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Missouri's 20 biggest wins, No. 7: Tigers 3, Notre Dame 0 (1978)

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"You give us three points, and we will win this game."

The Savitar

Once more: This is a look at 20 games in which a) the combined quality of Missouri and its opponent was really, really high (they're ranked in order of combined S&P+ percentile ratings), and b) Mizzou won.

I was born in Columbia the Sunday morning after this classic win. It was all downhill from here.

Win
Rank
Date Opponent Result Mizzou
Score
Opp.
Score
Mizzou
Percentile
Rk Opp.
Percentile
Rk Percentile
Sum
7 9/9/78 Notre Dame W 3 0 0.889 16 0.984 3 1.873
8 10/23/10 Oklahoma W 36 27 0.906 14 0.961 5 1.867
9 10/23/76 Nebraska W 34 24 0.942 12 0.923 17 1.865
10 1/3/14 Oklahoma State W 41 31 0.935 6 0.923 9 1.858
11 11/18/78 Nebraska W 35 31 0.889 16 0.967 7 1.856
12 9/20/69 Air Force W 19 17 0.955 4 0.896 18 1.851
13 11/18/39 Oklahoma W 7 6 0.913 15 0.936 9 1.849
14 11/28/14 Arkansas W 21 14 0.868 23 0.976 5 1.844
15 10/12/13 Georgia W 41 26 0.935 6 0.907 11 1.842
16 10/4/69 Michigan W 40 17 0.955 4 0.882 20 1.838
17 10/5/68 Army W 7 3 0.930 7 0.905 13 1.835
18 11/12/83 Oklahoma State W 16 10 0.921 10 0.914 12 1.835
19 10/13/73 Nebraska W 13 12 0.851 21 0.975 4 1.826
20 11/5/83 Oklahoma W 10 0 0.921 10 0.893 14 1.814

We've written about this one quite a few times, so I once again turn the mic over to Rock M reader and former Mizzou equipment manager Robert Stanley, who was on the scene in South Bend nearly 38 years ago:

The foundation for any success that Missouri would have in the 1978 season was laid in the weeks following the hiring of Warren Powers to succeed Al Onofrio, who was fired following a 3-7-1 season.

One of the most important decisions Warren made was bringing Dave Radding, his strength coach at Washington State, to fill a similar roll at Missouri. Redding had been an assistant in the Nebraska strength and conditioning program and had installed a similar program for Powers at WSU. Missouri in 1977 still had no organized strength program and, for that matter, did not even have a real weight room. There were barbells and an old Universal machine available, but for the most part, getting stronger had not been much or a priority for Tiger football.

Redding soon set about changing all of that. Within weeks crates of brand new Nautilus machines and loads of free weights started to show up at the Heanes building, and a weight room was set up on the fourth floor. Soon the clanging of weights being dropped, and grunts and groans from the players dropping them, resounded throughout the field house. There was a lot of complaining at first, but soon the players started to see results. And with those results grew a sense of confidence.

Added to the weights was a new winter conditioning program that kicked in three days a week and tested players like they had never been tested before. Eight different stations set up in the field house, each one designed to push players to work harder and do things that translated to performance on the field. We had to set up trash cans at every station so players had someplace to throw up without leaving the floor and missing some of the fun. They were used a lot the first couple of weeks. Each station lasted exactly five minutes. My favorite station was the one where the players had to keep a 35-pound barbell in motion doing presses, extensions and curls without the bar ever being put down. Not many smiles after that set!

Following winter conditioning was spring ball. Today spring football is 15 practices. In 1978, we had 25. It seemed to last forever and was conducted in some of the lousiest weather possible. But there was a lot to be learned. Players had to learn a whole new offense and defense, and coaches had to learn who the players were and who were the winners on the team.

I always felt that one particular practice that spring really helped set the tone for what was to come. Practices were usually divided into 24 five-minute periods consisting of individual work, group work and, finally, full team. The mix of each could vary, but the coaches always tried to make sure that it was no more than 24 periods.

This practice had been lacking in intensity and effort. It was cold, and we were having intermittent rain. Things didn’t get any better when, early in the team scrimmage portion of the day, Mark Clark, one of our better offensive linemen, went down with a really bad knee injury. It was obvious he was hurt really bad -- Mark’s career was indeed over. In fact, for a while there was some concern that he might actually lose the leg due to damage done to the blood vessels supplying the knee!

Warren moved the players so the trainers could work, but now practice got even worse as players processed what had just happened to one of their own.

We were starting to lose daylight as practice wound down, and as time ran out on the last period Warren yelled out to the timer, "Add another period, and don’t stop until till I tell you." We had to bring up trucks and cars to the top of the hill overlooking the practice field and turn on the lights to try to keep things going.

One period after another went by, and the weather got progressively worse. But a funny thing happened: The worse the weather got, the better the play and effort got. It was as if in their collective misery, the players were just saying, "The hell with it, let’s get it on!" It was one of the best practices I have ever seen. Nobody quit, offense and defense were just flying around, knocking the crap out of each other.

I don’t know how long they could have kept it up, but once Warren saw what was happening, he called the team up and praised the effort and told them that was exactly what it took to win big time games. It was another building-block set.

Fall practice that year was hot as hell. You could not put enough water on the practice fields to keep them soft. It was like practicing on a parking lot. We struggled through the days and fought our way toward game week.

The week before the first game always features a scrimmage in the stadium, which acts as a dress rehearsal for opening day. We go through all the same routines as we will on game day. Practice lining up for game stretch, go through the pregame drills, get out the sideline headsets so coaches can practice the communications from press box to field.

The team was split up into the travel squad -- the players who would expected to line up on Saturday and play -- and the rest of the team, playing the role of the upcoming opponent. After warmups, the travel squad retreated to the home locker room to get set to come back out for the "game." The scout squad did the same by going into the visitors' locker room.

This day, the travel squad came out to the field on schedule only to find they were alone on Faurot Field. The scout squad was nowhere to be seen. All of a sudden, Dave Redding, who was acting as Notre Dame coach Dan Devine this afternoon, walked out of the visitors locker room and behind him the scout squad came roaring out. They were wearing green jerseys! Unknown to everyone else, we had purchased the green jerseys to simulate what Notre Dame would be wearing the following Saturday.

I would say the crowd went wild, but there was no crowd -- the stadium was empty! But the travel squad, once they got over their surprise, went wild, and all of a sudden we had a game.

It was a great scrimmage. The varsity team kicked their ass, and the only thing left was to go to South Bend the next week and duplicate the effort.

If you have never been to Notre Dame Stadium, I will tell you that it is a real experience. If you love football, and in particular if you are a student of football history, you cannot pass up a game in South Bend. When I walked out on that field that afternoon I swear I could see the Four Horsemen riding toward us down the field.

The stadium at that time was old and pretty much as it had been when Knute Rockne coached there. The visitors' locker room was tiny. They only had space for 60 lockers, and really they were not lockers at all. All we had were benches bolted to the wall and a board above with hooks for hanging uniforms. In some places the hooks were broken, and they had driven nails into the board to hang things. All in all it was certainly not what I expected.

We had 70 guys and only sixty "lockers." We had to double up the kickers, punters, and some of the younger wideouts to have enough space for everyone.

On Friday afternoon, the team arrived early at the stadium in South Bend for the Friday walkthrough. After the players got off the bus, Warren gathered them and told them they had two hours before the workout, and he wanted them to just take a walk around the Notre Dame campus and see what the place was all about.

Two hours later, everyone was back and dressing for practice except one player: Our starting nose guard was MIA. The player in question was a junior college transfer who had been recruited to fill a need on the defensive line. Now he was nowhere to be seen. Warren told me to send him straight down to the field when he got there and not to bother to get him dressed.

Just as practice was wrapping up the player in question came through the door. I sent him straight to Warren. Warren suspended him on the spot! Now we were getting ready to play, and we were already down a player, one we really needed. But Warren had sent a message: Doesn’t matter who you are, or who we are playing. If you don’t live up to your responsibilities, you will not be playing for us. If there had been any question as to who was in charge, everyone knew for sure then.

It was hot as hell that day, well into the upper 90s. Notre Dame supplied us with 100 towels and 100 pounds of ice. Now that may sound like a lot, but keep in mind that at Faurot, we give visiting teams at least 250 towels and a 1000 pounds of ice for every game. 100 pounds of ice did not even get us to the end of the first quarter, and I had to pull 80 towels right off the top just to have something to shower with at the end of the game. Repeated requests for more ice and towels were met with the comment that "it was all they provided to visiting teams," and that was the end of the discussion.

Notre Dame had long had a reputation of getting by on lower salaries for staff and substandard facilities in the belief that it is a "privilege" to work and play for Notre Dame. We were getting to experience this first hand, and we were just visiting!

The players got dressed in silence for the most part. What conversation that took place usually revolved around players confirming various assignments with one another or trainers working with players to get them taped and padded up for the game.

Pregame warm up went off without a hitch. The players filed back into the locker room to get some water and make final adjustments before kickoff. A few players made the rounds -- teammates encouraging each other -- but most sat in silence gathering themselves for what was to come.

Pregame rituals are really pretty much all the same no matter who is coaching. The movie portrayal of stirring pregame talks is much overrated. In the course of a season, and over the course of many years, there is only so much a coach can say to get his charges fired up on game day. All the work and preparation has taken place over the course of many prior weeks.

There really is not much left to say now.

Today was different, though, and we had no idea at the time how different it was to be. The referees came to the locker room door to gather up the captains for the pregame coin toss. They left, and the team stood up to leave the locker room to go out. Warren stopped them and told everyone to take a knee. He stood right in the middle and looked around the room, trying to catch as many eyes as he could. "Men," he said, "I watched that team out there warm up today. That is not a national championship team. I saw a lot of fat asses out there. They are not ready to play today. You are in better shape, and you are ready to kick their asses. Now let's go do it!"

With that the team charged down the stairs to the tunnel and out to play.

The first half was pretty dull, really. We were not in sync at all. We would get a first down and make a play here and there but really could not do much when we had the ball. Notre Dame was not doing much better. Our short-handed and young defense blunted the Irish attack time after time, and we managed a couple of turnovers. Since there was no TV coverage of the game, the first half went quickly, and we returned to the locker room tied at 0-0.

At halftime the offensive and defensive staffs meet for a bit, exchanging thoughts on what was and what was not working. Is there anything we have in the bag that we could see working in the second half? The players were off their feet trying to get hydrated and visiting with teammates to make sure that position calls were being understood and figure out what they need to make corrections on.

Coaches came in and gathered their groups up, passed along any corrections, and alerted players to any changes that they thought would make a play more effective. It is hard to make wholesale changes in a game plan in the course of 15 minutes.

We got the call that we needed to head out for the second half, and the players started to gather up to leave. Again, Warren yelled for the team to take a knee. "Defense, that was a hell of a job out there. You keep it up. Offense, you give us three points, and we will win this game! Now let’s go do it." And with that, the team was out for the second half.

The third quarter was a nail biter no matter which sideline you were on. Missouri could still not move the ball on the Irish, while the Irish moved the ball but could not score. The turning point really came during a goal line stand made by the Tigers late in the third. I’m sure Coach Devine was convinced that his team could punch it in on fourth-and-1, but when the Irish failed, it turned out to be just the tonic that sent the Tigers to the win.

After the great defensive stand the Tigers could not manage a first down and got off a short punt to put the Irish in good field position. Right away Montana hit a sideline pass to Kris Hanes, who was covered by Russ Calabrese. The play happened right on our sideline. Russ had been making like Muhammad Ali all the previous week, talking about hating the Irish and even hating the color green! After the play, Hanes flipped the ball to the official, and as he ran back to the field, when he passed Calabrese he just reached up and slapped him on the back of the helmet. It was not all that hard at all, but it was right in front of the official, and the next thing we saw was a yellow flag fluttering in the sky.

Notre Dame went from a first down inside the Tiger 5 to marching back to near the 20.

Again, the Tiger D held and this time forced a field goal attempt. The snap was bobbled and the Tigers escaped again.

Phil Bradley and the offense finally managed to string a few plays together and move the ball into position for a field goal. Jeff Brockhaus banged it though, and Warren had his three points.

There was still a lot of game left, but the Tiger defense continued its stubborn play. As time was running out, the Tigers were forced to give the ball back to the Irish one more time. Monte Montgomery saved his best punt for last and unleashed a booming kick that the Irish return man briefly mishandled. As Tiger luck would have it, as he was trying to get a handle on the ball, Norman Goodman a JUCO defensive lineman with the speed of a linebacker, rocketed down the field and crushed him. The ball popped out, and the Tigers recovered to seal the game.

It was a wild celebration in the locker room. Warren's wife Linda was led in, and she was in tears. And the next thing we knew, Dan Devine was at the door congratulating Warren and Linda before heading back to his team. A classy move by a classy guy!

The rest is pretty much as you would suspect. We celebrated, showered, and packed up, and the team headed for the airport. The equipment staff loaded the truck and got ready to drive back to Columbia.

Just as I was starting the van, filled with my student managers, a couple of Irish student managers rushed up to the van and shoved a box full of beer steins with the Irish logo on them through the van window. I said, "What are these?" The manager replied, "We made a bet with your managers last week: Whoever lost owed the other a set of logo beer mugs." I said thanks and pushed the box into the back. But as I did so, I said "where are our mugs"? The response; "We didn’t bring any!"

Were the stars aligned? Was Warren a psychic football coach? Did the managers know something no one else knew? I don’t know, but I do know that every once in a while I still look at that mug on my desk and remember one of the most incredible seasons and games in Missouri history.

Image via The Savitar