Mizzou vs. Southeast Missouri State
The non-conference “creampuff” portion of our schedule started on September 6th, when the Redhawks of Southeast Missouri State (SEMO) traveled to Columbia for the Tigers’ home opener. The Tigers were favored by so much there wasn’t even a betting line in the morning paper.
This had all the earmarks of a cakewalk, and a quick perusal of the day’s schedule revealed that most of the big-time football schools were following suit. The media love to rip major conference teams that pad their won-lost record by scheduling overmatched opponents, and yet they never come down on the program that willingly signs up to take a beating. Division I-AA athletic directors should be required to deliver pre-massacre pep talks:
“Men, we’re sending you out there today for the express purpose of being humiliated in front of 60,000 rabid fans—with many more at home rooting for your complete annihilation on TV. This isn’t due to the fact we don’t care, but rather because our esteemed competition is paying us a few hundred large to run roughshod over you, our valued student-athletes. We need that money so I can install a lobster tank in my office. But you’ll benefit from this unmerciful beating, too. We intend to spend up to $500 to purchase a used blocking sled on eBay so that we don’t have to strap together townies anymore. Now get out there and try not to rupture anything vital—that would make me look like a mercenary asshole. And for the love of Christ, don’t put up too much of a fight—we need to schedule more games like this.Of course, this was Mizzou playing the cupcake. The Tigers have a history of losing to lightly-regarded non-conference teams. Bowling Green in 1995. Troy in 2004. Denver Athletic Club in 1893. Tiger fans know that while there indeed is no “I” in “team,” there sure as hell is a “me.” If playing a college with two directions in its name will ease the Tigers into the Big XII schedule with a 4-0 record, we’ll do it. Cynical? The University of Missouri houses the oldest and most decorated journalism program in the country. Yes, cynical.
The game was available only on pay-per-view. It would feel pathetic to sit at home and pay $29.95 to see SEMO (conversely, it doesn’t seem pathetic to sit at home and pay $10.99 to watch porn). Luckily, the Mizzou Alumni Club of Chicago sent out an email announcing a viewing party at a bar called “The Spread.” So rather than spend $29.95 on the game, I decided to spend $150 on beer and a bar buffet.
The Spread is located in the section of the city known as Lincoln Park. There are lots of Starbucks, Pinkberries and Einstein bagel franchises in Lincoln Park, so hipsters tend to look down their pierced noses at it. The block that houses the Spread is relatively eclectic, though. The Biograph Theatre, where J. Edgar Hoover once donned a red dress and gunned down John Dillinger, sits right across the street. On the other hand, with a name like “The Spread,” the odds were high it’d feature appetizers with cutsie sports monikers like “two-minute warmings.”
The game didn’t start until 6 p.m. But after watching ESPN analyst Lee Corso stick his gigantic squash into a Gator mascot head that morning, I was ready to watch some gridiron action. So I made a pre-game trip to my friend David R.’s man cave.
A few years ago nobody had heard of a man cave. Now, it’s the only thing keeping the housing market from imploding. The man cave phenomena can be explained thusly: since many wives only give their husbands one room in the house, some man-genius decided that room should be the basement, since that’s where husbands are hiding, anyway. Our fathers didn’t need man caves, of course—they had workshops. But since most men today know that Home Depot is full of shit about doing things ourselves and we’ll just chop a finger off if we try, we have no need for one.
David R.’s man cave decorating theme is early Georgia Bulldog. On any given Saturday he’ll be holed up down there, drinking Miller Lite, flying his university flag, and casting fleeting, homoerotic glances at his Hershel Walker Sports Illustrated covers. When I arrived, he was watching the Dawgs manhandle the Central Michigan Chippewas and their intimidating “streaking C” helmets.
At a slow moment in the first half, the camera crew cut to Georgia’s new bulldog mascot, Uga VII. The previous Uga—Uga VI—died of congestive heart failure on June 27th. Bulldog Nation sat shiva, eating nothing but Popeye’s fried chicken and kosher grits, until the home opener. David R. assured me that the ceremony that day was respectful and, dare he say, moving. A man of the cloth extolled Uga VI’s accomplishments, which included two Sugar Bowl victories, two SEC championships, and the successful romancing of a University of Mississippi cheerleader’s leg. Uga VI is now interred by the entrance to the stadium, stacked vertically with Ugas I through V like above-ground coffins in a New Orleans graveyard.
After a brief second-half sortie from the man cave to a Georgia Bulldog bar (we departed through the secret man cave exit), David R. and his 3-year-old Russ drove with me to The Spread. Russ’ complete disinterest in potty training fairly guaranteed that if game got exciting and one of his grown up cohorts couldn’t make it to a urinal, we could blame the floor puddle on him.
We walked into bedlam, crossing the entrance to The Spread about 30 seconds before kickoff. I’ve attended alumni watch parties where the crowd consisted of me and two guys wearing Beetle Bailey shirts (Mort Walker, class of ’48). Now, with the team in the top ten, we stood shoulder-to-shoulder with hot, bandwagon-hopping women sporting the latest in Tiger fashion. The bartenders wore Missouri gear, too, and mini-pennants hung from bar mirrors. This wasn’t one of those bars that cordoned off a section for different schools—every TV had the SEMO game on. My friend Kitty (retired stripper, kept the name) texted me from 15 feet away asking where the hell I was. Her first words over the din were, “this is scary.” She meant “torch-carrying mob” scary, but I assured her that this was a happy mob, and if anybody got crushed to death we’d all laugh about it later.
Somehow we caught a break and found stools at the bar, David R.’s red Georgia t-shirt swallowed up by a gigantic, pulsating black and gold amoeba. I was wrong about The Spread. Other than the flat screen TVs, it looked like a classic public house. Tin ceilings, check. Ornate wood back bar, check. Bottles of alcohol, check.
The scrappy Redhawks battled Mizzou to a draw all the way until the Tigers’ first possession. Then Chase Daniel and the offense scored five times in a row, with the defense tossing in a pick-six for good measure. The crowd lapped it up, but not in a mean-spirited, kill the opposition way. No, this was the satisfaction of seeing exactly what you anticipated you’d see, like attending a James Bond movie. We were watching one of the best spread offenses in the country operating at near perfection. Nine different receivers caught the ball, yet the running game kept the linebackers from helping out with the coverage. The experience was not unlike lifting the hood of a BMW M3 and gawking at the revving S65 engine—you may not understand it, but you can’t help but feel a rush in your nether regions.
With the score 42-0 at halftime, the SEMO coach jogged off the field and was intercepted by an on-field reporter. The bar’s sound system blaringly cut in exactly as the reporter delivered his question, making the on-air query sound like, “WE’RE AT THE END OF THE FIRST HALF, AND MISSOURI IS KICKING ASS! HOW’S THAT FEEL?” just as he stuck a microphone in the coach’s face. The Spread erupted with laughter, the effect far funnier than lining up the audio of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon with the video from Wizard of Oz (except if you’re really high, in which case it would be equally funny. I’m told.) The important bar announcement (something about eating or drinking, I think) segued into Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” Enjoy it while you can, the Boss warned the Tiger faithful, because in the blink of a young girl’s eyes you may be losing to MAC schools again.
In the second half, the Tiger second and third string got into the game. Freshman quarterback of the future™ Blain Gabbert got his redshirt yanked and ran the offense like, well, a freshman quarterback. Chase Daniel traded his helmet for a baseball cap and headset and swapped recipes with Bob Christiansen, the offensive coordinator up in the press box. A camera caught one of the other assistant coaches filling out a Jumble. I kept drinking Bud Lights and accepting slaps on the back and high fives in acknowledgment of the score—and the fact that I was wearing a Shakespeare’s pizza t-shirt, which made me somewhat of a campus insider.
After 3 quarters, the scoreboard read 45-0. Hard to tell if you’re beating the spread when there is none. A call came in from some other bar-hopping friends to meet them. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so I took one last look around and pulled a Houdini, pushing through the euphoria and taking a little of it out with me.
The rest of the season won’t be like this. We’ll have tough games in Nebraska, Texas and some other surprises besides those. But today was ours. And even if this was more a scrimmage than anything else, the Tigers performed like rock stars.