PowerMizzou - The day Mizzou football was born again
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The day Mizzou football was born again

If you’re lucky, you can say you were there when it happened. Every now and again, sports gives us a chance to say we saw the origin of a legend. We don’t usually know it when it’s happening. Only years later can we look back and know what we saw.

For Missouri football fans, that day will forever be August 31, 2002.

The Tigers were opening Gary Pinkel’s second season that day, against Illinois in the Edward Jones Dome. Mizzou was coming off a 4-and-7 season in Pinkel’s first year. It was the 16th losing season in 18 years and ended with a 55-7 humiliation at Michigan State in a game that had been moved from its original date after the September 11 attacks. Illinois, meanwhile, had gone 10-2 in 2001 and finished 12th in the country despite a 47-34 loss to LSU in the Sugar Bowl. The Illini were seven-and-a-half point favorites.

Of course, before that day, almost nobody—not even Vegas—knew who Brad Smith was.

Three hours and 17 minutes later, everyone did.

“That was the game, to me,’” starting center A.J. Ricker said. “Hey, we got a guy. I think from then and there you knew who you had back there.”

“I can’t remember how I phrased it, something about finding a quarterback,” Mizzou radio play-by-play man Mike Kelly said. “Coach (John) Kadlec said ‘We found our quarterback.’ I look back to some of those highlights, some of those runs, you could just tell the Illinois defenders just were not used to seeing a guy the way that he glided, his ability to change speeds.”

When the game was over, Mizzou a 33-20 winner, Gary Pinkel got in his car to ride home. He turned to his wife and said four words: “We got a quarterback.”

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Missouri will open fall camp tomorrow in preparation for the 2022 season opener September 1st against Louisiana Tech. That game falls 20 years and a day after the birth of modern day Missouri football. Yes, Larry Smith, Brock Olivo and Corby Jones and Co. ended the string of 13 straight losing seasons and returned to a bowl game. That accomplishment shouldn’t be ignored. It was monumental at the time. It proved success was possible at Missouri.

Jones, a Columbia kid and a hometown hero, brought Missouri back from the dead. The Tigers won seven games in 1997 and then eight in 1998. They led every game at halftime in Jones’ senior season and didn’t lose to anyone that wasn’t ranked in the top ten. But when Jones and Devin West left, the renaissance was over. Smith coached two more years; Missouri went a combined 7-15.

"After I left, I knew that we didn’t have a plan (at quarterback),” Jones said. “I knew that the cupboard was bare.”

Smith was out and Pinkel was in. He was hired by Mike Alden after a ten-year run at Toledo in which he had just one losing season, won ten games once, eleven games once and beat Penn State in Happy Valley. His charge? Resurrect a program that hadn’t sustained success in a couple of decades. It wasn’t immediate. Nothing with Pinkel ever was. But eventually, it happened.

The Missouri football program the next couple of generations would get to know was born on that August afternoon in the Edward Jones Dome. Pinkel, in his second season, was the architect. But a skinny quarterback from Youngstown, Ohio was the catalyst.

In 2000, Pinkel was looking for Toledo’s next quarterback. He popped in a video of a kid named Brad Smith from nearby Youngstown. He recalls that he watched about four games’ worth of tape.

"I felt that he was really a special kid, just really special,” Pinkel said. “I didn’t understand why Ohio State and Michigan weren’t at least visiting him.”

Pinkel and Matt Eberflus, then his defensive backs coach, now the head coach of the Chicago Bears, recruited Smith to be a Rocket. That offseason, Pinkel got the Missouri job. Now, not only did he have to convince those around Smith he was the right man to coach the quarterback, but he had to convince them he was the right man to do it hundreds of miles away.

The story has been told and retold. Pinkel and Eberflus didn’t just have to sell Brad Smith. They had to sell Smith’s mother. And then they had to sell his church community.

“I look at (the pastor) and I say ‘I think (Brad)’s got tremendous potential,’” Pinkel remembered. “He looked at me and his eyes got kind of cold and he said 'you’ve got no idea what you’re getting.’”

As Pinkel and Eberflus drove away, they joked about the story they’d have to tell if the pastor was right. More than twenty years later, they’re still telling it.

Smith and Corby Jones sign autographs for Mizzou fans at an alumni basketball game in July
Smith and Corby Jones sign autographs for Mizzou fans at an alumni basketball game in July (PowerMizzou)

Pinkel wanted to play Brad Smith in the 2001 season. Really wanted to play him.

“We’re in spring football, we’re in two-a-days and we’re watching this kid in practice on the scout team because we’re going to redshirt him,” Pinkel said. “At the end of the day, I didn’t think we had enough players around him to use up his whole year. At the end of the day that was it. I was wavering on it too because I saw him against our number one defense.”

“Before he was doing it against other teams, he was doing it against a pretty good defense, in my opinion,” all-Big 12 defensive tackle Atiyyah Ellison said. “We had some weapons on that team and he was doing some of those things.”

But Pinkel had a plan and he stuck to it. If you could describe Gary Pinkel’s tenure at Missouri in a sentence, that’s a good sentence. He knew what he wanted to do and he didn’t deviate. The plan was to redshirt Smith. Smith was fully on board.

“It was really nerve-racking as a young kid,” he said of the move to college football. “(The first year) did give me some confidence without the pressure of actually playing. It helped me think I have a chance to do it, but you never really know.”

If it meant taking some lumps in Pinkel's first season, so be it. Missouri finished 4-7. The Tigers beat FCS Texas State and had wins over Kansas, Oklahoma State and Baylor, which combined to go 9-24 overall and 3-21 in Big 12 play that season. Kirk Farmer played in ten games and completed 47% of his passes for 1,567 yards. Darius Outlaw played in ten games too, completing just 36 of his 81 attempts. By the Mizzou standards of the time, it really wasn’t all that bad.

Farmer was coming back in 2002. He was going to be a senior. He’d been a two-year starter, though injuries had limited him to 20 total games over three seasons. To everyone on the outside, he would be Missouri’s starting quarterback in 2002. But nobody on the outside knew much about Brad Smith.

There was talk, though. Jones was part of the radio broadcast crew at that time. He heard it.

“I had heard from Coach Pinkel, had heard from (David) Yost at the time and they said 'We’ve got a guy,'” Jones said. “I’d heard that before. I was skeptical.

“I didn’t put a whole lot of stock in it.”

“I remember Dave Christensen in particular talking about some of the things that this kid could do,” Kelly said. “Not only his ability to run, but just the leadership qualities that he brought and just the person.”

Christensen was Missouri’s offensive coordinator. Smith would be his weapon to unleash on college football in 2002. But to pretend even he had any idea exactly what that would look like is revisionist history.

“There were glimpses in practice of his playmaking ability,” the now-retired Christensen said. “Even though I think we had an idea, we didn’t know that he was Superman.”

Part of the reason it was hard to tell exactly what Missouri had was the format of practice. Quarterbacks wear a different colored jersey in practice. At Missouri, it was green. That’s a blaring signal to everyone else on the field: Do not hit this man. The quarterback doesn’t get tackled. Not even in a scrimmage. Which made it a little difficult to know exactly what Smith could do.

“We would scrimmage, he’d take off, they’d touch him, he was down,” Christensen said. “I was like, I don’t think a guy’s gonna be able to do that in open space.”

“If you can tag him off at a practice you’re doing well because you can’t tackle him,” Ellison said. “I actually touched him so you can argue you could have made the tackle in a game.”

So Smith spent a season turning heads playing one-hand touch. But the game was about to change.

“I’ve been around long enough to know you’re gonna have real difficulty tackling this guy,” Pinkel said. “Guess what? Illinois found that out.”

Missouri and Illinois hadn’t played a football game in eight years when the 2002 season dawned. The last time the two had met, the Illini had won 42-0 in Champaign in 1994, a game in which Missouri didn’t have a first down until the fourth quarter. Illinois had been up and down in those eight seasons, ranging anywhere from 0-11 to 10-2. But this was an Illinois team coming off the Sugar Bowl. Ron Turner’s team came in as the favorite against a coach that hadn’t proven himself in a major conference and a quarterback that had never taken a live snap in college.

“I remember coach like that week before making that decision that I was going to play and honestly my mindset was pretty (much) the same,” Smith said. “Just put my head down and work and I figured that would be the best way for me to have success, just not getting too high or too low.”

It didn’t take long for the kid to make an impression. Smith’s first series covered 77 yards in nine plays. It was highlighted by a 20-yard run by the quarterback and capped off by a six-yard touchdown run from Zack Abron. 7-0 Missouri.

“I was in the suites,” Jones said. “I watched the first three series and I said this is a different kid. This kid is not regular.”

“It was kind of like ‘I told you so,’” Christensen said. “You’re not gonna be able to just lock this guy up and touch him and he’s down. He was as explosive a running quarterback as there’d ever been in the history of college football.”

Mizzou’s second series got to the Illinois 37, but ended in an Abron fumble. The third was a three-and-out. After a quarter, the teams were tied at seven. Brad Smith was just getting warmed up.

With 6:16 left in the second quarter, T.J. Leon scored from six yards out, capping a 53 yard drive on which Smith accounted for 29 yards running and passing. Missouri led 14-7. Illinois would tie the game on its opening drive of the third quarter. The game-defining play actually came from the Tiger defense. Antwaun Bynum forced Dustin Ward to fumble for the second time on the day. James Kinney scooped it up and went 46 yards for a touchdown that put the Tigers up 20-14.

Smith would lead the Tigers on a 12-play, 85-yard drive that spanned the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarters. Abron’s second touchdown of the day put Mizzou up 26-14. Following an Illinois three-and-out, Smith delivered the knockout blow, a 24-yard run over left tackle that put the Tigers up 33-14 with 11:47 to play. From there, the Missouri running game and defense put the finishing touches on a nationally broadcast season-opening win that few saw coming.

Smith finished the day 15-26 passing for 152 yards. He ran 18 times for a team-high 138 yards as the Tigers ran for 254 total. It was proof that what the Missouri players and coaches had seen on the practice field could translate to Saturdays.

“There was enough stuff in practice where you’re like, man, this guy is pretty good,” Ricker said. “But now, when he came out and started the Illinois game, were we sitting there 100%? No way.”

Mike Alden was tailgating in a parking lot on the east side of the stadium after the game with some athletic department staffers. There was a buzz that hadn’t been there after other games.

“You see him and just some of the plays that he was individually providing,” Alden said. “We’re saying, 'Wow this is an amazing win for the program, the crowd was incredible, but this could be something that could be transformational.'”

In the stands was a junior tight end from St. Joseph, taking in his first Mizzou game as a recruit with his dad.

“When we left,” Martin Rucker said, “We were like, ‘Oh that guy’s gonna be special.’”

To go back to Pinkel’s words, “We got a quarterback.”

Over the next four years, Brad Smith would re-write the Missouri record book. He became the first quarterback in Division One history to throw for 8,000 yards and run for 4,000. He set or tied 46 school records, many of which still stand, including the all-time mark of 4,289 rushing yards, which is more than 500 clear of anyone else who’s ever worn a Tiger uniform. And after all of that, Smith never really changed from the kid who showed up on campus completely unsure whether he could play at this level.

“I always felt like I didn’t (belong),” he said. “I always felt like I had to do more, had to work harder because I didn’t know a lot. Skill-wise, I didn’t have footwork coaches or mechanics coaches so what I was trying to do was trying to figure it out on my own. I figured out if I worked harder I would get myself positioned to have success.“

Ask ten people for their favorite Brad Smith game and you might get ten different answers. He almost single-handedly beat No. 3 Oklahoma. He ran for 291 yards and five touchdowns against Texas Tech. He was the quarterback for Missouri’s first win over Nebraska in a quarter century and he took the Tigers to two bowl games, including an Independence Bowl win as a senior. In that game, Mizzou trailed 28-7 late in the second quarter when Marcus King intercepted a pass and ran it back 99 yards for a touchdown.

“I wasn’t happy for anybody at half,” Pinkel said. “At halftime I wasn’t happy to anybody in my life. Typical team that hasn’t been to a lot of bowls, doesn’t know how to get themselves ready to play. I was so mad at Gary Pinkel.”

But Missouri outscored the Gamecocks 24-7 in the second half. Smith had three touchdown runs. He threw for 282 yards, ran for 151 and accounted for all four Missouri offensive touchdowns. He was, naturally, the game’s offensive MVP in his final performance as a Tiger.

“All of a sudden he felt like Superman,” said Chase Daniel, who would replace Smith as Missouri’s starting quarterback the next year.

“What better way would you rather send someone out with a heart of gold who does everything right, who gives to whoever no matter what color you are, where you’re from?” wide receiver Will Franklin said. “He did everything right. How he went out is how I wanted him to go out.”

And that’s the real story of Brad Smith. It isn’t the football player. Well, of course it’s the football player. But it’s so much more. When approached about an interview for this story, Christensen said “Brad definitely deserves this.” Talk to anyone at Missouri about Smith and one of the first things they say is he is a better person than he is a football player.

“And he was a hell of a player,” Franklin said.

“I certainly think that the athletic talents that he possesses were really the value added to the person that he is,” Alden said. “I think that’s what made it a special package of a person. His faith, his character, his belief in family and others and his humility.

"And, oh, by the way…”

Pinkel knew he needed a leader on the field. He needed a star. But he needed a star that the rest of the players would follow.

“He modeled what coach Pinkel wanted in players,” Franklin said. “Brad did everything right. It made you want to be like that.”

“All my years at Missouri, no one worked harder,” Ricker said. “People looked at Brad Smith as being flashy, but he didn’t want any of that. That’s what was so crazy. He’s such a humble person. He was always trying to give everybody credit. Man, that’s special.”

“The on-the-field stuff, that’s sort of the easy stuff about college football,” Daniel said. “It’s all the other stuff, all the intangibles, all that stuff and just how to be a good person, how to keep your head on straight. He was the best at that.”

Smith's off-field behavior was always top of mind, even when he was on the field. In the moments after he engineered a 41-24 toppling of Nebraska in 2003, he saw the Cornhuskers' Kellen Huston deliver a blow to one of the Tiger fans who rushed the field.

"You’d think Brad would be reveling in that moment, but he just happened to be the first witness," former sports information director Chad Moller said. "He was just moments after this landmark win, and he’s on his knees attending to the kid who got hit, trying to make sure he’s okay.

"That just blew me away. Not that I was surprised about him being a good person, but just more the presence he had and the selflessness to stop and attend to the situation when he had no obligation to go anywhere near it."

“The one thing that I think of more than anything with Brad, he might have been the nicest young man in my entire coaching career,” Christensen said. “He was a true gentleman. Just incredible, his demeanor. That’s why the players followed him.”

Weatherspoon, Smith and Maclin, three of the greatest Tigers in program history.
Weatherspoon, Smith and Maclin, three of the greatest Tigers in program history. (Gabe DeArmond)

The strange part about Smith’s career is that he was no longer there when Missouri reached the mountaintop. The Tigers were just 25-23 with him as a starter. It was a step up from where they’d been, but quite a few steps below where they wanted to be.

“Rome wasn’t built overnight and neither is a really down football program,” Christensen said. “And unfortunately for Brad we weren’t able to have the pieces around him that we had around Chase Daniel. He was able to do some things without those pieces.”

“No disrespect to our guys at the beginning because they battled and they helped set the stage for what happened. I love those guys,” Pinkel said. “If Chase would have come in at the same time, Chase would have been in the same predicament (Brad) was. That’s why I tell the story. It’s a great story about a great player that didn’t have a lot of great players around him.”

“There wasn’t enough Brads,” Franklin said.

Even 20 years later, Smith himself doesn’t see it that way. He admits he sometimes thinks about his legacy, his place in Mizzou history.

“I think could I have done more, just for my team?” he wonders. “Was there a stone that was unturned on my part? Did I work hard enough? Did I try to study? Did I get around the right people? That’s what I think about. I don’t think about any games or anything. I wanted to do more.”

In the next breath, Smith gives credit to players like Ricker, Tony Palmer and Justin Gage, who got fewer headlines than Smith during Mizzou’s formative years. And there’s no doubt, Smith had some help. But short of mixing the Gatorade, washing the uniforms and power-washing the bleachers, it’s impossible to imagine how number 16 could have done more.

"It takes 11 guys," Rucker said. "But Brad Smith was winning football games on his own."

Missouri wasn’t great with Brad Smith. But it would become great because of him. Just ask the people who were around when Mizzou did become great.

Daniel was a wide receiver at Southlake Carroll in 2002. He knew nothing about Brad Smith or Missouri. When he took over as the starting quarterback for Todd Dodge in 2003 and Pinkel and Dave Steckel started recruiting him, he started to pay attention. Daniel would sign with the Tigers in February of 2005. He backed up Smith as a true freshman, legendarily coming in to lead Missouri to a comeback overtime win against Iowa State that allowed Smith’s Independence Bowl swan song to occur. Once Smith left, Daniel took over as a three-year starter, leading Missouri to a 30-11 record, two Big 12 title game appearances and the nation’s No. 1 ranking. He broke every significant school passing record and became just the second Heisman Trophy finalist in Missouri history. But without what Smith had done the three years before he arrived?

“I don’t think I’m there honestly. I really don’t,” Daniel, now entering his 14th NFL season, said. “I probably don’t think I’m as interested and probably not going to Missouri if Brad and Gary didn’t lay the groundwork.”

Pinkel hit the national spotlight with Chase Daniel, but Smith was his first great Missouri quarterback
Pinkel hit the national spotlight with Chase Daniel, but Smith was his first great Missouri quarterback (mutigers.com)

It’s not just Daniel. It’s the litany of NFL players Missouri churned out over the next decade with Pinkel as the head coach.

“Without him, my interest wouldn’t have even been sparked to look at Missouri,” Sean Weatherspoon said, explaining that he first discovered Smith’s prowess in the NCAA Football video game. “But since I knew Brad Smith, that was a big deal that Missouri sent me a letter. I didn’t know Missouri’s history yet, but I knew that was a big deal because of what he was doing here.”

“Seeing him and seeing what he was able to do here,” Jeremy Maclin said, “He definitely had a big part in my decision.”

“If Brad Smith wasn’t at Mizzou, I wouldn’t have been here,” Rucker said plainly.

It’s not even just Pinkel’s players. It might have been Pinkel himself, who lasted long enough to become the winningest coach in Mizzou history. But without Smith…

“We probably aren’t there coaching Chase Daniel if it weren’t for Brad Smith,” Christensen said.

“He kept me alive,” Pinkel said. “I strongly agree with what Coach C said about that. If we didn’t have somebody who really stood out, somebody that was really special, I think it would have been too much of a risk for Chase.”

Without Brad Smith, what is the recent history of Missouri football? Thankfully, it’s impossible to say. Maybe there’s no Chase Daniel. No Spoon or Ziggy or J-Mac or Aldon. Maybe there’s not 15 years of Gary Pinkel. Maybe there’s no SEC. When the Southeastern Conference was looking to expand in 2011, Missouri was coming off a four-year stretch in which it averaged ten wins and finished in the nation’s top 20 three times, including No. 4 in 2007.

“We knew Pinkel was a quality guy,” Florida President Bernie Machen told PowerMizzou.com in 2016. “We were impressed with what looked like was going to happen if they got into the SEC, the big facility push, all the things that they were going to do. We had no idea Pinkel was gonna turn around and beat us and be that good that quick.”

The Tigers got in, at least in part, because Gary Pinkel had built a good football program. The same one he used to win the SEC East in two of Missouri’s first three seasons. And the first brick in the foundation was Brad Smith.

“He’s the guy that definitely sparked the whole thing,” Weatherspoon said.

“A lot of people point to me,” Daniel said. “But I point right back at Brad. Brad was a living legend.”

“Do you say he’s the best quarterback to ever play at Missouri? No, I don’t think that’s fair,” Mike Kelly said. “But in terms of influential people, if you categorize it like that, I think from a foundational standpoint I would start with Brad and throw everyone else in after that.”

“No offense to anyone else,” Franklin said. “But that guy literally made people want to play football at Missouri.”

Twenty years ago, everything changed.

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