Vahe Gregorian

July 3, 2013

Life after football for former MU coach Widenhofer includes toll booth job

Pulling up to a toll booth for the Florida bridge that connects Niceville and Destin, Mizzou offensive coordinator Josh Henson promptly was engaged by the pleasant fellow inside. The man peered at the logo on Henson’s shirt and asked, “Jacksonville Jaguars?” Told it was the Missouri Tigers, the man said, “The Missouri Tigers? I used to be the coach there. I’m Woody Widenhofer.”

Pulling up to a toll booth for the Florida bridge that connects Niceville and Destin, Mizzou offensive coordinator Josh Henson promptly was engaged by the pleasant fellow inside.

In a Hawaiian shirt, wearing a Super Bowl watch and at least one Super Bowl ring, the man peered over the end of his glasses at the logo on Henson’s shirt and asked, “Jacksonville Jaguars?”

Told it was the Missouri Tigers, the man said, “


Missouri Tigers?”

Yes sir, said Henson, who had no notion what he would hear next.

“I used to be the coach there,” the man said. “I’m Woody Widenhofer.”

The episode recently related by Henson confirmed several such sightings over the years, but the image had seemed more like a myth or an urban legend, only as legitimate as the doctored photo of Widenhofer in a booth that could be found online.

Widenhofer, after all, had been the head football coach at MU from 1985-88 and the head coach at Vanderbilt from 1997-2001. Never mind that he was 12-31-1 at Mizzou and 15-40 at Vandy. He was the proud owner of four Super Bowl rings from his days as an assistant coach with Pittsburgh, where he helped forge the “Steel Curtain” defense.

Maybe he was in a broadcast booth. But not a toll booth.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But it’s, well, in contrast to the life he had known.

Yet it’s a contrast he embraced when a football career marked by twists took its last turn after he accepted an offer in 2010 to coach the Birmingham Blackbirds of the soon-to-be-launched United National Gridiron League.

“But it never got off the ground: The guy with all the financing backed out of it,” Widenhofer said by telephone. “So after that was over with, that kind of knocked the power out of me a little bit.

“That’s when I started looking around a little bit at just getting something to keep busy, you know?”

So it wasn’t as if he was destitute in Destin, he assures. But once a major component of his retirement plan to immerse himself in golf was dashed by herniated discs, he said, he was left with a gap in his life.

Yes, he appreciated the “little bit of income” the job provided; the beautiful sand and water, after all, came at a price.

“But the primary reason I did it was to keep busy,” Widenhofer said. “This retirement deal is not as fun as you think it is.”

So when his wife, Sabrina, was online looking for something or another and saw that they were hiring out at the toll bridge just minutes away, Widenhofer applied and, presto, he was hired.

He enjoyed the heck out of it for three-plus years, during which he was happy to chat with passersby, plenty of whom recognized him, even if his distinct look had changed.

“I’ve shaved my mustache off completely, and I’m all gray,” he said, adding with a laugh, “So, I grew up.”

He’s 70 now as he looks back at a football life that included playing at MU in the 1960s and perhaps peaked in a decade (1973-83) with the Steelers, in which he became known as a defensive guru.

“I’ve been blessed to have a lot of great opportunities to do some things, had some success at places,” he said. “But, you know, you kind of wish you could do a lot better than what you did.”

Widenhofer was brimming with excitement and pride when he took over at his alma mater in 1985 after a year coaching the Oklahoma Outlaws of the USFL.

“And I was emotional when I left,” he said, laughing. “But emotion doesn’t win games. Players win games.”

Though he didn’t offer specifics, Widenhofer would say repeatedly that he wished he had done some things better and differently. And, surely, he should have, considering his 27-71-1 collegiate record that included at MU the so-called “Norman Conquest,” a 77-0 loss at Oklahoma in 1986.

At one point in his 1-10 inaugural season, things were so bleak that a self-proclaimed vampire showed up at practice and offered to put a curse on the next opponent.

Yet Widenhofer isn’t wrong when he suggests it might all have been different with some luck. Just like he would do at Vanderbilt, Widenhofer went 5-6 in his third season with three narrow losses.

Perhaps his misfortune was most aptly symbolized by MU landing Parade Magazine national player of the year Tony VanZant only to lose him to a knee injury in a high school all-star game, an injury from which VanZant never really recovered.

It didn’t help that MU was an administrative turnstile, too.

“Everybody who hired me was gone in a year,” said Widenhofer, who worked under three athletic directors and two chancellors.

And the school also was lagging in facilities. Consider the Omniturf — its 10-year tenure was marked by slapstick sliding on the field — and the weight room.

“I went back for a reunion a few years ago,” he said. “And I couldn’t even recognize the place.”

Especially not now, with MU’s move into the Southeastern Conference with Vanderbilt.

“I just figured it was for the money; that’s what it’s all about, money,” said Widenhofer, who seemed wistful at the thought of the hundreds of millions being poured into both programs now.

But even if he follows the programs from afar, those jobs are long behind him, as demonstrated by his lack of recognition of Henson’s logo.

And now he’s onto a new phase after recently leaving Destin for Dallas, where Sabrina was transferred for her job with Spirit Airlines.

As for himself, he thinks now he’d like to substitute teach.

“And if a football program is interested in me,” he said, “I’ll help them out.”

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