If I had to name one lasting memory from the coaching tenure of Woody Widenhofer at the University of Missouri, this is it. As the years rolled by, I haven’t thought about it much, but when I learned that Widenhofer had passed away at age 77, it came back to mind.
Early November, 1986. Norman, Oklahoma.
A group of sportswriters covering the Missouri football team had gone out for dinner and a few beers the night before the Tigers would face Oklahoma. Around midnight, maybe a little later, I returned to my room at the team hotel to call it a night.
I had forgotten to get the local newspaper — no Internet then — and I always liked to read about the opposing team. So I went back down to the hotel lobby to get a paper from the news box.
On my way back to the elevator, there was assistant athletic director Joe Castiglione, asking me if I wanted a nightcap.
The hotel bar sat in an open lobby, I walked into that area, and there were maybe six or eight people seated at a table and one of them was Widenhofer.
I was a little surprised to see the head coach still up roughly 12 hours before facing the defending national champion Oklahoma Sooners. But Widenhofer did like the night life.
I stayed for a few minutes, then headed to my room. As I said goodnight, the affable Castiglione — who has gone on to great success as A.D. at Oklahoma — gave me his thoughts on the matchup.
“You know, if we can hang in early, I think it’ll be a heckuva game,” Castiglione said.
Or words to that effect.
Well, Mizzou fans know what happened the next day. It was 48-0 in Oklahoma’s favor at halftime. An Oklahoma assistant — was it former MU player and assistant Merv Johnson? — sent a note to the visitors’ locker room telling the Tigers: “You’re in the wrong defense.”
Brian Bosworth, the Sooners’ star linebacker, was seen leaning over a fence with his shoulder pads off in the second half, socializing with fans. I seem to remember Bosworth eating a hot dog, too. But it was 34 years ago.
The final score was Oklahoma 77, Missouri 0 in a game that became known as the Norman Conquest.
Mizzou and Widenhofer got little sympathy from OU coach Barry Switzer afterwards.
“It doesn’t hurt me as much as it hurts them,” Switzer told reporters. “They’re in terrible shape.”
These were the worst of times for Missouri football, the four years under Widenhofer: 1-10, 3-8, 5-6 and 3-7-1 over four seasons from 1985 through 1988.
The last time I talked to Widenhofer was 1991 in the Pontiac Silverdome. He was then the defensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions. Strangely, it was a lengthy game-day interview, a few hours before kickoff.
I remember him as friendly, colorful, the type of coach who wore his emotions on his sleeves. He was invariably optimistic that better days were down the road.
“We’re getting better and better,” was one of his pet phrases. “Better and better.”
There were the malaprops and the self-deprecating sense of humor.
— On the day he was named Mizzou’s head coach, he talked about the lengthy selection process — 30 days: “I thought I was going through the CIA, the FBI, and I guess it’s the KGBR in Moscow. They were very, very thorough.”
— At that same press conference, he told Mizzou fans he would give his all to bring winning football back to his alma mater: “The best I can do is line up every Sunday and get the best out of our ability.”
In those days, college football was played exclusively on Saturdays.
— Before a key game during his tenure he said, “We’re at the railroad crossings of our season.”
— And on the day he was ousted, it was officially termed a “resignation” not a “firing, Widenhofer told the throng of reporters and university officials gathered in the Tiger Lounge at Faurot Field: “I didn’t realize we were going to get all this attention for beating KU.”
The Tigers had romped over archrival Kansas 55-17 a couple of days earlier in Widenhofer’s final game as head coach.
Coaching at the world’s best journalism school, Widenhofer got covered, scrutinized, and, yes, criticized like few in the business. And it was a much different setting back then. Practices were open, access to players and assistant coaches was unbelievable.
With rare exception, Widenhofer treated the media with respect. And in stark contrast to many of today’s coaches, he rarely made excuses.
“I think I overrated my coaching ability coming from professional football,” Widenhofer said after his inglorious 1-10 Mizzou debut in 1985. “I thought I could come in here and turn some losses into victories just by outcoaching people.”
As his ill-fated tenure ended, he said: “Winning is really what it’s all about, and I haven’t won as a college football coach.”
He sure won in the NFL — four Super Bowl rings with the Pittsburgh Steelers as both an assistant coach and defensive coordinator. And when he arrived on the scene at Missouri, he wasn’t shy about wearing those rings, especially on recruiting trips.
Former sports columnist Kevin Horrigan, who went on to bigger and better things in his long, distinguished career at the Post-Dispatch, referred to Widenhofer as a “world-class schmoozer.”
He put those schmoozing skills to use in living rooms all across the St. Louis area and the state of Missouri. For all his failings as a head coach, Widenhofer was an amazing recruiter, particularly in his first couple of seasons with the Tigers.
The same day he was hired, Widenhofer was in the living room of quarterback prospect Ronnie Cameron of East St. Louis High. Cameron wasn’t just a Parade all-American, he was Parade’s player of the year.
The following year he landed arguably the greatest running back in the history of St. Louis high school sports in Hazelwood Central’s Tony VanZant.
Everybody wanted St. Charles High offensive lineman Rob Dryden — even OU’s Switzer was in his living room. But Widenhofer landed Dryden, whose immense size (6-8, 330) later earned him the nickname “Eclipse” from his Mizzou teammates.
Despite an extremely late recruiting start after the 30-day hiring process, Widenhofer landed five of the nation’s top 100 prospects in 1985 according to The Sporting News. But Widenhofer had unbelievably bad luck with these top recruits.
Cameron was plagued by arm troubles as a freshman and switched to wide receiver for part of that season and never made much impact at Mizzou. VanZant suffered a knee injury playing in a high school all-star game prior to the start of his first Mizzou preseason camp. He would be plagued by knee injuries throughout his career.
Strangely, Widenhofer watched that first TVZ knee surgery in person.
USA Today all-American Mark Keough, a defensive end from Hazelwood East, left after one season.
Another blue-chipper, defense lineman Mario Johnson of Hazelwood Central, was academically ineligible for his freshman year.
But the strangest case of all was Dryden, who left Mizzou after a couple of seasons to become the world’s largest bass guitar player.
An exasperated Widenhofer said: “I’ve lost players to eligibility, not wanting to play anymore, girlfriends, wives. But this would be a first. A band?”
Yep. On a late summer’s night around the time camp started in 1988, the Post-Dispatch caught up with Dryden at Lucius Boomer’s, then a popular club on Laclede’s Landing.
After his band, Da’ Tripp, took a break, Dryden said: “I’ve never really had the desire to be a great football player. . . .Those aren’t my dreams and aspirations, those are everybody else’s.”
And so it was. A tenure that began in 1985 with a horrific 27-23 loss to a Northwestern team that was 10-88 over its previous nine seasons was doomed to fail in 1988.
Over Widenhofer’s four seasons, not even appearances at practice by local exotic dancer Fonda Love or self-proclaimed vampire Vladimir Tepes could help. Tepes had offered to put “a Romanian curse on the invading team.”
Alas, the Tigers blew a 15-0 lead in a 39-32 loss that week to the Cal Golden Bears.
(We’re not sure how Fonda Love offered to help.)
Aided by an influx of junior-college transfers the Tigers came within a whisker of a winning record in 1987 and with a break or two might have gotten a bowl bid. The joke around campus was that after a two-year hiatus, college football had returned to Missouri as a varsity sport.
“I’d be very, very upset if we weren’t working over the holidays,” Widenhofer said entering the ‘88 season. “Don’t you think we’re good enough to go to a bowl?”
The beginning of the end came in Game 3 of the season, against Indiana, when kicker Jeff Jacke’s chip-shot field goal clanged off the left upright in the final seconds, resulting in a 28-28 tie. Years later, a Missouri assistant once on that ’88 staff still couldn’t let go — referring to Jacke as “that jerk.”
Jacke’s older brother Chris was a prominent NFL kicker and is now in the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame. But Jeff Jacke was a kid — a freshman at the time — and the Tigers wrongly played the closing sequence NFL-style, letting the clock run down for the field goal instead of running two or three more plays to try to score a touchdown or at least make it an even closer attempt.
In fairness, the Tigers played a brutal schedule that season. Actually, they played a tough schedule throughout Widenhofer’s tenure. The Texas Longhorns in 1985 and ’86. Syracuse, which would finish 11-0-1 and ranked No. 4 nationally with Heisman runner-up Don McPherson at quarterback in 1987.
You can talk all you want about how tough the SEC is these days, but the Tigers play Alabama, LSU, Auburn about every third year. Widenhofer’s Tigers got Oklahoma and Nebraska every year in the Big Eight. The Sooners and Cornhuskers were perennial contenders for the national title back then.
He caught Oklahoma State during a period when the Cowboys had first Thurman Thomas and then Barry Sanders in the backfield.
Colorado, coached by Widenhofer’s former fraternity brother at Mizzou — Bill McCartney — was on an ascent that would bring them a co-national title in 1990, two years after Widenhofer’s demise. (A disputed national title because of the “Fifth Down” game against Bob Stull’s Tigers that year.)
Widenhofer caught Indiana at the wrong time as well. The Hoosiers went 16-7-1 over the ’87 and ’88 seasons and were nationally-ranked both years. No Indiana football team in school history has won more games over a two-year span.
In that ’88 season, the Tigers faced six teams ranked in the AP top 20. (Just 20 teams were ranked back then.) One of them was Houston, with a quarterback (Andre Ware) who would win the Heisman Trophy the following season. Another was the defending national champion Miami Hurricanes coached by Jimmy Johnson.
Just two days before the season finale against the Jayhawks, and what would be his final game at Mizzou, Widenhofer’s emotions got the best of him during an appearance at the Kansas City Tiger Club.
Widenhofer made headlines when he told the gathering: “I just came here to let you know I’m on the crucifix.”
Rest in peace, Woody. Rest in peace.