Dark era over at Mizzou

By Jason Whitlock
Updated: April 1, 2009

KANSAS CITY — Mizzou fans, quit looking over your shoulders and expecting the worst. It’s over. The dark era, when everything that could go wrong would go wrong within the Missouri athletic program, is something for the history books now, a period to be studied and analyzed by sports scientists and historians.

The era ended Tuesday night when athletic director Mike Alden smooth-talked basketball coach Mike Anderson into signing a below-market-value extension to remain at Mizzou.

Tiger fans just knew Anderson would take Georgia’s $2-million offer and bolt, leaving behind 40 Minutes of Mel (Watkins) to replace the 40 Minutes of Hell that carried the Tigers to the Elite Eight and a whisker away from the school’s first-ever Final Four.

My good friend Scott Cruce, a diehard Mizzou fan, called me Tuesday morning sounding like a man sentenced to walk the green mile. He assumed the payoff for six straight postseason victories would be watching the coach responsible make a lateral move for more money. Cruce, like most sports fans, never anticipated that Anderson could fall in love with Mizzou, show the school loyalty and leave money on the table.

That rarely happens anywhere, let alone at Mizzou.

Well, it did. And now we can officially say the “Black and Fool’s Gold Era” is dead, killed by a coach Mizzou fans barely know and an athletic director who has done an amazing job of rehabilitating his own image.

For the purpose of this column, we’ll define the “Black and Fool’s Gold Era” as stretching from Woody Widenhofer’s mid-1980s arrival/Tony Van Zant’s knee injury to Stefhon Hannah’s broken jaw during the Athena Nightclub melee in January of 2008.

Of course you remember Widenhofer’s arrival. The architect of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Steel Curtain Defense was supposed to be the next Dan Devine. Widenhofer landed Van Zant, the best high school running back since Herschel Walker. Van Zant promptly blew out his knee, and Widenhofer ushered in a 15-year bowl drought for the Tigers.

Well, you know what happened from there. Norm Stewart’s basketball teams bowed out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round to double-digit seeds in 1987, ’88 and ’90.

The refs let No. 1-ranked Colorado run a play on fifth down to beat the Tigers. Stewart’s program got hit with probation Doug Smith’s senior year. Tyus Edney drove the length of the court in 1995. Nebraska kicked a game-winning touchdown pass in 1997.

Larry Smith’s wife verbally undressed the Tigers during an unforgettable 66-0 loss to Kansas State in 1999. Ricky Clemons made peanut butter and crackers shake with his jailhouse chats in 2003.

Gary Pinkel took a dump on his contract extension, blowing double-digit leads to Troy, KSU and Oklahoma State in 2004. Gary Link fired Quin Snyder in 2006, and Jon Sundvold and other alums threw a tantrum when Alden hired Mike Anderson rather than Bob Huggins.

Oh, it’s been quite an ugly quarter of a century for Missouri football and basketball.

“Black and Fool’s Gold” ought to be a movie. It would be a hellacious comedy. A movie could get into all the stuff that’s not appropriate for a family newspaper. Let’s just say the actor picked to play Tony Harvey would have a very good chance at winning an Oscar for best supporting actor.

And Samuel L. Jackson could play Mike Anderson because he walked into a situation in which he had snakes on his plane, in his office and seated courtside and he still won a school-record 31 games.

All right, I’m done dwelling on the past. It’s over.

There’s no reason for Tiger fans to fear elevated expectations anymore or expect a booby-trap beneath every can’t-miss opportunity. With Anderson committed to the basketball program and Pinkel entrenched as Mizzou’s football coach, Tiger fans should embrace high expectations. They should fantasize about Big 12 crowns, Final Four-caliber and BCS-bowl-caliber teams. Mike Alden has put the pieces in place for sustained success.

Mizzou has good coaches who want to build dominant programs right where they are. It’s unlikely, but it’s conceivable that Pinkel and Anderson could retire at Mizzou and leave lasting legacies.