Four nights ago, the University of Missouri’s basketball team enjoyed a thoroughly impressive 93-63 thumping of its new rival, Arkansas, on the hardwood. The win was big because it came against Missouri’s former coach, Mike Anderson, who left Columbia two years prior in the dead of night without so much as a farewell text to his players.
So it was a nice, score-settling victory, which makes me nervous because it means the Tigers will almost certainly lose their next, even bigger game at Tennessee today. And not just because Tennessee is pretty good and Missouri has struggled on the road this season. It’s because following a big win with a wrenching, heart-gouging loss is what the Tigers do. It is their thing, as certain for Missouri as snow storms in the middle of March.
To paraphrase a famous Star Wars droid, we Missouri fans were made to suffer. It is our lot in life. I got my first taste of this as a college freshman. I was an out-of-state student and mostly unfamiliar with Mizzou’s sports traditions, or lack thereof. The football team at the time was very bad, mired in the middle of 13 straight losing seasons. But the basketball team, led by stars like Doug Smith and Anthony Peeler, was a force. The Tigers beat Kansas twice with the nation’s number one ranking on the line. They seemed primed for their first Final Four appearance when things fell apart. There were late-season losses to Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Colorado (really? Colorado?). Peeler went into a shooting slump and his teammates couldn’t seem to pick up the slack.
Still, there was optimism as my dorm mates and I headed to the basement rec room of Hatch Hall to watch the Tigers take on unheralded Northern Iowa in an early afternoon NCAA tournament game. Two hours later, after the Panthers scored a last-second bucket to upset the 3rd-seeded Tigers, my friends and I trudged to the upstairs cafeteria to eat our lunch in stony silence. It was the last day of school before spring break, but you would have thought that three more months of winter had just set in.
That was a painful indoctrination, to be followed by several other soul-crunching Tiger defeats like the 5th Down Game against Colorado, the 1997 “Flea-Kicker” loss to Nebraska and Tyus Edney’s coast-to-coast drive and shot to beat Missouri in a 1995 March Madness game. There’s nothing I can say about these contests that hasn’t been written a hundred times before. Yes, they sucked. And, yes, I remember them all very well.
Those were milestone defeats. But there were smaller, equally bizarre losses in between that also ate away at this Mizzou fan’s cast iron heart. During my senior year in 1992, the Colorado Buffalos returned to Columbia for the first time since they needed five downs to beat the Tigers on the last play of the 1990 game. The ’92 rematch was going to be the biggest football game for Missouri in a generation: national television, a first-ever night game at Faurot Field, free admission for any student who wished to attend… It was a sneak peek at big-time football for Missouri. And maybe that was why a cold front blew in just moments before kickoff and blasted freezing rain on the stadium for the entire game. It was early October, but it felt like the middle of February and most fans had retreated to their cars by halftime. The Tigers put up a fight. Down 6-0 late, they got the ball deep in Buffalo territory. A winning touchdown seemed eminent before the ball slipped from quarterback Phil Johnson’s hands and into the arms of a Colorado defender. “Missouri luck,” a friend muttered to me as we stood shivering in the student section.
There’s been bad luck, or bad judgment, off the field as well. In 1989, Missouri passed on an opportunity to hire Bill Snyder as its football coach. Snyder went down the road instead and turned Kansas State into a national power. Perhaps making up for that mistake, Missouri hired a different Snyder – Duke assistant Quin Snyder – as its basketball coach in 1999. It chose him over a young Tulsa coach named Bill Self, who would go on to lead Kansas to a national championship and enjoy many, many lopsided wins over the Tigers along the way. Missouri luck.
Despite this inglorious history, I remain a proud Mizzou fan. After all, it’s where I went to school and formed some of my closest friendships. And, while the Tigers haven’t loaded up their trophy case with conference championships over the years, they are competitive in both football and basketball, which keeps things interesting from September through March. I sometimes feel sorry for Kansas or Kentucky fans, who usually have nothing to cheer about until Midnight Madness. And don’t they get a little bored with all that basketball success, all those McDonald’s All-Americans churning out championship after championship? Wouldn’t that get a little dull? I’m asking the question because I have no idea if it would or not. That level of sports greatness would be as foreign to me as a day trip to Jupiter.
Also, suffering through Missouri’s pain means that success, when it comes, is especially surprising and sweet. I’ll never forget the football Tigers beating Kansas at Arrowhead Stadium in 2007 and getting the nation’s number one ranking. For a week. There was another great football win over Oklahoma in 2010 – followed by a dispiriting loss to Nebraska. And last year’s basketball season was nothing short of glorious. The Tigers went 30-5 and won their last three Big 12 games to win the conference tournament championship before a noisy, partisan crowd in Kansas City.
Of course, they followed that up with a shocking loss to Norfolk State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. But by now, I should have seen that coming. It is my lot in life as a Tigers fan, always waiting for that other boot to come crashing down.