With dedicated regard for the heroic legend of Joe Bellino, the University of Missouri ground out a methodical, old-fashioned victory over Navy, 21-14, in the Orange Bowl. More than 70,000 people, including President-elect John Kennedy (opposite), the noted touch football player, came out to watch some of the magic Bellino had displayed for Navy all season. But Missouri had done its homework well: the crowd saw just a flash of the legend late in the game when Bellino made an incredible, diving catch of a pass for a touchdown. Apart from that, little Joe was held entirely within the limits of a standard human. Whenever he carried the ball, he was surrounded by unfriendly Missouri linemen. He gained only four yards all day.
It must sometimes have seemed to Joe that the men from Missouri were endowed with telepathic powers enabling them to divine his every move. The impression was not far from wrong. Though few of Missouri's players had ever met Bellino or even seen him play, every member of the defensive platoon had gotten to know him like a brother. Morning after morning of the week just before the game, the Missouri boys gathered in a darkened room on the mezzanine of their Miami Beach hotel to watch Bellino make his favorite moves on film. They saw him take a little flare pass in the flat. "You can't give him too much room on those," came a coach's warning from the dark. They saw him fake going into the flat and then break downfield to take a pass over his shoulder for a touchdown, just as he was to do a few days later. "Crowd him, but don't let him get behind you," came the word. They saw him hammer into the line, spin off a tackle and go for more yardage: "When you hit him, hit him good." They saw him quick-kick—"I think he lines up a little deeper when he's going to quick-kick"—and they saw him fake a quick kick. "Look, you right ends and right linebackers, you can't block that quick kick anyway, so just always imagine he's going to fake it."
The result of this intensive schooling was dismally apparent to Navy fans every time Bellino got the ball. Meanwhile, Missouri's backs danced merrily around and through the Navy line, making good use of the four-lane highways the rugged Missouri blockers provided. The Tigers from the Midwest made 296 yards on the ground, 111 of them on the services of Mel West, who quite often looked a lot more like Bellino than Bellino himself.
Yet as devastating as Missouri's attack was, there were moments early in the game when it looked as if Navy might steal a victory. Missouri marched to the Navy two-yard line, having driven from their own 28. Quarterback Ron Taylor gave the ball to Donnie Smith, who crashed into the Navy line. For the first—and very nearly the last—time the Navy line held. Foolishly, Smith tried to lateral the ball back to Taylor. ("I was mighty surprised," said Taylor later. "There was a Navy man between us.") The Navy man, End Greg Mather, caught the ball (see photograph pages 12-13), eluded Taylor's desperate arms and sprinted 94 yards for a thank-you-very-much touchdown.
January 9, 1961
That play and the ensuing Navy kickoff nearly finished Missouri. Mather ran forward to kick off in his normal style, but before he reached the ball Bellino crossed over and topped the ball into the Missouri line. Rockne Calhoun, a burly tackle, did a neat job of catching the ball but, carried away with the effort, he began to lumber crossfield like a restless elephant. As he was tackled he fumbled, and Navy recovered on the Missouri 43.
In the following drive, Navy's lively quarterback, Hal Spooner, threw two passes that moved the ball to Missouri's 14. At that point Missouri seemed a beaten team. But here again homework paid off. Much as they respected Bellino, Missouri had been equally concerned about Spooner's passing ("He likes to throw on first down to receivers going down and out," Missouri's coaches had told their boys). This was just what Spooner had done; only now, when he did it for a third time, Norm Beal, a halfback, intercepted the ball on the 10-yard line and, helped by two blocks, ran 90 yards along the sideline for a touchdown.
"That's the play that won the game," Assistant Coach Clay Cooper said after the game. "That and the two passes Andy Russell intercepted a little later. Navy couldn't run against us, and when their passes started being intercepted they didn't know which way to turn."
Navy, of course, had prepared studiously, too, but more than homework was needed. They watched movies of the Tigers' defeat by Kansas, the only team that stopped Missouri's strong running attack, but found small comfort in them. Coach Wayne Hardin decided that Kansas hadn't done anything different from any other team but simply had better players. With a few exceptions, Navy did not.
After Beal's interception and touchdown Missouri dominated the game, marching to another touchdown in the second period and still another in the fourth.
Bellino's single moment came with Missouri leading 21-6. Spooner had passed the team to the Missouri 27, mostly sideline passes to conserve time. This time he dropped back as Bellino, starting from left halfback, flared out and then cut downfield. Spooner arched the ball toward the deep left-hand corner of the end zone. Bellino slipped by his defender, but it was obvious to every one in the bowl that the pass was overthrown. Joe, however, ignored the obvious (see left), somehow caught the ball and did a somersault out of the end zone. Later both coaches—Dan Devine of Missouri and Wayne Hardin of Navy—agreed they had never seen a catch like it.
The scene in the Missouri locker room after the game was one of hysterical joy. Devine and his assistants were carried into the showers, clothes on; none of them cared. Bellino had been stopped, Navy had been beaten and Missouri, after six losses, had finally won a bowl game.