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In the Shadows

The Epic Kansas Basketball Rivalry That Wasn’t

Wichita State fans — including a few state senators — want a piece of the Kansas Jayhawks. Will the Shockers and their boosters ever get the matchup they’ve been clamoring for?

“There is no rivalry.”

That was the message, sent to me by Wichita State sports media relations official Larry Rankin, in response to my interview request. I hoped to write a story on the dynamic between WSU and the University of Kansas. I was curious. These are two schools in the same basketball-mad state, drawing students from the same families and paying salaries from the same public funds. They employ two of the best coaches in college basketball. They feature two of the most talented teams in the country. When “One Shining Moment” plays a month from now, either team could be featured in the montage’s final image. And yet rarely in the national conversation are they ever mentioned in the same sentence.

I’d heard Wichita State–Kansas called “a weird non-rivalry rivalry” and “a basketball cold war.” “It’s like the Israeli’s and the Palestinians,” one Shockers fan wrote on ShockerNet, a WSU message board, “and we’re the Palestinians.” (His version of the conditions in Ramallah and Jerusalem may lack nuance, but you get his point.) But no, Rankin said, there is no rivalry. Just “mutual respect.” And in the strictest sense of the word, he was right. Rivalries require games to be played. The Shockers and Jayhawks haven’t shared a court since 1993. Rivalries require competitive balance, and back when the two programs did play, Wichita State lost 86 percent of those games. Rivalries require mutual enmity. The Shockers-Jayhawks relationship is a mix of envy and ambivalence, with occasional rage on one side, occasional respect on the other.

So how, then, should we describe the relationship between Wichita State and Kansas? Is it a friendship? Not when KU coach Bill Self refuses to put the Shockers on his team’s schedule, and not when WSU coach Gregg Marshall has been known to call the Jayhawks the “Chickenhawks.” Are they David and Goliath? The comparison doesn’t quite track, since the Shockers — David in this analogy — are 34-0 and slated for a no. 1 seed, and they’ve been to the Final Four more recently than Goliath.

The truth is that Marshall and Self barely matter in this equation. They are only the latest in a long line of coaches who’ve presided over the programs’ mutual avoidance. This stalemate existed long before Marshall and Self arrived in the state of Kansas, and it will likely continue long after they’ve left.

So no, this isn’t a rivalry. Rivalries are about sports. Wichita State–Kansas is an enmity, and it’s about culture and education and class. The same arguments you’ll hear today in Kansas’s sports bars have been recited hundreds of times in its office buildings and classrooms — even in its Legislature.

Down in Wichita, the state’s largest city, the local university has spent decades begging Kansas for respect. Up in Lawrence, the state’s most idyllic college town, they’ve spent those decades pretending Wichita State doesn’t exist.

♦♦♦

Perhaps you’ve heard: Some people think this year’s Wichita State team — 34-0, no. 2 in the country, beating opponents by more than 15 points per game — is overrated. To these skeptics, the Shockers aren’t good enough to win a national championship and they’re certainly not good enough to deserve a no. 1 seed. They’ve been called frauds. They’ve proven nothing because they’ve played no one, the thinking goes, and later this month they’ll get their rude awakening.

Some pundits may not speak very highly of the Shockers, but for once, at least, they’re talking about them at all. To be a Wichita State fan typically means to be ignored, not only nationally but also in your own state. “There’s always been a certain amount of angst among Wichita State fans when it comes to Kansas,” says Bob Lutz, a columnist for the Wichita Eagle who has worked at the paper for 40 years. “On the other hand, Kansas fans respond by doing their best to not even acknowledge Wichita State.”

The most significant way Kansas ignores the Shockers: by refusing to play them. Kansas began playing basketball when James Naismith showed up on campus in 1898. Eight years later, Wichita State — then called Fairmount College — started its own team. In the 108 years since, the teams have played only 14 times. “It’s 100 percent on Kansas,” says Lutz. “They feel like they have nothing to gain and everything to lose.”

Bill Self has been asked multiple times over the years about scheduling Wichita State. Last January, he told ESPN’s Andy Katz, “You schedule to benefit your own school, not to benefit others. You have to benefit your own school. I want to play games that benefit us, and from a financial standpoint, it’s hard to play games away from Allen Fieldhouse since that’s our main source of budget every year.”

Soon, he might have no choice. Last February, Wichita native and Kansas state senator Michael O’Donnell introduced a bill that would force the Jayhawks and Shockers to play every year. Initially, the bill tied the universities’ state funding to the scheduling of the game, but he later revised it to remove that provision. “I didn’t want it to be confrontational,” he says. In an attempt at fairness, O’Donnell also added Kansas State to the mix, but, he admits, “Kansas is the big one.”

He’s saying this while sitting in a second-row seat at Wichita State’s Charles Koch Arena. The Shockers are warming up before a game against Drake, and the stands are slowly filling with gold-clad Wichitans — a surprising number of them over the age of 65 — who will soon be dancing in the aisles to their team’s play and to the sounds of DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s “Turn Down for What.” O’Donnell pauses every few moments to say hello to passersby — a couple of whom he greets as “judge” and “commissioner” — and he methodically explains why he decided to try to legislate a rivalry into existence.

“I don’t believe it should be the Legislature’s place to mandate a game like this,” says O’Donnell, a Republican. “But under these circumstances, it felt necessary.” O’Donnell got the idea for the bill when he was on the campaign trail. Some of his biggest supporters were WSU boosters, and time and again he heard the same thing: We need to force them to play us. O’Donnell looked across the country, studying states where similar laws had been proposed.

Several examples tend to come up in conversations about state-mandated rivalries. There’s Alabama, where the state House of Representatives passed a resolution in 1947 encouraging Auburn and the University of Alabama to resume playing each other in football after a 40-year hiatus. The resolution was not a law, but it worked. The teams resumed play the next year and have played every year since. There’s Florida, where the state Senate voted in 1955 on a bill that would have forced Florida and Florida State to play each other in football. The bill failed, but it sparked conversations that led to the beginning of the Gators-Seminoles rivalry, in 1958. And then there’s Iowa. Bill Self even referenced the Hawkeye State in his interview with Katz: “Iowa plays Northern Iowa because the state Legislature says you have to,” Self said. “If someone were to come and say something that it’s law, then we would have to.” Only that isn’t true. “Many folks have said that for years,” University of Northern Iowa spokesperson Colin McDonough wrote to Grantland in an email regarding such a law, “but it has never existed in the state of Iowa.”

In Topeka, the Kansas capital, O’Donnell’s bill has yet to become law. It hasn’t even reached the Senate floor. After a rush of initial publicity, O’Donnell backed off. “It was a way to start the discussion,” he says. “It seemed like the only way, really, to start that discussion.” Like in Alabama and Florida, he’s hoping that the possibility of legislation — rather than an actual act — will be enough to convince Kansas to put the Shockers on its schedule. And like everyone else in this equation, O’Donnell says the fault lies almost exclusively with KU. “They have a lot more to lose,” he says. “But we” — and yes, he does betray his loyalties by calling the Shockers we — “aren’t beneath them anymore.”

We’ve walked up the aisles and into the tunnel that leads out of the arena to get away from the rising din of the fans taking their seats. O’Donnell looks out into the corridor, where he sees a familiar face.

“Susan!” he yells. “Susan, you’ve got to come here.”

Up walks Susan Wagle, cancer survivor, Wichita State alumna, and the first woman and first Wichitan to ever serve as president of the Kansas state Senate.

“We’re talking about my bill,” O’Donnell tells her.

“Oh!” she almost squeals. “I’m a big supporter of that bill.”

She’s wearing a Shockers T-shirt, as is her husband, Tom, who stands by her side. “It would be an amazing thing,” she says. “Not just for Wichita. For all of Kansas.”

I mention O’Donnell’s comment, that the rivalry shouldn’t require legislation. Is she confident, I ask, that even without a law, the schools will someday play? “No,” she says, just before turning to find her seat. “I’m not confident at all. There’s tremendous resistance.”

 ♦♦♦

Among the most significant impediments to a regular series is Kansas’s preference to not give up any of its nonconference home games in exchange for a biennial trip to Koch Arena. Part of this is financial: Home games generate large sums of money. Road games, typically, do not. But another reason becomes apparent just moments after Wichita State tips off against Drake. For visiting teams, Koch Arena can be a miserable place to play.

During my time in Kansas, I attended two games, this one at Koch Arena and Kansas-Oklahoma at Allen Fieldhouse a couple of nights later. I wanted to compare the atmospheres and cultures surrounding the two programs. Everyone who follows college basketball knows that Allen Fieldhouse is a cathedral as much as it is an arena and that its inhabitants are parishioners as much as they are fans. On the day of my trip, one Wichita State fan conceded, “It’s going to blow you away.” He was right. The moments before Kansas tips off are mesmerizing. The crowd sings the alma mater and then transitions into an incantation of “Rock Chalk Jayhawk,” which blends in with a presentation on the JumboTron that features James Naismith and Mario Chalmers and blurs the line between a hype video and a piece of sacred art.

And yet, in many ways, Koch Arena was just as impressive. The Kansas experience never stops reminding you how great the Jayhawks are. Lawrence feels like a shrine to the university, and the university feels like a shrine to the basketball team. You can buy a replica of Naismith’s original rules of basketball on Massachusetts Street. In the gym, you can look up to see a line of national championship banners that stretches across most of one baseline, offset by a line of Final Four banners that stretches farther than the length of the court. The message to opponents is simple: We beat almost every team that came here before you, we will beat almost every team that comes here after you, and in between, we will beat you.

In Wichita, they do not announce that they will beat you. They simply do it. At Kansas, you know it’s loud because the game just tipped off and the JumboTron is telling you the crowd has hit 116 decibels. At Wichita State, you know it’s loud because Tekele Cotton just dunked and you’ve not only lost the ability to hear, but also the ability to breathe. At Kansas, the roars are impressive, almost majestic. At Wichita State, they’re overjoyed and angry, often at the same damn time.

At halftime of the Shockers game, Wichita State athletic director Eric Sexton taps me on the shoulder and invites me to talk. I stand and follow him away from press row. Sexton is a small, graying can of Red Bull, and as he reaches the corner of the gym, he thrusts his arms in the direction of the crowd.

“Isn’t this amazing?” he shouts. “What an atmosphere! These fans — the passion they have. This team — the way these kids play. It’s unbelievable, right?”

He looks away from the court and up at me. It soon becomes apparent that he knows I’m not here only to talk about Wichita State. “That’s the story,” he says, emphasizing that his team’s historic success is what matters — not some simmering semi-rivalry. “That’s what it’s all about.”

And he’s right. The Shockers are a bullying team in the best way. They play with venom, as if they’re disgusted their opponents would dare show up to compete with them. Fred VanVleet controls possessions like a one-man version of FC Barcelona transferred onto a basketball court. Cotton crouches into a defensive stance and proceeds to humiliate whomever he guards. Ron Baker muscles past defenders who are too small and shoots over defenders who are too slow. Cleanthony Early is all things to all people, spending 40 minutes morphing into and out of every conceivable role.

The entrenched sides on either end of the “overrated” debate aren’t changing their minds at this point, but spend a night watching the Shockers and it’s clear: Wichita State can play. They’re good enough to return to the Final Four, and good enough to keep winning if they get there.

Yes, I tell Sexton, the athletic director. That is a big part of the story.

“No,” he says, now pointing at my chest. “That’s the story.”

Before I can even mention Kansas, he continues: “All of us in the state of Kansas have great programs and great passion for the game. You know, our governor said last March that he’s the governor of the great ‘state of basketball.’ We have tremendous respect for the other institutions in our state.”

Of course, I tell him. I don’t mean to imply otherwise. But don’t you want to play Kansas, and to a lesser extent, Kansas State?

“We want to schedule teams that will help us put together a résumé to go into the NCAA tournament,” he says. “Teams like Tennessee, Alabama, and Saint Louis [all of whom the Shockers played this year]. Any team that can help us do that is a team we want to play.”

Wouldn’t Kansas and Kansas State help with that?

“Those are excellent institutions with excellent programs.”

Wouldn’t it mean something for the fans, to have that rivalry?

“Our fans want us to schedule teams that will help us get into the tournament,” he says just before halftime ends. “That’s all they want.”

♦♦♦

“We want Kansas.”

That’s John Railsback, Wichita State alumnus and lifelong fan, the man who made the Israel-Palestine comparison on ShockerNet. We’re sitting at a bar in Johnson County, a southwest suburb of Kansas City. Railsback isn’t surprised by the official ambivalence from WSU’s administration. “They have to say that,” he says. (O’Donnell voiced a similar sentiment: “When you’re talking to officials, they’re all colleagues. They have to be diplomatic. The rest of us don’t have to be diplomatic.”)

Railsback instead points to comments from Marshall himself. On “The Jim Rome Show” in January, Marshall said, “It would be great for us and great for the state and maybe the nation to see a game like that.” Marshall went on to say, a bit cheekily, “If I were them, I wouldn’t play us either.”

There was a time when many in the state didn’t even want Wichita State University to exist. After its founding as Fairmount College, it became the University of Wichita, a municipal school, in 1926. By the late ’50s, administrators began pushing for the university to join the state system.

“Kansas needs another university like Guam needs another typhoon,” wrote a columnist soon thereafter in the nearby Coffeyville Journal. In his book about the history of the university, Uncloistered Halls, former WSU professor Craig Miner writes: “WSU has seldom been thought of as a ‘great’ university except in imagination. The question has most often been is it a ‘true’ or ‘real’ university at all.”

According to Alvin Eurich, executive director of the educational division of the Ford Foundation, it most decidedly was not. Eurich conducted a study in 1961 concerning the possibility of the University of Wichita becoming Wichita State. His conclusion: Instead of becoming a state university, the University of Wichita should cease to be a university at all. Instead it should be a state “attendance center,” overseen by administrators from K-State and KU. It could receive state funding, but only because it would be folded into the other, larger universities. In doing so, it would forfeit its graduate programs and, critically, its athletic teams.

Eurich’s suggestions were never adopted and the formation of WSU forged ahead. But its relationship with the state’s other major universities remained distant.

Miner’s book quotes a 1962 article in the Manhattan Tribune, a newspaper in the town where Kansas State is located, in which an editor wrote: “Kansas … shouldn’t further dilute the standards of the schools it already has, and it doesn’t owe a darn thing to an ambitious Wichita U.”

But Wichita State has always been a different kind of university. It is a commuter school, filled with nontraditional students. It has, former president Harry Corbin once said, “Not ivy covered walls but miles of concrete and streams of traffic … Not lovely lawns neatly set off and carefully tended but a marvelous maze of buildings and people and purposes.” KU had hills and columns and spires. Wichita State had America’s very first Pizza Hut. (It was opened in 1958. The reason for the name? The sign only had enough room for nine letters, the owners wanted to use the word “pizza,” and the building kind of looked like a hut.)

“To understand this whole situation,” says Lutz, the Wichita columnist, “you have to understand the geography of the state.” In Wichita, Lutz estimates, “It’s 60 percent Wichita State fans, 15 percent Kansas fans, 15 percent K-State fans, and 10 percent everybody else.” KU sits in the northeast quadrant of the state. It’s near Johnson County, a suburban Kansas City area that, Railsback says, “can be its own little world.”

Johnson County has plenty of money — “These people are the blue bloods,” says Railsback — but so does Wichita, a hub of the health care and aviation industries. Wichita State’s business school draws respect from well beyond Kansas’s borders. So over the decades, as enrollment at WSU has grown, its donor base has grown even faster. The arena’s namesake, Charles Koch, is a multibillionaire, a native Wichitan, a staunch libertarian, and one of the most influential moneymen in American politics.1

It’s evident today that Wichita State is no typical mid-major. Marshall is the 34th-highest paid coach among those whose teams played in last year’s NCAA tournament. The Shockers typically draw more than 10,000 fans to home games. “We’re not the little guy anymore,” says Railsback. “It’s way past the point where it would be embarrassing for KU to lose to us.”

He continues: “I mean, you’re KU. You’re always going to be KU. How can we threaten that? What are you afraid of?”

♦♦♦

All of this talk — that Wichita State is no longer utterly beneath Kansas, that the differences between the schools’ basketball programs are more in degree than in kind — hinges on Wichita State’s ability to keep winning in future seasons. Of course the Shockers and their boosters are riled up to play Kansas now — this is the best Wichita State team in the school’s history. But mid-major success is often cyclical, and the Kansas Jayhawks are a monolith. What if the teams agree to an annual game that seven years from now becomes an annual rout?

There’s evidence that this won’t happen to the Shockers, that their program’s foundation is strong enough to warrant steady competition with college basketball’s best. Wichita State has money, it has coaching, and it has an underrated tradition. But no one genuinely expects the Shockers to be perennial Final Four contenders. Wichita State has repeatedly been abandoned by its rivals in realignment. Over the years, programs from Cincinnati to Louisville to Creighton have left the Missouri Valley Conference, and life as a mid-major, behind.

“A lot of Kansas fans just want Wichita State back in its neat little box,” says Lutz. “Just back to being a nice program, but not a threat.” Wichita State will continue to attract three-star recruits, Kansas will continue to attract the next versions of Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, and the Shockers will keep trying to use experience to bridge the gap.

But will the so-called rivalry ever be consummated? O’Donnell’s bill isn’t going anywhere in the state Senate. He’s hoping the legislative move can generate enough buzz for WSU to schedule a game against K-State first. “That will really put the pressure on KU,” he says. If the Jayhawks don’t follow the Wildcats’ lead, O’Donnell says, then support for his bill may increase. But the longer the Shockers win, the louder the questions will get. Lutz himself already has a proposal. One game at Allen Fieldhouse, one game at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri, and one game at Intrust Bank Arena, the off-campus venue in Wichita. “Not exactly a two-for-one,” he says, “but close.”

I did find at least one Shockers fan who pays little mind to Kansas’s success. Oddly enough, I ran into him on the floor at Allen Fieldhouse. In a sea of blue, Donielle Watson stood near the court in a Shockers hoodie and a gold skullcap. A girls’ AAU coach in Wichita, he’d come to Lawrence to see Wichitans Perry Ellis and Conner Frankamp play for KU.

“You know, we’re all Kansas,” he said. “Why fight each other? Why not just celebrate what everybody is doing, whether it’s us or KU or K-State or whoever?” Yes, he admitted, plenty of Kansas fans exist in their own bubble, oblivious to the success of any other program, “but you know?” he said, “They deserve it. Anybody else would be the same way.”

Besides, he said, there is still one way the Shockers can prove themselves against KU. “Let’s get them in the tournament. Let’s earn it. Elite Eight. One-seed against 2-seed.”

Who’s the 1-seed, I asked.

“Oh, you know who it is,” he said. “Shockers all day.”

Filed Under: College Basketball, Kansas Jayhawks, Wichita State, Big 12, Missouri Valley Conference, Cleanthony Early

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Jordan Ritter Conn is a staff writer for Grantland. He wrote The Defender: Manute Bol’s Journey from Sudan to the NBA and Back Again, a multimedia e-book published by The Atavist.

Archive @ jordanconn