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Residents of Missouri often refer to their state university as Old Mizzou, and more often to the football team which represents that institution as the Mizzou Tigers. Dave Hart, the athletic director at Old Mizzou, says that one day Governor Joe Teasdale told him that the reason he liked Mizzou Tiger football so much was because he could support it openly and enthusiastically without fear of offending anyone in the state.
"That's a great comment and illustrates why, potentially, this is one of the greatest programs in the country," says Hart. At the time, Hart had been working at Missouri only two years (previously he had been a sports executive at schools in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Maryland), but athletic directors are boosterish by temperament and he had quickly become a persuasive promoter of the state, the university and the football team. "Think about it," says Hart of the governor's remark. "In our neighboring states, aside from Nebraska, a governor wouldn't be free to say that. If he were in Kansas he couldn't be an out-and-out Jayhawk [University of Kansas] fan because of the alumni and supporters of the Wildcats [Kansas State University]. There would be the same situation in Iowa with the Hawkeyes and Cyclones [Iowa and Iowa State] or in Oklahoma with the Sooners and Cowboys [Oklahoma and Oklahoma State]. Here allegiance is undivided from the governor on down. We have a number of small schools with fine programs, but we are the only Division I football power. When the Mizzou Tigers charge out onto the field, it's the big game for everybody in the state."
At one o'clock on a Saturday afternoon in November of 1979 the Mizzou Tigers would charge onto Faurot Field, their home turf in Columbia, Mo., to play the Sooners of Oklahoma. When they did, there would be 75,000 people in the stadium, all of them (except for three thousand or so bold visitors from Soonerland) yelling for the Tigers. They would be stirred by a band of 250 musicians, a hundred or so cheerleaders, as well as pompon and dancing girls, mascots and other official spirit persons. Above them in a press box on the west rim of the stadium, 150 writers and commentators would be poised to chronicle the game for posterity, or at least for Sunday morning readers and viewers of delayed TV. More immediately, a team of broadcasters would send out a play-by-play account to the 70 stations and 500,000 listeners hooked in and turned on to the Missouri Sports Network. At Faurot Field but also in Hannibal, Sweet Springs, Eminence, Advance, Cabool, Koshkonong, Plato, Peculiar, Jerico Springs, St. Louis, Kansas City and most other parts of the state, grown men and women would shortly be cheering and cursing, boys and girls crying and laughing, depending on how the Tigers fared against the Sooners. The entire state cares about how the Tigers do, and no other happening that afternoon—or, in fact, the rest of the year—would attract more immediate attention or draw so many people so close together. Similar events occur in Tuscaloosa, State College, South Bend, Ann Arbor, Austin, Lincoln and Los Angeles, but Missouri vs. Oklahoma approaches the limits of how big, logistically and emotionally, a college football game can be.
It takes a long time to get ready for an occasion of this magnitude. From a certain distant historical viewpoint it could be argued that events have been leading up to it since 1839, when Old Mizzou was founded, or 1869, when Princeton and Rutgers played the first collegiate football game, or 1890, when Missouri played for the first time against a team from Washington University of St. Louis. The date for the 1979 Missouri-Oklahoma game was set nine years before. Tickets have been on sale for 10 months, and the game has been heavily promoted and advertised for six months.
For some five years, coaches from both Missouri and Oklahoma have recruited players who would perform in the game. Since the previous August, the full teams (including recruits of the season) have been getting in shape, practicing techniques and developing strategies. All fall at Mizzou, and presumably at Oklahoma, the game has been heralded as a crucial one. For a time both the Sooners and Tigers were undefeated, ranked respectively as the third-and fifth-best college teams in the nation. Then it was widely predicted that theirs would not only be a big game, but also The Big Game of the season, or the decade; that it would be for All the Marbles, the National Championship. However, sporting fate ruined this scenario. Specifically, the Texas Longhorns, ranked No. 4, thrashed first the Tigers and then the Sooners. Even so, the big game was popularly regarded as a momentous meeting, because its outcome would bear strongly on who won the Big Eight championship, and on who would be invited to the Orange and, as it turned out, Liberty or Hall of Fame Bowls.
Big-game excitement may be natural and unavoidable for students, alumni, sportswriters and lesser experts, but it can be worrisome to football coaches. "Your program depends on consistency and overall record," says Warren Powers, the head coach of Old Mizzou. "If you get lucky and upset a couple of ranked teams but still finish 5-6, you've had a bad season. If you lose those two but have a 9-2 record, you've had a very fine season." That's how a coach sees it. It is not a viewpoint popular with fans of big games.
Powers came to Missouri the year before from Washington State. (He was obliged to pay that institution $55,000 because he broke a contract when he took the Mizzou job.) In his first season with the Tigers he had an 8-4 record—including a surprising and satisfying win over Notre Dame—and was named Coach of the Year by the Walter Camp Foundation. "Strictly from a coach's standpoint," says Powers, "knocking off a Notre Dame when it's not expected can keep the wolves quiet for a little bit and make you an instant hero, but if you're not consistent the fans and media are going to start asking, 'What's wrong with this guy? He's got the horses to beat Notre Dame, but he got beat by East Podunk...or he didn't beat them 48 to zip.' False expectations are raised and you can end up with more criticism than if you had lost the so-called big game."
On the Saturday before the Oklahoma game the Tigers played Iowa State, a weakish team. They won, but barely, and it was widely assumed that they performed inartistically because, despite Powers' repeated warnings to play the schedule one game at a time, they had been "looking ahead." However, on Sunday it was permissible to think and openly talk about Oklahoma. One who did so was Wendell Ray, who came down to the football training room early in the afternoon for minor treatment of a thigh bruise he had suffered against the Cyclones. Ray is a defensive end, generally regarded as Mizzou's best at that position, and one of the three or four best in the Big Eight. Considering where and how he plays, it isn't surprising that he is massive—6'4½" and 230 pounds. He is exceptional in other ways as well, at least in comparison with the stereotyped image of a defensive lineman. Ray is a reflective, introverted young man whose dignity is more impressive than his physique.
Indeed he is thinking about Oklahoma, Ray says, and in fact it can now be admitted that Oklahoma has been on his mind and in the thoughts of many of his teammates since spring practice eight months before. "A lot of us are juniors, and since we came here we've beat every team in the Big Eight except the Sooners," Ray says. "You don't need to talk about this game; you just know about it. The rest of the stuff about maybe we'll get to a bowl is good, too, but I don't think about it now. I just want to do good against them so bad. It's the big game for me."
By way of special personal preparation for Oklahoma, Ray says, during the week he will spend more time than usual reading his Bible and praying. "I pray to Him to help everyone, poor people and hungry people and sick people," he says. "I don't pray that He just give me something special, like let us win or make me a big star. I don't think that's right. I just pray I can look inside myself and know the power He has given me and use it in the right way. That is one day when I want to be all He makes me."