Despite being a mutual obsession for Trip and me, we don’t talk sports much here, and certainly not sports (and teams) that hold little interest to most of you. But you’ll have to excuse me, friends, because the Missouri Tigers are on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Well, they are in this part of the country at least. Elsewhere, it’s Georgia, Florida, Ohio State or Southern Cal. But in the heart of America, the Tigers are college football’s poster boys.
It wasn’t always this way. In fact, for most of my twenty-plus year affiliation with Mizzou, it has been just the opposite, periods of mediocrity interrupted by moments of abject futility, with just a sprinkling of coal-black karma (Colorado’s fifth down; Nebraska’s kicked ball) added for gut-wrenching effect.
During my seven years in Columbia, I never saw a winning season. In fact, until recently, the most exciting thing I ever saw on Faurot Field was a 1994 Rolling Stones show. There was a brief renaissance in the late nineties, followed by a free fall. That sort of chronic losing can be punishing for a fan, especially one who lives in a town with a baseball team that hasn’t made the postseason since 1985 and an NFL team that hasn’t won a playoff game since 1994.
The reversal began in 2001 when Gary Pinkel was hired as coach and immediately recruited quarterback Brad Smith, a blinding improvisational talent who built a foundation over four seasons before handing the reins to Chase Daniel, deadly accurate and fearless, the prototype field general for college football’s new wide-open age. The Tigers’ fortunes spiked last season, when they began the year unranked, eventually rose to number one in the polls, and finished the season with the nation’s number four ranking. I witnessed nine of their fourteen games in person, including the neutral-field defeat of then second-ranked Kansas. My friend T.J. (yes, the Springsteen guy) was there, too. As a sportswriter, he has covered the World Series, NBA Finals and Olympics, but he called that night in Kansas City the most electric event he’d ever seen.
A couple of years ago, Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star interviewed me for a story on the Big 12 conference’s tenth anniversary, a span that saw mostly disappointment for the Tigers’ football team, and some ugly incidents and probation for the hoops squad. Blair asked about Missouri’s notoriously resilient fans and why we keep coming back year after year in the face of serial heartbreak. “Because,” I told him, “when things finally turn our way, we want to be there.” That’s exactly how I felt as I sat in the Cotton Bowl on January 1 of this year, watching my guys steamroll Arkansas.
Most of the key pieces are back for this year’s team, including Daniel (a finalist for last year’s Heisman Trophy) and wide receiver/kick returner Jeremy Maclin (who could be a candidate for this year’s version), plus ten starters on defense. I’ll be there again this year, from the first regular season game against Illinois to the last against Kansas, and if all goes well, some very warm location just after New Year’s Day. If you attended a small liberal arts school or an urban college without a football team, feel free to adopt the Tigers. There’s room on the bandwagon.
Are you ready for some football? God knows I am.