Memories of Mizzou

There’s not much about the 1890 version of football that today’s players would recognize and no doubt they’re glad that leather helmets and moleskin uniform pants are passé. But one thing hasn’t changed. Since it began, Mizzou’s football program has assembled a fiercely competitive group of young men who would gladly give their all for the Black and Gold.

Come with us as we take you on a journey from the team’s first game in 1890 to that famous first Homecoming in 1911 and on through to the present … with an unexpected detour through Mexico.

Black And Gold’s Humble Beginnings

How Missouri Carved Out Its First And Lasting Reputation

The bookend decade that ushered out the 19th century brought the dawn of pivotal changes in American life. The Gay Nineties would also bear the beginnings of the University of Missouri’s football tradition.

On Oct. 10, 1890, a group of 11 Missouri students (whose college was then known as Missouri State University) met with A.L. McRae to discuss the feasibility of organizing a football team and athletic association. America’s larger universities were increasingly expressing interest in playing the sport fused from soccer and rugby, a game built upon a shoddy rulebook and adhered to by grossly zealous, inexperienced players.

Three days later, Missouri’s first football team had a varsity roster and a scrub team to harness the first string’s skills in practice. Students in the School of Engineering organized a third team, and after the varsity team beat the engineering team once and the scrub team twice, the varsity team was ready for off-campus competition. They sought to play against Washington University in St. Louis on Thanksgiving Day.

The St. Louis Republic began coverage of the game with this:

“Wash-ing-ton-U-ni-ver-sity! ‘Rah! ‘Rah! ‘Rah!” The conditions for the contest were perfect. The weather was delightful, just cool enough to drive the blood pulsing through the body and bring a ruddy glow to the cheeks. The grounds were in splendid shape, lined and laid off so that all the points of the game could be readily observed by the spectators. Fully 3,000 persons, many of whom were ladies, witnessed the triumph of the home team.”

Missouri lost the game to Washington, 28-0, at Sportsman’s Park. Back in those early days, the scoring system was a bit different than modern football: a touchdown was worth 4 points; a goal following touchdown, 2; a safety, 2; and a drop-kick goal from the field 5.

“Both teams showed lack of practice, and the Missouri men were weak at fullback,” noted the Republic’s reporter. “Thompson misjudged and fumbled nearly every ball and the local team scored three touchdowns on his errors.” The correspondent attributed Missouri’s weaknesses more than to just a lack of practice. He found blithering errors in passing the ball, a remarkable absence in “putting or running” by halfbacks and fullbacks. Teamwork fell into nonexistence. There were, however, “two splendid sprinters in Bogie and Kane.” (M.M. Bogie served as right halfback and D.W. Kane as quarterback for Missouri.) Even then, however, Missouri wasn’t without its fans who made themselves especially known after Bogie made a punt that drove the ball excitingly close to the Washington goal when the game was still scoreless. “Then the Columbia delegation cheered wildly, and the college yell, ‘M-i-s-s-o-u-r-i Ah!‘ downed all other vocal pyrotechnics.” The cheer, oddly enough, turned into this: “Later the ‘s-o-u’ was converted to ‘s-o-u-p.‘ ” All this right before Washington University’s C.O. Collins scored the game’s first touchdown. C.S. Reber missed the kick, and the score was 4-0, Washington.

Following a 10-minute intermission, Missouri’s B.M. Thompson misjudged a long punt and F. Harvey, Washington University’s right end, “running like a deer” secured the ball and scored a touchdown, putting the score at 10-0. “The visitors appeared to go to pieces after this and 15 minutes later the local men by the V trick scored another touchdown, and Reber kicked a goal,” the Republic reporter wrote.

Washington University and Missouri played into the sunset, and with “a splendid run,” Reber scored the final touchdown, giving Washington a 28-point shutout. In a letter he wrote nearly 20 years after the game, Thompson recalled, “At all events, we adopted their methods as quickly as possible, and had we not done so the score of 28 to 0 might as well have been 150 to 0 in their favor.”

The Republic reporter noted Missouri’s sore legs, shoulders and sprained wrists but said nothing of humbled egos. This after all, was only the beginning. The game netted $100 in ticket sales for Missouri, which directly cushioned the athletic association’s otherwise empty treasury.

By Dec. 15, 1890, the athletic association consisted of 70 members with A.L. McRae as president, May Mansfield as vice president, Curtis Hill (the team’s quarterback) as secretary and D.W. Kane (the second-string quarterback) as treasurer.

Richard Henry Jesse, who would become president of the university in 1891, spearheaded the effort to collect subscription funds to support the athletic association. He made his first donation to the association in the amount of $10. Once Academic Hall was completed in 1895, men would practice in the basement and women on the second floor of the building. Money for equipment came from the Missouri General Assembly once legislators agreed in 1895 that physical training was paramount to overall well-being. Missouri, however, still needed an athletic field and Columbia’s Rollins brothers were eager to help.

Three sons of university founder James S. Rollins — George Bingham, Curtis Burnham and Edgar Tutt — paid for the filling, grading and construction of the cinder tracks, which were laid on the uneven 1-acre field on the north portion of the campus on Rollins Street. Twelve pipes running north and south were placed under the ground for drainage. The tracks were made up of 2½ feet of broken stone at the base with a gravel filling and macadam to top it off. The Rollins brothers built two bleachers themselves, one set held 250 fans and the other 600. Far in the northwest corner of the field was a cottage for changing in and out of uniform.

The athletic association, made up of university faculty, Columbia citizens, students and alumni, hired coaches at their leisure and students arranged for games to be played against local teams. If ticket sales didn’t meet expenses, the association would fall ridiculously into debt, and so the association quickly strived to develop winning teams in football and baseball by recruiting high school players. The effort to remain debt-free would also incite the first search for the best equipment available, but the university had no oversight over the athletic association and teams did what they wanted on whims, accruing thousands of dollars of debt. In an address by Jesse to the National Education Association, he wrote, “complaints would often come from hotels and railroads of disorderly conduct and a tendency to take ‘souvenirs.‘

In 1900, Jesse hired professor Clark Wilson Hetherington to direct physical training at Missouri. “We tried to get a man,” Jesse wrote, “who had not only some knowledge of athletics in all its forms but who had the character, intellect and education of a gentleman and scholar. An athlete without a university education or without the highest ethical standards should not be considered for a moment in a university.”

Hetherington carried two titles: “Director of Physical Training” and “Director of Gymnasia and Athletics.” With Jesse’s and the university’s support, Hetherington vastly reformed the athletic association, and his doing so caused some of the game’s fans to retreat in disagreement. He abolished what was called the “Training Table,” and without it, the football team could no longer eat food without paying for it. As part of the athletic program’s reform, the university adopted a rule in which freshman were not permitted to play football until they completed one year of academic work at the university. Hetherington carried all power to hire or dismiss coaches, which eliminated the hiring of coaches by students and alumni. At last, the athletic association could no longer incur debts without the university’s permission. Hetherington’s practices immediately resulted in positive reform. In 1905, the football team collected $8,000 in ticket sales, $3,000 more than in 1900. (The 1900 Missouri-Kansas game alone took in $3,500). More significantly, the nation was noticing Missouri’s efficiency.

In a 1902 article, “The Progress in Sports,” Arthur H. Gleason exclaimed, “The University of Missouri has the most perfect control of athletics of any college in America … and believing that gentlemanly and sportsmanlike conduct is more to be desired than winning at any cost, the University has taken the entire management of athletics out of the hands of the students, has abandoned the all-powerful coach, who had no responsibility to faculty, and has centralized all authority in a professor of physical culture … physical culture is thus put on an educational basis, and is raised to the dignity of any other department of instruction.”

Not even a full decade into the 20th century, Missouri was already known for its football program, as it so readily encompassed dignity and integrity. These very cornerstones would see the program through a stream of successes for generations to come.

Sources: a 1912 letter from Burton Thompson to Curtis Hill; an 1890 article in The Saint Louis Republic; and the chapter on “Physical Culture” by Henry O. Severance in the book, Richard Henry Jesse President of the University of Missouri 1891–1908, courtesy of University Archives, University of Missouri at Columbia.