Familiarity with epic failure has Missouri hoping for the best, expecting the worst this season

There is unbridled, unspoiled excitement around Missouri football right now. Which is nice.

The Tigers are an unlikely 7-0 in their second season in the Southeastern Conference. They can take a huge step toward clinching the SEC Eastern Division title by beating South Carolina on Saturday night in Columbia. These are giddy times for a program picked to finish fifth in the division, and certainly not expected to be fifth in the BCS standings.

But amid the euphoria, please understand the well-earned wariness from the elder Mizzou obervers. We have seen too much.

Missouri has won 115 more games than it has lost all-time. There has been more good than bad. But the bad has tended to be both spectacular and excruciatingly timed. The bitter and bizarre defeats win the memory battle over the fleeting victories with many of the alums.

You’ve probably heard about the Fifth Down flimflam of 1990, which helped propel Colorado to the national title and an officiating crew to infamy. And you’ve probably heard about the Flea-Kicker pass of ’97, which helped propel Nebraska to the national title – Dennis Dodd of covered the game and remembers students tearing down the goalposts … in defeat.

Those are Mizzou’s marquee misadventures, but the library of agony runs deeper than that. There is a cornucopia of smaller catastrophes that have piled up over the years, with such consistency that every Mizzou fan has experienced one or more you-must-be-kidding defeat on his or her watch.

Brian Brooks, associate dean emeritus of the Missouri School of Journalism and a season-ticket holder since 1974, remembers a home game against Oklahoma in the 1970s when Leo Lewis made a spectacular catch in the back of the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. Except Lewis was ruled out of bounds.

“Replays showed that Lewis had not one but TWO feet in bounds,” Brooks said.

“Missouri has been cursed,” he added. “I hope it doesn’t happen again this year.”

That is the hope, but an accompanying fear simmers beneath the surface. Tortured history strongly suggests that there is a booby trap out there somewhere on this current black-and-gold path to glory, just waiting for the Tigers to step on it.

Consider this profoundly pessimistic quote from former coach Don Faurot: “I don’t know one thing, not a single thing, more overconfident than for a Missouri football coach to buy a house.”

He said that in 1935. It was still abundantly true in 1995.

My personal Missouri football cynicism starts in 1984, with George Shorthose.

Despite a surname that drew ridicule from opposing fans, Shorthose was the big man on Missouri’s campus. Handsome, cocky and athletically gifted, the senior from nearby Jefferson City radiated cool. He was Mizzou’s leading receiver that year and would be an NFL draft pick the following spring.

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None of that is why I remember George Shorthose.

It was my sophomore year, and the home game against Wisconsin on Sept. 15, 1984, was the first I covered for the school newspaper. I gave up Saturdays of bellowing support from the stands for billowing cigarette smoke in the press box, courtesy of sports information director Bob Brendel.

It was an exciting but foreign environment for a 19-year-old. And the game against the Badgers would be an immediate test of my press-box decorum.

Through three quarters, everything was proceeding perfectly for the Tigers. They led 28-7, and the last Mizzou touchdown was on a pass to Shorthose. The game was a lock heading into the fourth quarter. Memories of a painful season-opening loss to Illinois the previous week were fading, and this again looked like a team that began the year billed as a Big Eight title contender.

Until Marlon Adler had his own personal tour of football Hell.

Adler was a fan favorite – a gritty quarterback and punter who led Missouri to the Holiday Bowl the year before but in ’84 shared the QB position with the taller and more talented Warren Seitz. On the first play of the fourth quarter against Wisconsin, Adler had his punt blocked and recovered for a touchdown. Roughly two minutes later, Adler had another punt partially blocked, setting up another Badgers touchdown.

When Wisconsin scored a third touchdown in the quarter to tie the game, coach Warren Powers unwisely inserted Adler at quarterback instead of Seitz, who had failed to move the team in several possessions. Adler promptly threw an interception. The Badgers gave him a reprieve by missing a field goal, but then Adler came back out and threw another interception, and this time Wisconsin scored the go-ahead touchdown.

That was two blocked punts and two picks for the same guy, in about 10 disastrous minutes. A 21-point lead became a seven-point deficit.

Somehow, there was plenty of time left for Missouri to salvage a game it had given away at warp speed. With Seitz back at quarterback, the Tigers drove 67 yards and scored to make it 35-34.

In the days before overtime, Powers admirably ordered a two-point conversion for the win instead of kicking for the tie. And that’s when Shorthose comes back into the story.

Seitz threw a perfect pass to him, wide open near the corner of the end zone, for the easy catch and a 36-35 victory that Mizzou fans would talk about for a long time. Instead, the coolest guy on campus inexplicably became the goat. The pass caromed cleanly off Shorthose’s hands to the ground, and the Tigers lost.

I remember him appearing for a postgame interview in a polo shirt with the collar popped, his blonde hair rakishly spiked, wearing a pair of Vuarnet sunglasses.

The shades may have been hiding teary eyes. But in an almost flippant manner, Shorthose said something about the drop going down as the worst play of his career. And then he was gone, presumably to be consoled by half the female student body.

It was a jarring introduction to the baroque and bewildering world of Missouri football heartbreak. That loss signified the moment when the program began its spectacular swan dive into the dumpster. And wouldn’t leave that dumpster for more than a decade.

Two weeks after the Shorthose drop, a 1-2 Missouri was given one more opportunity to make the ’84 season right. Notre Dame came to town for a nationally televised game, back in the days where those were in short supply. Most of America’s college football fans would be tuned into Faurot Field.

Also in the days before constantly changing uniforms, the Tigers pulled a Notre Dame on Notre Dame. They eschewed the standard black jerseys for gold with gold pants, a smashing look and a play on the Irish’s occasional penchant for breaking out green jerseys.

With a shocked and delighted crowd stoked up by the jersey switch, Mizzou outplayed the Fighting Irish all day but had serial misadventures at the goal line. One drive was stopped at the 1-yard line. Two touchdown drives ended with botched two-point conversion attempts. But Notre Dame led just 16-14 in the final minutes.

Missouri embarked on a long, arduous drive into field-goal range. With just a few seconds left, Powers sent in senior Brad Burditt to kick the game-winner from 39 yards.

Burditt had good years as a sophomore (1982) and junior (’83), making more than 70 percent of his field goals. He had leg and he had accuracy.

His senior year dissolved into struggle, but that wasn’t clear at this late-September date. Most everyone in attendance figured Burditt would win the game right then and there, prompting a nationally televised field storming.

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Instead, his kick inexplicably nose-dived to the turf two feet before the crossbar with two seconds on the clock. Yes, he was short from 39 yards out. A guy who had made a 51-yarder two years earlier suddenly didn’t have the leg of a high-schooler.

Turns out poor Brad Burditt hit it like a fat wedge shot, foot colliding with turf way behind the ball. And Missouri was 1-3, on its way to a stunning 3-7-1 collapse that got Powers fired.

After Burditt’s blunder, Mark Godich had to have a flashback to 1978. He was a senior journalism major at Mizzou then, and watched the Tigers blow a 27-7 lead against Colorado on the same field. Trailing 28-27, Missouri marched into position for the winning field goal, only to see Jeff Brockhaus’ 43-yard attempt fall weirdly short.

Now a senior editor at Sports Illustrated, Godich explained what happened in his new book, “Tigers vs. Jayhawks: From the Civil War to the Battle for No. 1.” The Columbia Missourian ran a three-column picture showing the problem: holder Jay Jeffrey placed the ball on the grass behind the black block kickers were allowed to use back then as a placement tee. The winning kick was effectively blocked before it left the ground.

The Shorthose drop and Burditt botched field goal helped start the Plague Years of Missouri football: 13 straight losing seasons under four different coaches.

Powers gave way to the worse (much worse) Woody Widenhofer Era, as the former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator swaggered into town flashing Super Bowl rings and left with a 12-31-1 record that included a 77-0 loss to Oklahoma. Then came Bob Stull, a nice man who never went better than 4-7 in 1990 – I guess 5-6 if you give him credit for the Fifth Down robbery. And then there was Larry Smith, who finally stopped the sub-.500 malaise in his fourth season, going 7-5 in 1997.

Of course, the most memorable part of that year was the Flea-Kicker. So you see how it works at Missouri. Even a breakthrough winning season is mostly remembered for a galling loss.

After two winning seasons, Smith backslid to 4-7 and 3-8 and became the fifth consecutive coach to leave Mizzou via pink slip. His replacement was Gary Pinkel, and the result has been the greatest era since Dan Devine’s golden run in the 1960s.

(Even Devine’s decade-long run of winning seasons was marred in his best year. The 1960 team was upset by bitter rival Kansas for its only loss, but the Jayhawks wound up forfeiting the game for using an ineligible player. Of course, that was too late to help the Tigers in the polls, where they topped out at No. 4 in UPI and No. 5 AP.)

Pinkel has taken the program a long way, and can strike a mighty blow for optimism Saturday night. It could happen, and perhaps even should happen.

But you’ll forgive the old guard for entering this game with a sense of foreboding. Missouri alums know that the critical error or fluke disaster is lurking out there somewhere, waiting to reintroduce itself at precisely the wrong time.