Defeat always stings, but when it finally came to the University of Missouri last Saturday afternoon it brought tears. What had promised to be the most glorious day in the history of Missouri football—a victory over traditional rival Kansas, the completion of the school's first undefeated, untied season and its first national championship—ended instead in a black nightmare as Kansas won with disheartening ease 23-7.
It was the fourth time in five weeks that a team holding the nation's No. 1 ranking had fumbled it away. First it was Syracuse, then Iowa, then Minnesota. Minnesota's loss to Purdue had lofted Missouri to the top. Among the country's major teams, only Yale, which closed its season with an impressive 39-6 victory over Harvard, and New Mexico State remained undefeated. Neither team is strong enough to be ranked among the first 10, however. Minnesota, followed closely by Iowa and Mississippi, is now No. 1 and only Ole Miss, which plays Mississippi State Saturday, could upset the standings.
The townspeople and students of Columbia, Mo., home of the University of Missouri, would have preferred it otherwise. As the big game with Kansas approached last week, every day was like Christmas Eve. Radio station KFRU reminded listeners on the 15 minutes that Missouri was the No. 1 team in the nation. Large gold buttons with a black numeral one were on coat lapels everywhere. Signs appeared in store windows urging the annihilation of Kansas and predicting that the Missouri Tigers would go to the Orange Bowl. On campus, students built floats out of wire and colored papier-m√¢ché to help celebrate homecoming weekend. All tickets to the game had been sold for weeks, and the word was that in St. Louis the big boys were scalping tickets at $50 each. For those concerned, it was wild and wonderful and completely new—and totally unexpected. Even Coach Dan Devine was surprised at his team's standing.
A gratified Devine
"Of course, you go into every game expecting to win," Devine said in his office last week. "But, frankly, I just hoped we could win half of our 10 games."
Dan Devine is 35 years old. He came to Missouri three years ago after a successful term at Arizona State. He is a small, trim man, invariably well dressed. He has smooth dark hair, wide brown eyes and the youthful appearance of a Pat Boone. Sitting behind a desk, wearing glasses, he looks like a man whose total football experience has been limited to touch games at the office picnic. More than half of his current squad comes from Missouri, and many other players are from what are discreetly called "area schools," out-of-state schools near the Missouri border. The university freely admits it has intensified its recruiting program in recent years, but it is quick to emphasize—especially now that its football team has attracted national attention—that the school has high scholastic requirements.
Proud as Missourians are of the academic aspects of their school—the old red brick journalism school and the many new buildings, some of which resemble Miami hotels—the most popular place on the campus during the week was the football practice field. On Thursday at the last big workout hundreds of students wearing No. 1 buttons crammed against the wire mesh fence to watch the team and periodically filled the air with organized cheers. They remained there even as the sun went down in a blaze of red behind the far goal posts, defying the chilly evening air.
The team spent most of its time practicing its two best moves, the crisscross punt return and its powerful end sweeps. Seven times during the season Missouri's fleet backs—Norris Stevenson, Donnie Smith and Norm Beal—had run 50 yards or more for touchdowns on such plays. Quarterback Ron Taylor, an Eddie Stanky type, threw short passes. "He doesn't do anything really well," said one student, "but he's the guy who keeps the club going, so we must give him credit."
When the Missouri boys finished their last workout on Friday, they ate a steak dinner, watched a movie about Knute Rockne and then went to a motel for the night, leaving Dan Devine and his assistant coaches to entertain visiting alumni and sportswriters, and to worry about the game.
The next day a record crowd, over 43,000 people, more than the population of Columbia, filled Memorial Stadium. It was a perfect setting for a game—crisp day, old grads, pretty girls and the No. 1 college football team in the nation. In opposition was a strong Kansas team which had been getting better every week but which also suffered from one delightful fault: it lost games only to teams ranked first (Syracuse 7-14; Iowa 7-21).
It took a little while for people to figure out which of the teams, on this Saturday anyway, was better. But by the third period they knew it must be Kansas. At no time was Missouri in the game. It fumbled twice in the second period, something it prided itself on doing rarely. The team looked tense and expectant. It escaped from the first half with a scoreless tie, thanks to a good defense which twice stopped Kansas deep in its own territory when a score seemed imminent.
Even in the third period it looked as if Missouri had stopped another Kansas drive until Roger Hill, a redheaded senior, stepped up and kicked a 47-yard field goal a la Pat Summer-all, the first of his career. That effort seemed to break Missouri. Bert Coan, the high-stepping back whose switch from TCU to Kansas stirred the NCAA into suspending Kansas for a year, caught a pass for one touchdown and ran for another. Suddenly Kansas was ahead 17-0, and Missouri was at last a loser. Missouri did not score until late in the game, then gave up another touchdown to make the final score 23-7.
The loss cost the Missouri Tigers the conference title, though they will go to the Orange Bowl because Kansas cannot. And it cost them their No. 1 ranking. If anyone should want a bunch of gold buttons with the numeral one in black, they're for sale in Columbia, Mo. cheap.