Debating William & Mary, sports and culture since 2011. Updated every Wednesday.

Pigskin Pilgrims

In Football, Long form on September 12, 2011 at 11:25 am

The caravan began Friday. Children and adults, released from their daily burdens by the ringing of school bells and the five chimes of late afternoon, filed into cars already packed full with supplies. The pilgrimage had been planned for months now. Schedules had been cleared, old friends and relatives had been contacted and Sept. 3 had been circled — a new addition to the red-letter days.

They come from throughout the state, traveling west from St. Louis and east from Kansas City, transforming I-70 into a seemingly endless procession of cars inching toward the heart of Missouri. The caravan arrives in Columbia, and the travelers disembark. Their eyes search for a symbol, something to confirm that their journey is complete. The monolithic stone “M” shimmers, brilliant and white, from a hillside underneath a cloudless sky. Missouri has entered its most hallowed liturgical season — college football. But there is a problem with this idyllic scene: Mizzou football isn’t that good.

In many ways, Missouri is a state defined by its polarity. Rural inhabitants resent their seeming domination at the hands of their urban and urbane counterparts, while city dwellers reluctantly interact with their “small-town” rivals. St. Louis and Kansas City compete for the title of reigning metropolis, while east and west belittle one another for their separation from other more glamorous cities — even as they themselves seek desperately the acceptance of their more sophisticated neighbors. And yet these geographic rivalries, these disparate economic and political interests, disappear with the advent of college football season.

It is impossible to walk into a bar in Missouri without being greeted by at least one piece of MU memorabilia. Walk into a bar within one hundred miles of Columbia and you enter a veritable shrine to all things Mizzou. The walls are built more out of black and gold artifacts than bricks and mortar. Flags, pennants, signed footballs and black and white photos of players seemingly stuck in time adorn the walls. There is a password to gain admittance to this club and it consists of just three letters — M-I-Z.

There are a few universities whose names are synonymous with college football — Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State come to mind. Their pedigrees cast long shadows, as new players seek to live up to the legends of Heisman winners, mononymous coaches and historic stadiums that transform college towns into de facto state capitals.

Rather than being burdened by the weight of these near-mythic legacies, the modern incarnations of storied teams invoke words like “tradition” or “pride” to channel the successes of their football ancestors. The University of Missouri does not have that. Mizzou bar patrons cannot buy rounds of beer and reminisce over championship seasons. There are no pennants on the walls from historic bowl game victories. The few banners that do hang are more likely to bear the emblem of the Gator Bowl than the Cotton Bowl. The faces in team photos are not the faces of Heisman trophy winners — they are the faces of young men trapped by an unbalanced legacy of alternating achievement and ineptitude.

Looking at the 622-515-52 win-loss record tells only part of the story. Mizzou was the first university in Missouri to organize a football team, playing its first game in 1890. Benjamin Harrison was president, Nellie Bly traveled around the world in 72 days and the Missouri Tigers won their inaugural game 22-6. (1) Their first contest with another university occurred one month later in St. Louis against Washington University. It resulted in a 28-0 shutout for the Bears. The Tigers played their third and final game against the Missouri School of Engineering, winning 90-0. It wasn’t historical, but it was a start.

Little has changed in the 121 years since then. The cycle repeats itself every decade or so, with ten years of failure — of one-win seasons and losses by double-digit margins — giving way to brief moments of football excellence. Missouri’s alma mater reverberates throughout the stadium, “Every true son, so happy hearted,” the Tigers end the season ranked in the top 25 in national polls and the late Christmas present of a bowl game awaits the faithful fans. The eyes of the world aren’t on Mizzou, but it sure feels like they are if you’re a Mizzou fan.

Mizzou fans love to talk about these moments as cherished memories, regardless of their attachment to the actual events. Every true son can tell the story of the 1961 Orange Bowl victory, of the upset victory over Nebraska in 1978, of Dan Devine and his winning ways, of the come-from-behind victory over Kansas in 2007, of the turf wedged in Todd Reesing’s facemask as he walked off the field in defeat and of Chase Daniel pointing to the sky in a moment perfectly tailored for the cover of Sports Illustrated. These are moments of a great team, of heroes and victory — Missouri football at its finest.

These moments stand out. But they are memorable because they are unique. And they’re not just unique — they’re rare. Missouri’s No. 1 national ranking after the Daniel-led miracle in 2007 was only the second in school history. In reality, its moments of national supremacy have been fleeting. After beating Kansas, Missouri lost its next game to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship and ended the season ranked No. 4. The 1960 team surrendered its No. 1 position through a crippling loss to Kansas, only to have that victory vacated due to KU’s use of an ineligible player. But the damage was already done — the ranking was lost, along with Missouri’s hopes for a national championship. The Tigers continue to wait for their first championship, and Kansas still counts that game as a victory.

If the near misses are painful, then the lows are embarrassing. For Missouri fans, they have no description, just titles, events-that-must-not-be-named: the Norman Conquest, the Sugar Bowl safety and the Fifth Down. The Tigers have only been to 28 bowl games, and they have lost 16 of them. They didn’t go to any from 1983 to 1997. They had one of the lowest winning percentages — 38 percent — in all of college football in the 1990s. Even the film “Rudy” took its swipes at Mizzou, casting Dan Devine as a villain and “of the Green Bay Packers” while ignoring his 14 years and 93 wins at MU. Neither as tortured as Red Sox fans, nor as pitiful as Cubs fans, Mizzou fans spend their lives agonizing over missed opportunities and misfortune. To be a Tiger fan is to commiserate.

Friday night’s loss to Arizona State reminded us how difficult at times it is to be a Mizzou fan. The Tigers looked shaky in their 2011 debut versus Miami University. James Franklin only threw for 129 yards — uncharacteristic for an MU team that’s been defined by its Brad Smith/Chase Daniel/Blaine Gabbert-led spread attack led. The Tigers were called for over 80 yards in penalties, and managed to turn a 20 point spread into an 11 point, albeit sloppy, victory.

Any hopes for the Miami game being an aberration dissipated quickly Friday as Sun Devil Stadium turned into Death Valley for Mizzou. The Tigers went into Tempe as 8-point underdogs, but played more like the Duke team that lost to FCS Richmond last week than the team that won the Big 12 North last year. After digging themselves into a 30-16 hole and letting ASU quarterback Brock Osweiler burn them for 353 yards and 3 touchdowns, the Tigers staged an impressive comeback to tie the game at 30 with 2:50 left. But with 17 seconds remaining in regulation and near-automatic kicker Grant Ressel lining up for a 48-yard game-winning field goal, coach Gary Pinkel called time out — twice. Ressel’s kick went wide left, and the Tigers would lose in overtime. Missouri went into Tempe as the No. 21 team in the country, riding a 22 game non-conference win streak. They left defeated and unranked — in football purgatory until next week.

Why, then, do the caravans still come? In a sense, it’s like a religious faith. Not the sense of “football as religion” that you get with Notre Dame or Texas, where zealotry over a team and its performance on the field replaces rational behavior. But rather faith in the comfort Mizzou fans take in watching their team play. Faith in the belief that, one day soon, Missouri will rise to the top of college football. They don’t need to see that success to remain Tiger fans, and they likely won’t. With state cutbacks, conference realignment and the era of lucrative team- and conference-specific television deals looming, Mizzou will likely fall further behind its rivals in terms of talent and funding. But the faith remains, like passed down Methodism, linking current fans with a collective history — their history.

The season has begun, and the Tigers are 1-1. Hope stirs in the hearts of the Mizzou faithful as they prepare for the next week, the week when Mizzou will finally break through. The caravans continue down I-70. Like all pilgrims, they come seeking holy ground. But there is no Temple Mount in this land, no Wailing Wall, no Dome of the Rock. They come seeking a cathedral, and their cathedral is a place called Faurot Field.

1. Cfreference.net refers to Missouri’s opponent in that game as “Missouri Pick-Up Team.” While it was common in the early days of college football for universities to take on private athletic clubs and high schools, defeating a hastily collected group of local students is not exactly a triumphant beginning.

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