was 20-10 Illinois.
As rain began to fall in the second half, Illinois made its move. Two quick scoring drives made it 30-10. Trudeau was slicing up the depleted Mizzou secondary, and the young Mizzou offensive line was struggling to give Adler and Seitz any time to make plays.
In the fourth quarter, however, Mizzou bounced back. With 12 minutes left, Seitz scored from six yards out to make it 30-17. Then, with six minutes left, Jon Redd busted into the open and rumbled 57 yards to the Illinois 10. Mizzou, however, couldn’t take advantage, and eventually an Adler pass fell incomplete on 4th-and-goal. After an Illinois three-and-out, Adler found Shorthose for a 40-yard TD strike. With under two minutes to go, MU was within 30-24.
When Illinois recovered the resulting onside kick, however, it appeared that hope was lost. Not so! Trying to score one first down and run out the clock, Illinois fumbled. Mizzou recovered and somehow had a chance to take the lead despite struggling for most of the game.
Behind Adler, the Tigers moved the ball to the Illini 23 as time was expiring, but before Adler could lob a pass to Shorthose on the final play, he was sacked.
Things would get even more frustrating the next week.
September 15: Wisconsin (2-0) 35, Missouri (0-2) 34
Mizzou’s home opener began innocently enough. Seitz found Tony Davis for a 50-yard touchdown in the first quarter, then scored from two yards out late in the half to give Mizzou a 13-7 halftime lead after a blocked PAT. (Seitz would take the reins for 13 of the game’s 15 possessions; Powers appeared to be homing in on Seitz as his first-stringer.)
Seitz really got rolling in the second half. Long passes to Hill and young Adrian McBride set up a Drain touchdown, then Seitz and Shorthose connected for a score. Mizzou was up 28-7, and Seitz had thrown for 216 yards and 3 TDs on just eight completions. This was looking easy.
And then came the worst quarter of Marlon Adler’s career.
- On the first play of the fourth quarter, Wisconsin corner Richard Johnson (who had blocked the PAT earlier) blocked an Adler punt and recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown. 28-14.
- Two minutes later, Johnson partially blocked another Adler punt. Six plays later, Badger receiver and future New York Jet Al Toon scored. 28-21.
- Mizzou punted again (cleanly this time), and Wisconsin went 66 yards in six plays. 28-28.
- Adler came in at QB for a much-needed change of momentum ... and was picked off.
- Wisconsin missed a go-ahead field goal attempt ... and then Adler was picked off again. Wisconsin went 35 yards in two plays, and just like that it was 35-28 Wisconsin.
Goodness. And get this: there were still five minutes left in the game!
With Seitz back at quarterback, Mizzou somehow gathered its composure and set about evening the score. In four minutes, Seitz engineered a 12-play, 67-yard drive capped by a six-yard TD run by Vernon Boyd with 86 seconds left.
There were no overtime periods in 1984, and Powers had no interest in playing for a tie, especially not after such a special teams debacle. Mizzou went for two and called a perfect play. Seitz rolled out and threw a strike to an open Shorthose for the win...
...and Shorthose dropped it.
Mizzou had out-gained Wisconsin by 60 yards and survived three interceptions and three blocked kicks, only to let victory literally slip through its hands. Brutal.
September 22: Missouri (1-2) 47, Mississippi State (2-1) 30
An already shaky season was in danger of completely unraveling. And then Warren Powers coached two and a half perfect quarters.
It started with a trick play—with Mizzou down 23-14 late in the first half, third-string quarterback Kerry Holloway lined up at fullback, took a handoff from Adler, ran right, and threw back to a wide-open Adler for 31 yards.
That sparked the offense. Adler quickly hit Shorthose for a 36-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 23-21, and then found Hill for a big gain to set up a go-ahead field goal right before half. Mizzou would go on a 23-0 run, then cruise comfortably, gaining 524 yards in the process. Adler re-staked his claim to the No. 1 QB position, finishing the game 15-for-21 for 258 yards and two scores. Hill had 119 yards receiving, and Mizzou had its first win of the year. Bring on Notre Dame!
September 29: No. 18 Notre Dame (3-1) 16, Missouri (1-3) 14
Playing Notre Dame is always special, but in front of a national television audience and 70,915 in attendance, Mizzou decided to bring something extra special to the table: gold jerseys. Head to toe.
Mizzou found a spark early. On their first possession, the Tigers drove 79 yards to the Notre Dame 1, but on fourth-and-goal, a leaping Drain was stuffed. Missouri immediately forced a safety to take a 2-0 lead, but those five extra points would end up making quite the difference.
The Irish had a 3-2 lead when Irish quarterback Steve Buerlein and receiver Reggie Ward connected for a 74-yard touchdown. John Carney added a field goal, and Notre Dame took a 13-2 lead into halftime.
But if there’s one thing we’ve already learned about Missouri’s 1984 season, it’s that no double-digit lead was safe, no matter which team held it. Early in the third quarter, Adler — once again the No. 1 QB — found Hill for 15 yards to cap a 14-play drive. But once again, a two-point conversion pass failed. Another Carney field goal made the score 16-8 and set the stage for another crazy finish.
With eight minutes left and Notre Dame trying to work the clock as much as possible, defensive end Erik McMillan deflected a Buerlein pass, and tackle Richard Scott intercepted it. With the passing game mostly ineffective, Missouri leaned on Drain, who eventually scored from two yards out to make the score 16-14 with 4:09 left. And then another two-point conversion attempt failed when Notre Dame snuffed an option attempt. Mizzou had attempted three game-changing two-point conversions early in 1984 and had failed on all three.
The game wasn’t over, though. With 1:09 left, Missouri took possession at its 16, and Adler found a rhythm. Miraculously Mizzou worked its way into field goal position, and with 0:07 left, kicker Brad Burditt took the field with the chance to make a very makable 39-yard field goal.
Nope. Burditt shanked the kick, which came up about two yards short of the crossbar.
In front of a capacity crowd at Faurot Field, Missouri faced its third opportunity of the season to come through in the clutch and failed once again. The third heartbreaking loss of the season gave Mizzou a 1-3 record with road games against Nebraska, Oklahoma, and what was turning out to be the best Oklahoma State team in quite a while, on the horizon.
To this point, special teams and two-point conversions were almost literally all that separated Mizzou from a 4-0 start and top-10 ranking. All three of the Tigers’ defeats had come to teams that would finish 7-4 or better, and all were decided by one play.
You can only imagine what Twitter would have been like at this point. But this was still clearly a talented squad, and there were still some potential wins on the table.
Note: portions of this post originally appeared in a 2009 Rock M Nation series.