Category Archives: mizzou

Homecoming’s birthplace

The alumni association recently emailed a “Guide to Homecoming 2017.” It listed a full week of varied activities. Five-kilometer run. Blood drive. Talent show. LGBTQ happy hour. Campus decoration contest. Library open house. Spirit rally. Parade. And, of course, the Homecoming Game.

I won’t be there. Columbia, Mo., is a serious hike from my digs in the New York City suburbs, so I save my occasional returns for the periodic reunions of our old student newspaper staff. That is not to say I don’t appreciate the whole Homecoming thing. In fact, I am happy to advance the argument that my alma mater invented Homecoming. And I occasionally break out my official University of Missouri Centennial Homecoming Celebration necktie.

The story is that Chester Brewer, then Mizzou’s football coach and athletic director, feared a serious lack of spectators at the 1911 game against rival Kansas in Columbia. Previously, the annual tilt had been played in Kansas City, geographically handy to lots of old grads from both schools, and a new edict to play all conference games on campus appeared detrimental to drawing paying customers on a 125-mile trip to Columbia in one of those new horseless carriages (top speed: 40 mph) on deteriorating roads designed for equine travel.

So Brewer tried a sentimental ploy, inviting alumni to “come home,” and when a surprisingly large crowd of more than 9,000 showed up, it was said to be the birth of a fall tradition that remains a slice of Americana.

By the 1930s, the Homecoming ritual had spread nationwide, to both colleges and high schools, and soon a specific Homecoming framework took shape.

  • Students painstakingly constructing parade floats, regularly depicting the Homecoming game’s visiting team’s mascot—a panther or bird or some other critter—in various forms of distress: Being fried in an electric chair or prone under a fallen guillotine, with its paper-mache head resting in a bowl of blood-red liquid.
  • Athletic officials scheduling the easiest/least attractive opponent for Homecoming, both to draw extra fans to an otherwise unappealing matchup and to theoretically assure a home team victory. (Coaches of really bad teams have been known to moan, “I should ride on a float. Every doggone team we play is having Homecoming when we play them.”)
  • The crowning of a Homecoming queen. (A favorite iteration of this, witnessed during my half-century as a sports journalist, was the time the Homecoming queen barely arrived in time for her halftime coronation at Augustana College, because she had run in the state cross-country championships on the other side of Illinois that morning. And won.)

There is no getting away from how pervasive Homecoming is, how wholeheartedly festive even if thoroughly sophomoric. It’s possible that it may not even be serious, just another college lampoon.

Still, returning to the old campus has a way of putting a ghost on every familiar corner again. And the immutable setting—a football stadium on a golden fall day, with the home team wearing the same colors and the band playing the same tunes—doesn’t so much generate a melancholy nostalgia for youth as a renewed appreciation for those good times in that good place.

Years ago, Sports Illustrated dispatched four of its most celebrated writers to their respective colleges to consider the meaning of Homecoming, calling the reports “four views on whether Thomas Wolfe knew what he was talking about.”

Notre Dame grad Ray Kennedy predictably zeroed in on the football aspect, how he had been shown clips of old teams and the Knute Rockne film his first day as a freshman and how “there never was any doubt everyone would graduate summa cum rah rah.”

Cal’s Ron Fimrite mostly was stirred by memories of drinking and checking out women while Miami’s John Underwood found himself “convinced that Homecomings are mostly positive expressions.”

Finally, there was something of an elitist spoof by Frank Deford. “I don’t know what I’m doing in here with all the football factories,” Deford wrote. “At Princeton, we don’t even call it Homecoming”—rather, “alumni days”—and, furthermore, “If there is one thing you learn with a Princeton education, it is Don’t waste a trip back to the Garden State to watch a rinky-dink Ivy League game.”

Deford called Homecoming “entirely too Midwestern,” and I will second that, but in a more reverential—if more naïve—way. There is a corniness to Homecoming, a narrow but genuine reasonableness, and I think of that great Midwestern novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s observation that “all decent sentiments are corny.”

Anyway, about those Midwestern roots. Missouri’s neighbor in higher education, the University of Illinois, has claimed that two of its fraternity brothers—W. Elmer Ekblaw and C.F. (Dab) Williams—dreamed up Homecoming in either 1909 or 1910, prior to Mizzou’s 1911 First Homecoming argument.

It happens that the College Football Hall of Fame has no file on Homecoming and that sports historian Dick Kishpaugh of Parchment, Mich.—in canvassing hundreds of colleges years ago—found that several schools insisted on being Homecoming’s creator. Kishpaugh said that only Illinois had written documentation.

But I’m going with two unassailable sources affirming the matter of Homecoming’s birthplace—Trivial Pursuit and, especially, Jeopardy!

Alex, “What is Mizzou?”

 

 

 

Identity politics: Mizzou and Tim Kaine

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So we almost had a fellow Mizzou grad as vice president of the United States—a fellow former Mizzou journalism student at that.

That Tim Kaine is now going back to being a senator from Virginia hardly is the worst news about Tuesday’s election. At least I can distract myself from the frightening American vision whipped up by the President-elect’s racist, misogynistic and mendacious campaign rhetoric to know that Kaine’s documented decency reflects well on the old alma mater.

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At this point, I’ll just cling to my personal identity politics. I’ll hang on to the idea that a man who was so close to being one heartbeat away from the Oval Office spent his college days much the way I did.

Except, of course, that Kaine graduated summa cum laude in three years. And was a senator in the Missouri Students Association. And was so far ahead of his fellow students that he worked as a teaching assistant in an economics course.

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I got a C in economics. I confess to have spent much more time—much more—in the offices of the student newspaper, The Maneater, than in the library during my University of Missouri days. While Kaine, in his concession remarks on Wednesday, could retrieve a quote from William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! that applied to the situation—“They kilt us but they ain’t whupped us yit”—I concede that I never finished Faulkner’s The Bear for a freshman English assignment. I was too busy reading the sports section.

Kaine came to Columbia, Mo., almost a decade after I left, and went on to far bigger things, opting out of journalism studies to earn his degree in economics, and then to law school at Harvard, to mayor of Richmond, governor of Virginia, U.S. Senator. I remained an ink-stained wretch for a half century.

But a sociology professor once discussed with me the concept of tribalism, how we all need—all like—to identify with some group that reflects our values or, at least, reflects how we prefer to think of ourselves. The college link is part of that. Wherever we go to school, we are connected to that place and—by extension, its people—for the rest of our lives. And when we hear of a successful, principled fellow alum, it’s tempting to lay claim to being part of that.

Look at what my school turned out: A man whose life experiences allowed him to empathize with people from other cultures and circumstances. At 22, Kaine worked with the deeply poor in Honduras for nine months. In Richmond, he worshiped at a black church for decades. When The Maneater recently published a profile of Kaine—“How MU shaped vice-presidential nominee and graduate Tim Kaine”—it was just good journalism. But, too, there rightly was pride in recalling Kaine as one of Mizzou’s own.

Of course there have been knuckleheads among our alums. Kenneth Lay, the Enron CEO found guilty for the securities fraud that destroyed the company and cost 20,000 employees their jobs, was a Mizzou grad. But, then, so were some highly regarded folks. George C. Scott (originally a journalism major!), long-time PBS News Hour anchor Jim Lehrer, Missouri senator Claire McCaskill, Missouri governor Jay Nixon, singer/songwriter Sheryl Crow, and so many respected journalism colleagues over the years that I couldn’t name them all.

It’s a stretch that Mizzou’s tiger mascot is named “Truman” in honor of the 33rd President of the United States, a form of tribalism which ignores the fact that Harry S Truman, while he indeed was a Missouri native, never attended the university and, in fact, is the most recent President who didn’t have a college degree.

But at a time when there is so much enmity swirling around the election results, I am ready to flaunt an association—however tenuous—with Mizzou grad Tim Kaine. In that Maneater piece, there was a college buddy’s recollection of how he and Kaine formed a club called SIMA (the French word for “friends”—amis—backwards) that consisted of selling friend-o-grams for 25 cents. Those simply were a means of expressing friendship to other students, which Kaine and his pal hand-delivered around campus.

What a lovely gesture. Sounds something like wanting to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. In the end, my preference for Kaine’s presence in the next administration really had nothing to do with the fact we went to the same school. But I certainly don’t mind the coincidence.

Beyond ESPN’s “Norm:” Mizzou’s J-School pests

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One aspect not addressed in “Norm,” ESPN’s spot-on new documentary of venerable University of Missouri basketball coach Norm Stewart, was Stewart’s relationship with the school’s student journalists. Understand that Mizzou, as home to the world’s first School of Journalism, churned out an unusual number of wet-behind-the-ears pests whom Stewart often accused of “disrupting my team.” Realize, too, that Stewart—devilishly clever and never above haggling to get an edge—knew how to get across his point about school loyalty to us practitioners of theoretical neutrality. Often by announcing that he was “declaring war on the local writers.”

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I was a reporter for the university-run Columbia Missourian when Stewart assumed the head coaching job in 1967, and therefore embodied so much of what annoyed him about J-School. “They’re in a learning situation,” he argued to me years later, “They don’t have any knowledge about history, or any interest in it. They’re like all kids. Live for today.”

Guilty. Unlike Stewart, who hailed from the tiny farming community of Shelbyville, near Tom Sawyer’s Hannibal, and had been a two-sport star at Mizzou in the 1950s, most J-School students are virtual foreigners, drawn by J-School’s reputation and not steeped in such matters as Missouri’s established hate for neighboring Kansas. I went to high school in New Mexico, and had classmates from California, New York, Iowa, Virginia, Oklahoma, Illinois and other distant points.

It further rankled Stewart, and justifiably so, that the state’s media centers of St. Louis and Kansas City were slow to acknowledge the rapid ascent of his teams into perennial contenders in the old Big Eight Conference.

In 1982, Mizzou opened the season with 19 consecutive wins and briefly was ranked No. 1, at last in line for some national attention, but the instant it lost its first game, NBC cancelled a planned feature on the team. “I guess I ought to go out and lose five or six games so I can get on TV all the time like UCLA and Notre Dame,” was Stewart’s sarcastic reaction.

It was that February that I maneuvered a Newsday assignment to return to campus, as a ploy to to introduce our Long Island readers to “Stormin’ Norman,” who had created an image throughout the Midwest of a cantankerous soul. Regularly wrangling with officials (and sometimes fans) as he stalked the sideline, Stewart inspired opposing fans to serenade him with “Sit down, Norm!” chants.

Yet, up close, Stewart could be as charming as he was caustic, with an open, sly sense of humor, a crooked smile and tales to tell.

When I visited in ’82, Mizzou was days from a nationally televised match-up of Top 10 teams at Georgetown, which was riding the all-encompassing skills of freshman giant Patrick Ewing. Stewart sat in his office, grinning mischievously, and gilded his reputation as an agitator by relating how he once spliced together a film of what he considered the worst officials’ calls and shipped it to the Big Eight office. He told of a Notre Dame fan who had been badgering him, and how he considered mailing the man a rosary and a snuffed-out candle with the note, “You have caused me to lose my Faith.”

That evening, after Mizzou’s game against Iowa State, Stewart invited me to his home to continue the conversation. He addressed his occasionally brusque coaching techniques and manic attention to defense with self-deprecation: “Players sometimes say, ‘Coach, how do you stop that [offensive move].’ I say, ‘As coaches, we don’t do that. We just identify problems.’”

He spoke fondly of his high school coach in Shelbyville, C.J. Kessler, who originally made a name for himself in basketball-mad Indiana but, as Stewart told it, happened to marry a Shelbyville girl and, when Kessler came to visit the in-laws, “some of the local boys took him out for golf and possibly drinks, and the next morning he wakes up as superintendent of schools and basketball coach. And his wife as the school’s English teacher.”

It was about then I felt the time ripe for a little good-natured J-School revenge, recalling that Mizzou’s coaching job had become open, following the 1966-67 season, not long after I had scrutinized the failures of Bob Vanatta in a column for our student newspaper, The Maneater.

Vanatta’s team had lost 43 of 49 games the previous two seasons. Might I, a smart-aleck sophomore possibly abusing the power of the pen, have hastened Vanatta’s departure—and therefore Stewart’s shot at the job that came to shape his legacy? (He stayed for 32 seasons, won 634 games and eight conference titles and appeared in 22 post-season tournaments. He also survived colon cancer and founded the Coaches vs. Cancer organization that has raised more than $87 million since 1993. All of that is in the “Norm” documentary.)

I don’t recall Stewart’s reaction, although the hurling of rotten tomatoes would not have been out of line. I fully suspect he grasped the jest factor.

And here’s the irony:

In the spring of 1969, months short of graduation, I had arranged to interview Stewart about his landing of prize 6-foot-7 recruit John Brown, the future second-team All-American and eight-year NBA veteran. Stewart was in the hospital receiving treatment for a bad back, but invited me to his bedside to detail the lengthy process of romancing Brown and keeping him away from the likes of despised Kansas U.

That drawn-out struggle, the neighborhood rivalry, the name of the lad whose physical presence was being fought over, put me in mind of Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic 1928 poem, “John Brown’s Body,” about the radical abolitionist in Civil War days.

(John Brown's body in motion)

(John Brown’s body in motion)

It was a cheesy premise for a column, but a visit to the university library unearthed lines in the poem that spoke to Mizzou’s basketball situation, of gaining a real edge on the bitter adversary across the state line only two years into Stewart’s tenure:

    The papers praise, but the recruiting is slow,

    The bonds sell badly, the grind of the war goes on—

And:

    Go down, John Brown,

    Go down, John Brown,

    Go down, John Brown, and set that people free!

And:

    Kansas, bleeding Kansas,

    I hear her in her pain.

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The vice president of the United Press International wire service happened to be in town for Mizzou’s annual Journalism Week and saw the John Brown column. He offered me a position in UPI’s sports department in New York City.

So it was Stewart who generated the opportunity to get me a job.

P.S. In 2008, when Missouri’s J-School celebrated its Centennial with three days of forums and exhibits, Stewart was in the audience for a panel discussion on the ethics and future of sports journalism. It was good to see him. The war was over a long time ago.

 

 

Mizzou: Bursting the bubble on race-relations naivete

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At Mizzou’s 1968 post-season football banquet, a virtually anonymous black linebacker named Ed Taylor—a member of the scout team who never got into a game—was briefly the center of attention. He sang songs, teased several teammates and delivered a personal judgement on the state of civil rights in the school’s athletic department.

This was amid an especially tense time in the national struggle for federal protection against institutional segregation, on an overwhelmingly white campus in what had been a slave state. That season, some white students still were waving Confederate flags while the marching band played “Dixie” during games, resulting in a protest that formed the Legion of Black Collegians to afford students of color a campus voice.

Taylor, during that 1968 football soiree, said, “There isn’t a problem here.” He called head coach Dan Devine “a genius in things like hiring Prentice Gautt” to be the first black football assistant in the Big Eight Conference.

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I was a senior in Journalism School, football beat reporter for J-School’s Columbia Missourian. Taylor’s brief public remarks, and his thoughtful answers in a later interview, made a nice story. I barely knew the fellow, just as I barely knew Gautt, though he lived in my off-campus apartment complex and we always exchanged pleasantries as we came and went.

Taylor was a biology major who wanted to be a teacher “because I want to do something about the Negro problem,” he said. “I want to get through to as many people as I can before their parents ruin them.”

Gautt, after breaking the color barrier on the University of Oklahoma’s football team and playing seven years in the NFL, in ’68 was studying for his doctorate in psychology, even as he worked on the football staff.

At the time, might Mizzou’s football team, far more diverse than the rest of the university, have existed in a protective bubble against the kind of racial tension that Taylor said he experienced at his Cahokia, ill., high school? Might white students such as myself have been functioning in a bubble of naivete, mostly oblivious to how marginalized the minority students felt?

I recall going with friends to catch a Dick Gregory appearance on campus, expecting a first-rate comedian’s act and instead getting a taste of Gregory’s other vocation—civil-rights activism. Some fairly heavy things to think about.

I was aware of Journalism School colleague Sylvia Carter’s expose, published in our independent student newspaper, The Maneater, of racism in the Columbia community. She had showed up at city real estate agencies about rental inquiries with a black friend, to whom she pretended to be engaged, whereupon she was informed, posthaste, that there no longer were any vacancies. Anywhere.

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But now, it somehow is more depressing to be confronted almost a half-century later with news of ongoing racial incidents at Mizzou; of tone-deaf university leadership; of how it took a boycott threat by the football team—its leverage based on the kind of money the school stood to lose without more games—to generate the kind of attention that forced administrative action.

As a graduate of the Journalism School that proclaims itself the world’s oldest and consistently is rated among the best in the country, I find it almost as dispiriting to learn of a communications professor who called for “some muscle” to eject journalists covering last week’s public protests. Students taking up a chant of “Hey, hey, ho, ho! Journalists have got to go!” just needed an education regarding free speech and the First Amendment. But the last person who should require a journalism lesson was someone supposedly providing such an education: Melissa Click, described as holding a “courtesy appointment” in J-School, which is separate from the communications department.

In marked contrast to Click, there has been some real journalism going on at Mizzou for months, long before the football team’s involvement triggered national coverage. Both the student-staffed Missourian and all-student Maneater have been well ahead of the curve in chronicling complaints about the university’s top management that went beyond racial issues and included significant disgruntlement among the faculty.

Click since has apologized and resigned the J-School appointment. And the Missouri Board of Curators, in the wake of resignations-under-pressure of both the university’s four-campus president and the chancellor of Mizzou’s flagship Columbia campus, has appointed as interim president a black man, Michael Middleton, former law professor, civil rights attorney and deputy chancellor of the school. At least that move sounds like a far better Missouri Compromise than the original.

It turns out that Middleton was an undergraduate at Mizzou when I was. Too bad I didn’t know him. I might have learned some things sooner.