Columbia, Mo. is near Jesse James and Quantrill country, and all you would have to do to make its main street look fit for a shoot-out between the townsfolk and the Dalton Gang is take away the shopping-mall-type concrete canopy over the sidewalk and restore all the original hitching posts and swinging doors. But an intersecting street called the Strollway leads from this Old West setting to the University of Missouri, which boasts such modern and nonviolent distinctions as the nation's largest on-campus nuclear reactor and one of its best-known schools of journalism. It also has one of the country's best football teams. Last Saturday 61,000 people in bright fall sweaters, jackets, miniskirts and several different shapes of silly black and gold hats descended like leaves from thousands of autumnal magazine ads onto the university's football grounds to watch the Tigers take the Oklahoma Sooners and, in the words of a popular cheer, "Eat 'em up, eat 'em up, crunch, crunch."
They saw Quarterback Terry McMillan—who was never better than second string in high school, who was primarily a runner last year and who is being forced into an odd gingerly gait this year by bruised ribs and a sprained toe—pass for 312 yards and three touchdowns. They saw Tailback Joe Moore—who was a proud defensive guard in high school and who begged, when converted to running back at Missouri, for one more chance to play linebacker—edge Oklahoma's star, Steve Owens (110 yards in 23 carries to 109 in 29). They saw fleet receivers Mel Gray and John Henley make catches that seemed to require electronic fingers, Gray for a school record of 171 yards. And they saw a defense led by Nip Weisenfels and Sam Adams throw Oklahoma Quarterback Jack Mildren for 71 yards of losses. Overall, they saw the Tigers, who had lost to Oklahoma 35 times in the last 59 years, overwhelm the Sooners 44-10 to virtually wrap up the Big Eight Conference title, nail down a spot among the nation's Top Ten teams and assure themselves of a trip to a bowl game.
There were moments on Saturday when it looked as though Boomer Sooner would win out over "Eat 'em up, crunch, crunch." Oklahoma picked up a first-quarter field goal and went ahead 10-0 on a five-yard touchdown run by Owens, but McMillan started hitting Gray with passes, and by halftime it was 17-10 Missouri. The game came completely apart in the third quarter when Missouri kicked off following a touchdown that put the Tigers ahead 31-10. The kick caromed off a succession of Oklahoma players and was finally recovered in the end zone by Missouri for still another touchdown. Eat 'em up, and how!
But Missouri fans don't demand such circus maneuvers and statistical riches. This year's 7-1 record with 30 yards and a cloud of smoke may wow them more than Head Coach Dan Devine's traditional three-and-dust, but Devine has always given them at least a winning season. His is the only major college team in the state, and Missourians have responded to his generally low-key program with a sustained devotion that is enough to make a man doubt that the pros have everything.
These are no fair-weather fans. Three weeks ago, for the win over Oklahoma State, 51,000 people arrived in a pouring rain, sat for four quarters in a pouring rain and went home in a pouring rain. In one game this year the Tigers packed them in so tight that one fan was crowded off the back of the bleachers. Not only do they fill up the stands, they overflow onto the slope behind the north end zone. Last Saturday some stretched out on blankets and others perched like maroon and orange and olive-green mountain goats on the white-painted rocks that form a tremendous M there.
Nor do they—especially the students among them—limit their enthusiasm to game time. Missouri has pot busts and a measure of campus politics (SDS, though, is said to have broken up on campus this year after the arrest of several members for selling a publication containing a picture of the Statue of Liberty being raped by a policeman), but its dominant culture remains beer-drinking and football-loving. Official spokesmen say that in recent years Missouri has become much less of a party school and much tougher scholastically, but some students suggest that while studying is indeed more pronounced, partying has just dispersed. The Shack, the color of whose modest front portal inspired the song The Green Door, is no longer filled with nightly on-campus celebrants, and the I.V., or Italian Village, was closed in 1967 despite a riot by outraged habitués in the streets bounding the campus. But along about Thursday night before a football game, in the Village Inn a couple of miles off campus, a crush of Missourians begins to congregate almost on top of one another, waving brews high and singing deafening songs until one a.m. to the accompaniment of a banjo band. Darktown Strutters' Ball is big, and so are Yankee Doodle and Dixie. In fact, Columbia is in a section of Missouri known as Little Dixie, which would rather not have remained in the Union. (Dixie was sung in an organized way in the stadium until a couple of years ago, when some black students raised a black flag in protest.) Interspersed among the songs at the Village Inn are good old Mizzou cheers, and during the week leading up to the Oklahoma game, cheers and school songs were shouted spontaneously in the dormitory dining halls.
At a recent team dinner, on the other hand, Coach Devine looked around at his boys putting away their 28-ounce steaks and said, "Isn't this the quietest team you ever heard?" Asked if all his team members were quiet, he answered, "The good ones." Devine himself is a man who, as his assistant, Ed Dissinger, puts it, "You've near about got to tune in to hear." He is assured and forthcoming (and in person not so consistently pained-looking as his photographs) but hardly very colorful. He seems to be one of those executives whose force of command is more administrative than personal. He is noted for his neatness, and it is said that he washes off his whistle after every practice. Newsmen give him chance after chance to express some emotional bias toward the new long-gain, heavily aerial offense, which might be expected to go against his methodical ball-control grain, but he declines. "We felt we had to pass to move the ball," he said after the Oklahoma game. "I go by what's on the scoreboard, and I use what I find I have on the practice field."
What his players do in practice is go over and over plays until they have them down perfectly. They do not bust each other's heads between games. The essential task is to learn to make the correct moves. "You have to be a machine," says Guard Tim Crnko earnestly. "There's no other way."
You also have to toe the line off the field. Football may go hand in hand with serious carousing for most of the team's supporters, but Crnko will tell you that the training rules laid down by Devine are "commonsense things. You can't be seen in a place where alcoholic beverages are served, you can't drink. I don't think anybody on the team would do any of those things even if it weren't for the rules." Devine apparently maintains such discipline not by wielding some charisma of his own, but by harping, with soft-spoken dignity, upon team pride. "One of our freshmen got into some trouble earlier in the year," Devine says, "and he still won't look me in the eye. I've yet to say the word boo to him, but when he sees me he looks down. It wasn't major trouble, but it reflected discredit on the whole team." The freshman may also be aware that Devine threw his first-string center off the team before the Gator Bowl last year, partly because his hair was too long and he wore his football jersey out, but mostly because his attitude indicated that he was testing Devine. "A lot of coaches who talk bigger than I do wouldn't have done that," says Devine. He adds, however, that he feels he failed the player in question. "It's hard to grow up these days," he says.
Now that Missouri has disposed of Oklahoma, only Iowa State and Kansas stand between the team and its first Big Eight title since 1945, if you don't count the one it was awarded in 1960 when Kansas was ruled ineligible after the season was over. The Big Eight is the toughest conference in the country this year, but Iowa State and Kansas are its weakest teams and Missouri should beat them both. That Kansas game is Nov. 22. If you happen to be near Columbia and want to see a friendly riot, drop by the Village Inn.