As BCS bowl matchups surfaced and it became clear that No. 8 Missouri would be a near-miss for an at-large berth, a wave of frustration permeated the Tigers’ locker room.
Then, the Tigers (11-2) learned their postseason destination: Friday’s showdown against No. 13 Oklahoma State (10-2) in the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic in Arlington. And a group of Texans, led by defensive end Michael Sam and running back Henry Josey, began lifting the spirits of those still mourning a missed opportunity for a team that fell to No. 2 Auburn in the SEC Championship Game.
“Right when we found out we were going to the Cotton Bowl, I dropped the disappointment,” said Sam, the 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year and one of 32 players from Texas high schools on the Mizzou roster. “It was like, ‘I’m excited to go to the Cotton Bowl.’ I always watched the Cotton Bowl growing up and finally being here, for me, that is overwhelming.
“I’m finishing my collegiate career in my home state, which is the best thing ever. Plus, we’re playing on Friday. And Friday night football is awesome in Texas. The Friday night lights are a little brighter here.”
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Being able to pluck key recruits who honed their skills under those Friday night lights in the Lone Star State has been the lifeblood of the Missouri program under coach Gary Pinkel, whose next win will move him past Don Faurot, namesake of the school’s football stadium, for most victories in Mizzou history. Both men have 101, with Pinkel collecting his in 13 seasons; Faurot needed 19.
Pinkel began building a strong recruiting bridge to Texas high schools while the Tigers were members of the Big 12. Notable Mizzou products on NFL rosters with Texas ties include quarterback Chase Daniel (Southlake Carroll), tight end Michael Egnew (Plainview), wide receiver Danario Alexander (Marlin) and a pair of first-round picks: defensive lineman Ziggy Hood (Amarillo) and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (Jasper). All have joined the NFL in the past five years.
That track record of success, said Josey, means a lot to current Tigers who seek to build on that tradition. Because Missouri is in its second season as an SEC member, with no more annual trips to Texas for football games, that makes Friday’s trip to the Cotton Bowl more of a recruiting showcase than when the Tigers downed Arkansas 38-7 to cap a 12-2 season for the Daniel-led 2007 squad in their last postseason visit.
“It would be nice to get a win. That’s what we want to make sure we do,” said quarterback James Franklin, a Lake Dallas product. “There’s only going to be two games on TV on Friday and ours will be in prime time. Hopefully, we’ll get a lot of attention, being in Texas, from players in Texas and that will help with recruiting.”
Franklin, a third-year starter, leads the team in passing yards (2,255) and total offense (2,729). He has accounted for a team-high 23 touchdowns despite missing three games because of injury.
Josey, an Angleton graduate, is the top rusher (1,074 yards, 13 TDs) and the next-closest player is running back Russell Hansbrough (660 yards, 4 TDs) from Arlington Bowie. Sam, a Hitchcock graduate, earned first-team All-America honors by collecting team highs for sacks (10.5) and tackles for losses (18).
That type of production has been a recurring theme for Mizzou’s transplanted Texans. It is one of the points Josey stressed in explaining why this Cotton Bowl trip should be considered equally important to any BCS bowl, from a program perspective.
“Mizzou recruits a lot of Texas guys,” Josey said. “And us Texas guys love Mizzou. We’re proud to be a part of Mizzou. We’re proud to uphold that tradition for Texas guys that want to come here. I was just making sure I was leading by example with these guys, letting them know that.”
Pinkel, understandably, considers the state of Missouri his primary recruiting hotbed. But Texas is a close No. 2.
It is important to him and his program that the Tigers do not become “out of sight, out of mind” to Texas’ top high school players. And winning a Cotton Bowl as an SEC member would help in those efforts.
“We chose to put a lot of coaches down here and recruit at a high level in Texas,” Pinkel said. “It is a high-populated area with great high school football. I think the best leadership you get, the best communication you get about your program, is when the players that played for you go back and talk to their coaches and the players they used to play with in high school and say Mizzou is a great place. It took a while to get that going. But after a while, we have recruited some great players out of the state of Texas. It has been really important to us.”
Mizzou’s Cotton Bowl roster includes eight starters from Texas, as well as eight players from Tarrant County high schools. Two of the Tarrant County transplants project to start: tight end Eric Waters (Mansfield Summit) and free safety Matt White (Keller).
Waters said the presence of multiple Texans on the Tigers’ roster was “a huge plus” in convincing him to play in Columbia, Mo. White said he wound up reconnecting with Marvin Foster, a defensive lineman from North Crowley, once both enrolled and realized they had been teammates on an AAU basketball team in high school.
“To me, it was a no-brainer. Especially with Missouri being in the Big 12, we’d play a lot of Texas schools,” said White, a senior. “It’s really cool, getting to finish my career where you started.”
Sam agreed, joking that “the whole town” would be making the four-hour drive from Hitchcock, which plays Class 2A football in East Texas, for Friday’s game.
“It’s not every season someone from Hitchcock, Texas, gets named an All-American,” Sam said. “So it’s a blessing. Half our team is from Texas. There’s good people at Missouri. At first, I wasn’t planning to come here in the cold. But it was the people who got me to commit.”
Among Texans on the Mizzou roster, Sam is far from alone.