By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
Considering Missouri Southern won a total of 10 football games in its first three years as a four-year school, expectations outside the program weren’t overly high as the 1972 season approached.
But the Lions had something to prove.
“I think we had a chip on our shoulder,” head coach Jim Frazier said. “The lack of respect that was given to them as players and to the program, I think we kind of fed off that.
“It was a work in progress. It wasn’t there the first day. We had our ups and downs during the course of the season and survived it. We had exceptional senior leadership. It was a changing of the guard, a change of philosophy, a change of culture, and the seniors bought into it. We were a good football team at the end of the season. We gained confidence and trust. They learned to win.”
In fact, the Lions matched their three-year victory total during the regular season and were ranked No.1 in the country. They were selected for the NAIA Division II playoffs and defeated Doane (Neb.) 24-6 in the semifinal game and Northwestern (Iowa) 21-14 in the championship game, touching off two celebrations at Junge Field.
“The old cliche, we took one game at a time,” said tight end Dave Evans. “It just ended up being magical at the end, but I don’t think there was ever a time that I said we’re going to go undefeated and win a national championship. We went one game at a time, and all of a sudden we were at 10, 11 and we got lucky at the end and won the last one.”
“Of course everybody talks about Las Vegas (7-0 victory at UNLV in Game 5),” quarterback Ray Harding said. “But even beyond that, as it got closer and closer to the end of the season with the undefeated record, you keep thinking a little bit more ... maybe we can, maybe we can. I’d never been around anything like that prior to that.”
The Lions trailed 14-7 after three quarters in the title game, but Harding’s 58-yard pass to Kerry Anders on the first play after a Larry Cameron fumble recovery pulled the Lions within a point after the 2-point conversion failed.
The defense forced a punt from the 19, and a high snap was mishandled and recovered by the Lions’ Sam Kealoha in the end zone with 1:28 remaining. Terry Starks added the conversion run.
The Lions’ first TD came in the third quarter when Roger Hall blocked a punt and Randy Hocker fell on the ball in the end zone.
“We trailed most of the game,” defensive end Jack Varns said. “One thing that I do remember is there was never, ever any concern in the huddle. We never had any doubt in our mind that we were going to win that ball game. It took some big plays to pull it out, but I just felt confident. I think the whole defense did. We knew we were going to win that game.”
Frazier said the biggest difference in 1972 was team speed.
“We brought in Lydell Williams, Kerry Anders, Bernie Buskin,” he said. “We brought in some speed, and that was probably the shocker.
“We won our first game at Fort Hays State. Lydell Williams runs a kickoff back (to erase a 7-6 deficit), and our sideline went bonkers. From that point on we became a big play football team. The defense was good, very good, and forced a lot of turnovers. The offense got better as the season progressed, and the kicking game was good.”
“It might have been too early to really say this, but the very first game when we went to Fort Hays State, there was something about that game,” Varns said. “When we got down, it never fazed us, and we never looked back after that.
“Some of us guys who had been around here a while and took some butt-kickings, we were tired of it. I knew then that we were going to do something. I didn’t know it was going to be a national championship mind you, but I knew it was going to be a special year.”
Almost 30 players and coaches from the 1972 team came to Joplin last weekend for a 40-year reunion. And naturally, many stories have been embellished with the passing of time.
“Have they grown? Varns said as he laughed. “They are huge now. A sack has become a sack, a fumble and a fumble return for a touchdown. The stories we’ve told, some of them you forget and somebody starts telling a story, and you remember it. It’s just great to do that.”
“It’s been a tremendous opportunity to see faces I haven’t seen in anywhere from one year to almost 40 years,” Harding said. “It’s an opportunity to bind again with those guys you love. It seems like a long time, there’s no question about that. But it does not seem like 40 years.”
“We had one of those wonderful years, and everything clicked,” defensive back Jack Duda said. “Coach Frazier brought a calmness and togetherness to our team. Coach (Reuben) Berry (coach in 1969) was a good coach, but he was one of those old-time ... emotional coaches. Coach Frazier would say hey guys, do your job and you’ll do all right.”
“I really can’t believe it’s been 40 years,” Frazier said. “The bottom line is they bought into what we were trying to do, and we did it. People talk about overachieving, we didn’t overachieve. We did exactly what we planned on doing.”
Missouri Southern 1972 results
Fort Hays State 40-15
Southeast Missouri 7-6
College of Emporia 33-7
Nevada-Las Vegas 7-0
Pittsburg State 21-6
Emporia State 14-9
Missouri Western 52-7
NAIA Division II Playoffs
Doane (Neb.) 24-6
Northwestern (Iowa) 21-14