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Commentary: You can't take the 'ugh' out of ugly

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 12, 2012 - At the conclusion of play in Major League Baseball last Sunday, the Chicago Cubs had recorded 54 wins against 86 losses for the 2012 campaign. That .386 winning percentage left the club 29½ games out of first place with 22 games remaining — a statistic that lends credence to the theory that the team’s name is actually an acronym for “Completely Useless By September.”

Because I am a lifelong Cardinals fan and the Cubs are the traditional rivals of that vastly superior franchise, you might expect me to gloat. After all, the Redbirds are the defending world champions (again) and the team’s record at the same juncture was 75 – 65. Though that respectable .536 winning percentage is good only for second place — 8½ games back — the Cards are very much in the hunt for a wild-card berth for this year’s playoffs. Meanwhile, Chicago’s north-siders wrap up their 104th consecutive season without a World Series crown.

But you’ll hear no bombast from these quarters. That’s because I live in St. Louis, which is a city located in Missouri — or Missourah, depending on your world view. College football fans in these parts tend to rely on the exploits of the legendary Tigers of Ol’ Mizzou for their autumnal gridiron fix. Forgive me, Father, but I fit the profile and thus have far too much in common with long-suffering Cubs fans to enjoy their miseries.

This was to be a signature year for the university’s football program. After more than a century of play in the Big 12 and the earlier conferences from which it evolved, Mizzou would join the Big Time by moving to the Southeastern Conference. Apparently, the reason the Tigers were chronically incapable of winning a Big 12 title was because the competition was too weak. The transfer to the SEC would provide the needed shot in the arm to propel our gridders into the ranks of the nation’s elite.

Old rivalries and decades of tradition were subsequently discarded like so much baggage from a bad marriage while the bright future with our new trophy bride was hyped mercilessly. The campus and environs in Columbia were festooned with SEC logos, flags and paraphernalia while the Tiger faithful welcomed its brave, new world with open arms and fervent hope. The team even announced plans to redesign its venerable uniforms to celebrate the coronation.

As a cranky old fart and a grizzled veteran of prior reclamation projects, I was skeptical from the outset. And what, for crying out loud, was wrong with the school’s classy, understated uniforms?

Even in the worst of years, fans could take solace in the university’s solid academic reputation and the classic simplicity of its helmet logo. Now, the school was joining a conference where Heisman contenders outrank Nobel laureates and was apparently intent on doing so dressed as video-game action figures.

The season opened with a non-conference contest against Southeast Louisiana State. In the trade, this is known as a warm-up game against an “organ donor” — a small school willing to take a big beating in exchange for a substantial payday. Sure enough, Mizzou squeaked by, 62-10.

I tuned in mainly to see the new uniforms. Not too bad — a variant on the original, though the traditional “M” on the side of the jet black helmet had been replaced with a picture of a tiger. Perhaps the letter was a bit too literary for today’s electronic generation, I reasoned. Maybe the English Department could begin translating Shakespeare into hieroglyphics to accommodate the sensibilities of the modern student….

But the big game came last Saturday when Georgia Bulldogs traveled to Columbia to welcome our boys into the SEC. The Dogs, ranked 7th in the nation, entered the game with national title aspirations. The unranked Tigers reminded me of the last girls asked to the prom — they were just glad to be there.

Nonetheless, pre-game hype had a sold out crowd rocking the confines of Faurot Field when team took the field in their for-real new uniforms. The traditional black & gold had morphed into flat charcoal & baby-poop yellow. The stripes were missing from the helmet’s center and last week’s relatively modest tiger logo was replaced by much larger yellow tiger heads that adorned both sides of the dark grey head dress. The crowd went wild, apparently believing that a new paint job could mask old mechanical deficiencies.

And for a while, it seemed like it might. Though the play featured its fair share of technical mishaps in the form of bad snaps, fumbles and interceptions, it was undeniably hard-fought and competitive for three quarters. Unfortunately, the refs insisted on playing the final period.

Down 24-20 and facing 4th & 11 with more than 11 minutes to go, Coach Gary Pinkel — now in the twelfth year of his rebuilding program — mysteriously decided to run a fake punt from his own 35 yard line. This daring ploy surprised everybody but fooled no one, after which the wheels came off. By the time the final gun sounded in the largely deserted stadium, the scoreboard bore silent witness to the ugly truth:

Visitors 41 Mizzou 20. New conference + new uniforms + same program = usual results.

Next up, Arizona State (which pounded Illinois last week) visits Columbia, followed by road trips to 8th-ranked South Carolina and Central Florida. After that, a home match against Vanderbilt before #1-ranked Alabama comes to town. As we say at Wrigley Field, wait till next year.