Al Potter simply could not believe it.
“Fifty years? Really?” he said. “That’s hard to believe. Fortunately we’re still around. Fifty years, my gosh.”
Yes, this Friday marks the 50-year anniversary of Missouri Southern’s first football game as a four-year college.
On the night of Sept. 14, 1968, the Missouri Southern College Lions opened their season with a night game against Northeastern State in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
“We were excited about playing four-year schools,” said Mike Rader. “It was a new beginning. I was new at the school. It was a rebirth for me and my football life.”
Rader, a running back from Lockwood, and Potter, an offensive llineman who prepped at Kansas City Southwest, were part of that first Missouri Southern team.
The head coach was Jim Johnson, who also was the coach for the 1968 Joplin Junior College team that finished 8-1, ranked No. 3 in the country and handed national champion Northeastern Oklahoma A&M its only loss.
This was the only time Johnson was a head coach in his 40-year career, capped by a 10-year stint as defensive coordinator for head coach Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2008.
“Coach Johnson was extremely strict,” Rader said. “He wanted things done his way, which was the right way. He cared for the guys. You could see that in him. That meant a whole lot to all of us.”
“Coach Johnson was a great guy,” Potter said. “Obviously he was an excellent football coach. He was a quarterback when he went to school at the University of Missouri (for coach Dan Devine). Obviously he knew offense extremely well, but I tell you he really knew the defenses. He was a great coach, a great human being, just an all-around neat guy. I enjoyed him.”
That Saturday night in Tahlequah wasn’t a good night for the Lions as the Redmen scored on their first three possessions en route to a 45-0 victory.
Johnson didn’t mince words after the game.
“We played badly and made mistake after mistake,” he told Globe sports writer Tom Murray. “I don’t believe there was a single play in which someone on our team didn’t make a mistake. I didn’t believe we could play that badly.”
Johnson did praise the play of the punt team and coverage and singled out Vic Nichols (linebacker and punter) and Dale Green (wide receiver).
“(Northeastern State) had a defensive tackle (Roosevelt Manning) who ended up playing in the NFL (after being a second-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons in the 1972 NFL Draft),” Rader said. “He was a big guy (listed at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds in the program). I can remember his 40 (yard-dash) times were faster than my 40 times.”
“They had a great running back named Manny Britto, too,” Potter said. “I can still picture ourselves on the field and how quick the running back and defensive tackle were. Fortunately for me (Manning) lined up on the side of the ball. Dennis Coffel (a tackle) told me one time, and I will never forget this. He said 'Roosevelt Manning hit me so hard that he spun my helmet halfway around. I was so glad when that game was over.' ”
Another player on that Northeastern State team was defensive back Larry Coker, who, of course went on to become a college head coach, headlined by his 2001 Miami Hurricanes team that won the national championship.
The Lions lost their first five games before beating Northwood Institute from Cedar Hill, Texas, 48-0 on Oct. 19 in the Maple Leaf Bowl at Carthage. Their only other victory in a 2-8 season came two weeks later, a 13-7 decision over St. Mary of the Plains at Junge Field in a rainy homecoming game.
“We struggled,” Rader said. “Adjusting from junior college to playing four-year schools had a lot to do with it.”
The Lions did not return any skill position starters from their final juco team, including quarterback Terry McMillan who transferred to the University of Missouri and directed the Tigers during their Big 8 Conference co-championship season in 1969.
“When we were in our first year as a four-year program, we only had (10) juniors,” Potter said. “The rest of them were freshmen and sophomores. There were no seniors.
“My senior year (1969) we had about the same, seven or eight seniors this time. Going from a junior college, we were trying to get a program developed for a four-year institution.”
The program actually developed rather quickly.
Johnson left after that first season to become an assistant coach at Drake under former Seneca High School coach Jack Wallace. Rueben Berry coached two years and won two games both seasons before leaving to become head coach at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. He later became head coach of the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Canadian Football League.
Jim Frazier became head coach in 1971. His first team went 4-6, and his 1972 team went 12-0 and won the NAIA Division II national championship.
“I really enjoyed my time at Missouri Southern,” said Rader, whose head coaching career includes a state championship at Lockwood in 1974. “It was a great school. I got an extremely good education, learned a lot not only about football but about life.”
Potter said about a dozen of his former teammates still get together each year for a couple of days of golf and story telling.
“We had a bunch of great guys,” he said. “It was a great opportunity to play football, and the most important thing is I did graduate and got to do something I always wanted to do. That is teach and coach (at Neosho High School and Westview School). I truly loved it."
1968 Lions football
Sept. 14 at Northeastern State L, 45-0
Sept. 21 Panhandle State L, 21-10
Sept. 28 at Wayne State (Neb.) L, 20-16
Oct.5 Central Arkansas L, 29-13
Oct. 12 at Arkansas Tech L, 53-0
Oct. 19 Northwood Institute W, 48-0
Oct. 26 at Cameron L, 22-7
Nov. 2 St. Mary of the Plains W,13-7
Nov. 9 at Pittsburg State L, 14-3
Nov. 23 at Northeast Missouri L, 48-8
1968 Lions first lineup
E—Bert Davis, soph; Bryant Davis, soph
T—Jim Hoots, soph.; Al Potter, jr.
G—Jim Muehling, jr.; Mike Thomas, jr.
C—Glenn Wills, jr.
QB—Pat Wozniak, jr.
FB—Gary Selvidge, jr.
HB—Dan Kelly, soph.
FL—Jim Scotta, soph.
E—Vic Nichols, soph.; Gayland Fix, jr.
T—Horace Jackson, soph.; Dennis Coffel, soph.
G—Fred Kelly, soph.
LB—Ron Ippolito, soph.; Gary Maufas, jr.; Gary Selvidge, jr.
HB—Kenneth Hall, jr.; Rex Perry, fr.; Courtney Sanders, soph.
QB—Marcel Charron, soph.
HB—Russell Riitchhart, fr.; Mike Rader, soph.; Harold Fountain, jr.
FB—Carl Basler, soph.
FL—Leonard Gay, fr.; Tom Gunning, fr.
C—Bo Firestone, fr.; Doug Meadows, soph.;
G—Ray Basye, soph.;
T—Larry Schmidt, fr.; Mike Samples, fr.
E—Bob Morrison, fr.; Terry Fiala, fr.; Lonnie McCallister, soph.; Dale Green, fr.
LB—Ken Prater, soph.
Source: Game program from Sept. 14, 1968