Monday, December 18, 2006

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Silver bells. Twinkling lights. Children singing. There’s a feeling in the air. It’s Braggin’ Rights time.

With the Missouri and Illinois hoops teams set for their annual meeting in St. Louis on Tuesday, I’m in a reflective mood. It’s time to relive the history of the Braggin’ Rights series, or at least one side of it, remembering Mizzou’s greatest moments while completely ignoring the Illini’s. Who’s with me?

Pre-history of the rivalry

Before the Tigers and Illini ever played a game, they shared a coach. Craig Ruby, a Kansas City native who twice earned All-America honors as a player for the Tigers, coached Missouri to a cumulative record of 33-2 in the 1920-21 and 1921-22 seasons. Then, just two years into his coaching career, Ruby left for the University of Illinois, where he guided the basketball program for fourteen years, a span that included the first two meetings between the schools, both won by the Illini. (As detailed in True Sons, Ruby also had a hand in the rise of Kentucky basketball. John Mauer, one of Ruby’s earliest players at Illinois, went on to become the first successful coach in Lexington, where he installed the system that Ruby had learned from coach Walter Meanwell at Missouri. When Mauer left UK, he was replaced by a young high school coach named Adolph Rupp, who got the job largely on Ruby’s recommendation. Rather than employ the system he had learned as a player at the University of Kansas, Rupp adopted Ruby’s system, and the rest, as they say, is history).

Missouri and Illinois played only a few times before the 1970s, but their meeting in 1946 provided one of the greatest upsets in the Tigers’ history. Sparky Stalcup had just begun his long career as Mizzou’s coach in December 1946 when the Tigers traveled to Kansas City for the first-ever Big Six basketball tournament (trivia time: Southern Methodist, which along with Arkansas had been invited to round out the eight-team field, won the event, despite not being a member of the conference). After winning just one of three games in the tourney, Missouri stayed in Kansas City to face a formidable, storied Illinois team. In the 1942-43 season, the Illini had the nation’s best team, a group led by All-American Andy Phillip and known as the Whiz Kids. Toward the end of the year, though, a higher calling beckoned, and all five starters were pressed into military duty at the height of the Second World War With war over, Phillip and three of the remaining starters returned to school, where they were joined in the lineup by Walt Kirk, who himself had earned All-America honors in 1945. Undefeated and favored by as many as twenty-four points, the Illini appeared invincible when they rolled into Municipal Auditorium.

But war’s end had also brought good news to the Tigers, as Dan Pippin and Thornton Jenkins – two of the best players of their day – returned to campus and teamed up for the first time. And while each of them would give fine efforts against Illinois, the heroes were Darrel Lorrance, a transfer from Kentucky who scored 18 points, and center John Rudolph who hit the crucial shot late in a 55-50 Mizzou triumph that inspired many of the 4,500 fans on hand to spill onto the floor to celebrate the Tigers’ victory.

Long before he ever coached a game, Norm Stewart made his mark on the rivalry in another tremendous upset. With stars Bob Reiter and Med Park having graduated, Stewart, then a senior, led the Tigers to a 2-1 mark early in the 1955-56 season. Illinois came to Columbia ranked eighth nationally, and built a fifteen-point lead against the Tigers. But Stewart led a remarkable comeback, scoring 27 points in the second half as Mizzou prevailed 74-73. The teams would not meet again for two decades.

Braggin’ Rights

The seeds for what has come to be known as the Braggin’ Rights game were sown on December 3, 1976, when the Tigers and Illini met for the first time in twenty-one years. Missouri won 76-75 in Columbia, and the teams played an annual home-and-home series through 1979. Tiger Larry Drew starred in the final game to be played on-campus, scoring 25 points as Mizzou beat Illinois 67-66 in overtime in Champaign.

The game moved to St. Louis for good in December 1980, and has been played there annually ever since, save for a one-year break in 1982. Illinois took the first meeting at the old St. Louis Arena, but the Tigers got revenge the next year with a 78-68 overtime victory as Ricky Frazier scored 28 points.

Let’s, ahem, pretend the next several years never happened. In 1991, Jevon Crudup, Anthony Peeler, Melvin Booker and Jeff Warren each scored in double figures as the surprising 16th-ranked Tigers moved their record to 8-0 with a 61-44 triumph over the Illini. Mizzou made it two straight the next season, as Melvin Booker recorded 16 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists in a 66-65 victory.

Missouri’s third consecutive win in the series is a story unto itself and the best basketball game I’ve ever seen. The Tigers’ epic, heroic (even lucky) 108-107 three-overtime triumph set the stage for one of the greatest seasons in Mizzou history, and marked the indisputable high point of the rivalry series. And Melvin Booker, with 21 points and 13 assists, solidified his spot as the top Tiger player in Braggin’ Rights lore.

Missouri won its fourth straight against the Illini (the Tigers’ longest winning streak in the series) in 1994, a 76-58 win paced by Paul O’Liney (19 points), Derek Grimm (18) and Julian Winfield (15). Then, after losses the next two seasons, the Tigers resumed their winning ways in 1997. New Tiger Albert White posted 16 points and 11 rebounds, and Norm Stewart got his 700th career coaching victory in a 75-69 win. John Woods led MU with 15 points in a 67-62 victory in 1998, and then Clarence Gilbert, a sophomore guard theretofore known primarily for his defense, made a statement in the 1999 contest. Though they trailed by fourteen points in the first half, the Tigers clawed back into the game, and Gilbert scored twelve straight points for Mizzou in the second half to carry the Tigers to a 78-72 triumph. With 24 points on 8-of-11 shooting (five of seven from the arc), Gilbert gave the first of many memorable performances in a Tiger uniform.

The game has been less memorable for Missouri fans in subsequent years (really, have they played it since 1999?), but Braggin’ Rights remains one of the great non-conference match-ups in college basketball. Now, Mike Anderson gets to make his mark on the rivalry. The last (and only) Mizzou coach to lose his first game against Illinois was George Edwards in 1932. Here’s hoping that Coach Edwards keeps that distinction to himself.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

My Chat with Chris Gervino

Recently, Chris Gervino was kind enough to have me on the KOMU Sunday Night Sports Show to talk about True Sons. You can watch the segment by clicking here. Chris and the crew added some classic Mizzou hoops footage that I think you'll enjoy.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

On TV in Springfield on Monday

Finally a chance to venture into southwest Missouri. I'll be on the KY3 morning show on Monday (December 11) some time in the 6:00 hour to talk about the history of Tiger hoops.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Glamorous Life

Sorry for the recent inactivity, but the past ten days have been a whirlwind of book promotion, with TV and radio appearances across the state, and a long, unintentional layover in Columbia thanks to the mother of all snowstorms.

The big promotional push is winding down, but there are a few stops left. I’ll be on The Spot on channel 38 in Kansas City on Thursday evening at 7:00, and I should show up on Chris Gervino’s Sunday night sports show on KOMU in Columbia this weekend. It also looks like I’ll be on KY3’s morning show in Springfield some day next week. I’ll post more info when I know it.

And I’ll share more thoughts on this when time allows, but doesn’t this basketball team make you proud? Their intensity, selflessness and sense of purpose are a joy to watch. As long as they continue to play like this, I’ll be happy regardless of results (but make no mistake, I’ll be even happier if they win). Obviously, we’ll need the perspective of more time to make any real judgments, but a mere four weeks into the season, it seems like the hiring of Mike Anderson was the best thing to happen to Mizzou athletics in ages.