View Full Version : Nice MU article in USA Today

Pitt Gorilla
11-30-2007, 12:01 PM

Surprising Tigers have Missouri fans roaring

By Kelly Whiteside, USA TODAY
COLUMBIA, Mo. After one of the greatest football victories in school history, against the University of Missouri's biggest rival, longtime Tigers fan Bill Cocos was invited into the winning locker room. Of all the Mizzou football moments Cocos has seen during the last half-century, he never thought he would see this day.

Missouri rose to No. 1 in the Bowl Championship Series standings after beating Kansas last Saturday and now is just one win away the Big 12 title game against No. 9 Oklahoma on Saturday from playing for the school's first national championship.

Cocos, who runs his family's plumbing business in the St. Louis suburb of Lemay, hasn't missed a Missouri home football game since 1948 and has been at every away game but two since 1969. In the locker room Saturday, he sat in his wheelchair surrounded by Tigers players who lined up to shake his hand. Then head coach Gary Pinkel took the crystal Big 12 North Division championship trophy and placed it in Cocos' lap.

"Bill, you deserve this," Pinkel said. "We're so happy for you."

As much as Missouri's 36-28 win against Kansas belonged to its once-embattled coach, to its Heisman Trophy hopeful at quarterback, and to an upstart team that began the season unranked, it also belonged to a plumber from Lemay and every other long-suffering Tigers fan from Blue Springs to St. Joseph to Poplar Bluff and beyond.

In this surreal season in which the national title picture has been as clear as the Big Muddy, the long-downtrodden Tigers' rise to the top has been its most magical surprise.

"I never thought at the age of 76 that I would be in the dressing room of the No. 1 team in the country," Cocos says. "It was like giving me a million dollars or more. I have to pinch myself once in a while to make sure it's true. It's nice to know if you follow a team, they don't forget you."

If the Tigers (11-1) can avenge their only loss of the season and beat Oklahoma (10-2) in the Big 12 title game in San Antonio (8 p.m. ET, ABC) they will finish first in the BCS standings and play for the national championship Jan. 7 in New Orleans. Their opponent would be West Virginia, if the Mountaineers No. 2 in the BCS standings defeat Pittsburgh on Saturday night.

Missouri hasn't won even a conference crown since it shared the Big Eight title in 1969. Since then, it has been an unremarkable program, with 13 consecutive losing seasons from 1984 to 1996.

But now, the state is in a frenzy over Tigers football. They're cleaning out the local Tiger Spirit store of anything gold or black. They are knocking back shots of Black and Gold (Goldschlager schnapps, which has flecks of gold mixed, plus Jagermeister, which is black) at Harpo's bar in downtown Columbia. They are gobbling up tickets for the Big 12 title game. (Mizzou's allotment of 8,500 sold in about three hours Monday morning.)

Signs of Tiger mania are everywhere. Along Interstate 70, the state's department of transportation signs usually flash messages such as "Drive Safely." Last Saturday, they read: "Go MU, Beat KU!" School officials say all the attention has helped drive up applications to the university by 20% compared with this time last year.

Two days after the win against Kansas, a packed house greeted Pinkel for his radio show, Tiger Talk, at Spanky's Sports Zone in the Holiday Inn Select near campus.

The Knuckleheads, a group of friends from Columbia, have spent their Monday nights at this spot since the early 1990s. They received their moniker from Tiger Talk host Mike Kelly, the team's play-by-play announcer, who joked when the team was mediocre that only a bunch of knuckleheads would show up for every show.

As loyal as they are to the Tigers, even the Knuckleheads can't believe that Missouri is on the cusp of playing for a national title. "During the middle of the season, a friend said to me, 'This is what we've been waiting our whole life for,' " says Greg Wren, a computer programmer. "I never thought it would happen but it has."

Most devoted Missouri fans figured the Tigers would be good this season, says Knucklehead Larry Windmoeller, who has missed just two home football games during the last 27 years. But, he says, "This is beyond comprehension."

The loyal Knuckleheads

The Tigers entered the national rankings this season after their third win, on Sept. 15, then climbed steadily on the strength of their fast-paced spread offense run by junior quarterback Chase Daniel, the nation's eighth-ranked passer. Mizzou is the only team in the nation to score at least 30 points each game this year.

It's easy to root for a winning team. Loyalty is rewarded with victories and championships. But why devote yourself to a loser? Why tailgate in shivering temperatures when the only reward is heartbreak? During the worst of times, did the Knuckleheads ever look inward and ask, "Why bother?"

"No, no," Wren says, reacting as if he's just been asked the most ridiculous question ever posed. "Even if we kept going 5-6, we still would keep showing up."

During the team's 13-year streak of losing seasons, the Tigers' average home attendance was 40,732. The Mizzou bandwagon is bigger this year; the average attendance at Faurot Field was 60,232.

True fans always believe tomorrow will be a better day. But faith was hard to come by as recently as 2004, when the team went 5-6 and some fans called for Pinkel's job. During the lean years, at times, the only fans at Tiger Talk were the Knuckleheads and the Antlers, a student cheering group.

To join the Antlers, a group of 30 students named after a 1976 Saturday Night Live skit in which Lily Tomlin performed an "Antler Dance," a prospective member must possess a quick wit to heckle the opposing team, leather lungs and unwavering dedication. (The Antlers are at every home basketball and football game.)

Kyle Morris, an Antler from Blue Springs and a graduate student, says the team's success is changing the perception of his home state.

"I think Missouri is largely ignored east and west of here," he says. "The perception is that we're just flyover land for people going from east to west. But sports success furthers awareness. People on the East and West coasts know Nebraska and Oklahoma because of football."

'It might be a football school'

Across the nation, Missouri is known more for its men's basketball team than for football; the Tigers have been to the NCAA tournament 21 times but have never reached the Final Four.

"When we came here, we knew Missouri was known as a basketball school, but we're trying to change that," says senior running back Tony Temple, who is from Kansas City, Mo. "Our school is known for Brad, Sheryl and journalism," Temple says, referring to actor Brad Pitt and musician Sheryl Crow, who are former Mizzou students, and the highly regarded journalism school that will celebrate its centennial next year.

"But," Temple says, "it might be a football school one day."

The day seems to have arrived already. From plumbers to politicians, Mizzou Mania has spread across the state. Like the Knuckleheads' Wren, many say that all those years of losing have made this year especially sweet.

John Ashcroft, the former U.S. attorney general who was a U.S. senator, governor, state attorney general and state auditor in Missouri, says the state's mood is measured by the "grin coefficient," which right now is large.

"It's one thing to win a game over Kansas," he says, "but when Kansas becomes a party to promoting Missouri (in the national polls), it's wonderful."

Claire McCaskill, the state's junior U.S. senator who grew up in Columbia and graduated from Mizzou in 1975, will be at the Big 12 title game Saturday. For the Kansas game, she wore an MU sweater her mother knitted for her father in the late 1950s, when the senator was 5.

"Suffice it to say, I would not have the nerve to talk about politics in Missouri this week," McCaskill says. "It is all football, all the time."

Another lifelong resident of Columbia, NASCAR star Carl Edwards, is close to the football program and the university because his stepfather, Jim Sterling, is a journalism faculty member. Edwards was on the sideline for the Kansas game.

"I was like, 'Man, I've got to go to this game.' I've never been into football because I'm so involved in racing, but it's the biggest game of my life," says Edwards, who plans to be at the Oklahoma game.

Cocos will also be in San Antonio, of course, just as he has for 441 of the team's last 443 football games. Cocos, who played the trumpet in the Marching Mizzou band during his college years, says he has one more goal in life.

"I want to see them play for the national championship before I go. If that don't come, well that's the way it's meant to be," he says. "But I sure hope it does."

Cocos hasn't made plans for New Orleans because he doesn't want to jinx his Tigers. "But if it does happen, God willing and the creek don't rise I'll be there."

11-30-2007, 12:29 PM
Does the USA Today karma offset the SI cover dogma? It better...

11-30-2007, 01:21 PM
Its the cover story of the main page. Cool.

KC Kings
11-30-2007, 01:42 PM
I was in Chicago Thanksgiving week, and it was nice to wake up to Mizzou on the front page.

For the SI curse, it should be known that the last time we were on the front of USA Today, we won the next game.

Did SI already hit the magazine racks at the store? I went to 4 stores on Wednesday and wasn't sure if it was sold out already or if it just took a few days to get to the stores?

11-30-2007, 09:10 PM
Great read... I missed this.

Averaging 40k a game during a 13 year losing streak? Mizzou fans do love their football.

11-30-2007, 09:48 PM
Ha, I went to high school with Kyle Morris.