Saturday, October 17, 2015

Being a Part of Missouri's Rise to Modern Prominence

Moving to St. Louis in 2005 put me further than a quick drive down the interstate away from major college football for the first time in my life.  I grew up in central North Carolina, where there are four ACC schools within 100 miles; I went to the one farthest east (North Carolina State).  All the while, being in a major Midwestern city put me in an environment with a unique college football history to explore.  I'll admit that I never took full advantage of that during my four football seasons living there, but the intention to travel to universities across the nation that ultimately became my College Football Tour was born of STL friendships forged of mutual gridiron passion.

During the summer of 2006, a Wisconsin Badger diehard named Nick and I decided that we should make it a yearly tradition through our time in professional school to go to college football games.  We were talking to our Boomer Sooner-loving buddy from Oklahoma, Jeff - who I later joined in Norman for an OU game in 2010 and in Dallas for the OU-Texas game in 2015 - and noticed that the Okies would be traveling to Columbia for an October date with the Missouri Tigers.  For three guys swamped with 36 hour trimesters of school work, it took little more than a quick online purchase of a trio of tickets to a football game to make life a whole heck of a lot better.  Though it would prove to be the lone journey instead of the first of many pigskin-themed road trips, we had a good time and were all pleasantly surprised by University of Missouri football.

The Tigers were fortunately on the rise in 2006.  Gary Pinkel has made headlines in recent years for coaching Missouri to two straight SEC East titles in the program's first three seasons in the Southeastern Conference.  They were expected to be a league doormat by many pundits, but anyone who paid close attention to them from the latter part of the 2000s into this decade would know that they were building toward their recent success for a long time.  They first came on my radar during my college years at NC State.  We watched football each Saturday and played EA Sports NCAA Football video games the rest of the week; there weren't many good players or teams that we didn't know about.

Brad Smith was the quarterback responsible for leading Pinkel's early Missouri teams out of the doldrums.  Our '06 travel group assumed that losing Smith to graduation/NFL would mean a step back for the Tigers and a likely mediocre team come the end of October against the Sooners.  However, Chase Daniel emerged as a bonafide star and was the catalyst for Missouri's progression from bowl-eligible upstart to consistent conference title threat.  The Tigers got off to a 6-0 start and, by the time that we arrived on campus for the 10/26/06 showdown with OU, they were 7-1 and ranked in the Top 25. 

On the Friday before the game, we headed straight out I-70 west to Columbia.

Football was actually the icebreaker that started well over half of my friendships in St. Louis.  Nick, for example, was outside grilling a steak two buildings down from my apartment on the opening weekend of the '05 season.  We exchanged a nod.  Turns out that we were both in the class that began their Logan University careers in September 2005.  Our first conversation was about college football (as was our last, I'm sure; haven't talked to him in years, so hope he's doing well).  Fast forward a year to a month prior to our trip to Mizzou and Nick and I were joined by Tony, another friend that I made thanks to college football, to go to a local high school game, each of us sporting polos featuring the emblems of our favorite teams (Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Ohio State); a couple of dads saw us walk in together and gave us a look that said "Oh my God, are these guys scouts?"  (FYI - that was the point of the polos, so mission accomplished #nerdculture).  We had planned to make that a thing that we did, but it - like our football road trips - stopped at one in a row.  We should've pretended to be scouts to see former 10th overall NFL draft pick Blaine Gabbert play at Parkway West High School, which was less than a mile from my apartment (I went as a plain old fan a year later).  Jeff, meanwhile, became my go-to sports discussion partner for the last decade and counting after we initially connected over our shared football and pro basketball fandoms.

Tony may not have been with us on the trip to Mizzou, but his presence was felt in the car thanks in no small part to the fact that he lent us the all-time classic hit cassette tape: WrestleMania: The Album (the 156,894th best selling album in the history of Amazon).  Featuring original songs by WWF superstars from the early 1990s, The Album provided us with extreme listening pleasure.  In all seriousness, that tape was a total trainwreck, but it was good for many laughs.  I believe that mine is the only college football blog that features two references to "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan, whose song "USA" surely would have been the most downloaded track on iTunes if such a thing had existed in 1992.  USA, U-U-U-USA, USA...HOOOOOO!!!!

Though not nearly as noteworthy as The Album, a stop at the mall to eat dinner on the way to Columbia allowed me to finally find - after a year of searching - a place in Missouri that served the southern staple beverage, sweet tea.  I'll never forget asking for sweet tea at the first restaurant at which I ate in St. Louis.  The waitress looked at me like I had a six eyes.  They had raspberry tea, but not tea with sugar in it.

You could say that iced tea without sugar is missing that special something.  The same could be said about college football without tailgating.  To this day, the only College Football Tour stop that featured no tailgating was Missouri.  That was no fault of the Tiger faithful, but rather an oversight by an inexperienced trio of foreign game dayers.  Reflecting back, it's an absolute must to do some sort of tailgating because it is the best way to gauge the atmosphere of the host campus.  Sharing a few adult beverages or a signature food item with fellow football fans ingratiates you as a one day member of the local fraternity in a way.  To merely get to the game shortly before it begins strips away a major part of the college football experience.  Aside from a beer or two at the restaurant near our hotel on Friday night, no cocktails were consumed in Columbia and no Tiger-specific tradition was encountered.

College football, though, is college football, with or without tailgating.  When you walk into a stadium for the first time, it's always special.  Each school has its own unique history.  Mizzou being resurgent rather than incumbent in its modern prominence at the time, I knew little about their long-term track record.  Two names immediately jumped out at me on their Hall of Fame circle: Kellen Winslow Sr. (whose son was a huge star at Miami in the early 2000s) and Dan Devine (who coached my Irish to the 1977 National Championship).  I was unaware that Devine had once coached the Tigers between 1958 and 1970, won 70% of his games, and won a pair of conference championships.  So, even without conversing with any Missouri faithful, I could see via notable names on their stadium's ring of honor and the mass of humanity crammed into the venue that Tiger football was worth watching live.

We joined 70,000 other people that day at Faurot Field to see Oklahoma control the game and defeat the Tigers 26-10.  Chase Daniel never could get the offense going and the Sooners did just enough without the aid of all-world running back Adrian Peterson, who had injured his shoulder earlier in the season.  It would have been awesome to say that I saw Peterson play live in college, but alas I can say that I saw the prolific Daniel play QB in college.  Daniel was one of the most underrated players of last decade and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2007 (the year Tim Tebow won the award).

Chase Daniel - one of the best college QBs of the 2000s
Missouri will be remembered fondly for essentially starting my College Football Tour, but it will simultaneously be viewed as a part of the learning curve for how best to appreciate a school that I'd not previously visited.  To be frank, I'd like to plan another trip to Columbia in the future.  When I arrived, they were on the way up.  They've been on one of the best runs in program history since then.  I suspect that their success combined with my tour-savviness would create for a much more engaging campus experience the second time around.

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