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Kansas vs. Missouri: The End of the Border War

Looking back on one of sports’ nastiest rivalries.

Kansas fans celebrate

There’s a scene about halfway through The Outlaw Josey Wales, right before Clint Eastwood guns down four Union soldiers, where his character follows a family into a general store. Once inside, the man behind the counter informs Grandma, who’s just scolded Eastwood for his nasty tobacco habit, that the wheat he has is from Kansas, and the molasses is from Missouri. “We’ll go without molasses then,” the old woman says. “Everything from Missouri has a taint about it.” A male companion warns her about watching her words now that they’re headed to Texas; there are “lots of nice elements from Missouri coming west.” “Never heard of nice things from Missouri coming west,” she replies. “We’re from Kansas — Jayhawkers — and proud of it.”

When the clip came on the JumboTron at Allen Fieldhouse Saturday afternoon, just after the starting lineups for both Kansas and Missouri had been announced, the last four words were suffocated by the roar of the crowd. Josey Wales is set in 1865. The plot follows Eastwood as a Confederate Missourian who refuses to surrender to the Union army after a Kansan militia kills his family. Missouri and Kansas played their first basketball game 105 years ago, but the hatred behind the oldest rivalry west of the Mississippi dates back to before shots were ever fired at Fort Sumter. Everything about the Border War — the mascot names, the passion, the depth — is a product of some 170 years of enmity.

After the clip ended, a second video began — this one of Paul Pierce warning those who enter the Phog to pay heed. The crowd exploded again. The mob of blue bounced up and down, and I felt shivers from my spine to my scalp. Missouri and Kansas have shared a conference for 104 years, but next season, Mizzou will move to the SEC. When the realignment shakedown began again this fall, Missouri decided that leaving the Big 12 was a chance to achieve stability in an uncertain college sports landscape. The move means that next season, for the first time since 1908, MU and KU will not play each other. Both sides have said the onus falls on the other to reach out and make an effort to continue history, and both sides have denied that the responsibility should be theirs. As the Phog rocked, the no. 3 Tigers prepared to play the no. 5 Jayhawks in one of the biggest games in their shared history. The Border War was set to tip off for the 267th — and last — time.

R oy Williams knows something about rivalries. Before becoming head coach at Kansas, Williams spent 10 years as an assistant at his alma mater, North Carolina. Nationally, the rivalry between Duke and Carolina is considered the nation’s best — a result of both proximity and success. The two schools, separated by just eight miles of Tobacco Road, have combined for 10 national championships and 57 ACC regular-season titles. When Williams arrived in Lawrence, Missouri and Kansas had never played a game with both ranked in the top 10. Kansas leads the series 172-95. The stakes have not always been high when Mizzou and Kansas meet, but the bad blood — deep, historical, and often familial — has always been palpable

“I grew up an ACC guy, and that’s all I had ever really known,” says Williams. “I got up there, and I was stunned by how important it was, how big it was, how far back it goes.

“Kansas-Missouri is not just about athletics. There are some hard feelings that go back a long, long time.”

Tension between Kansas and Missouri has existed since the establishment of the Kansas territory via the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The legislation was primarily conceived by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, and its original intention was to further extend efforts to create a transcontinental railroad. The problems arose when the use of popular sovereignty — a people’s right to participate in the creation of their state laws, and an idea that Douglas staunchly favored — was written into the act. Voters (in those days, white males over the age of 21) in both the Kansas and Nebraska territories would decide if slavery would be allowed. The act made irrelevant the Missouri Compromise, which in 1820 established that states north of the 36th parallel would be admitted as free states. Popular sovereignty was being used to rob the nation of the balance in federal legislation the compromise had attempted to create.

“The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 pushes this matter [of balance] back onto the front burner,” says Marvin Overby, a professor of political science at Missouri. “There was this ongoing debate between those with slave interests who wanted to open up more western territory for the extension of a slave-labor-based economy and those who had interest in a free-labor-based economy and keeping slavery out of the territories.

“You have this tension, and the flash point for it, the place it becomes essentially a proxy war between North and South, is the Kansas-Missouri border.”

The period from the mid-1850s through the Civil War is still known as “Bleeding Kansas” in recognition of the violence that dominated the region. Militias from each state led raids into the other in support of their pro- or anti-slavery causes, and even after Kansas was admitted to the Union in 1861, the efforts of Confederate guerrillas continued during the Civil War. The mascots from each school are derived from antebellum fighting forces. “Jayhawkers” was the name given to pro-Union militias throughout Kansas, and the “Tigers” were a group in Columbia, Missouri, that protected the town and university from Confederate forces. For all the ill feelings between the schools now, at their inception, the Jayhawks and Tigers were actually on the same side.

Hostility between the states, however, is still grounded in fact. And in the discussion of how the rivalry between the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas began, one particular raid is cited as the defining act of violence. On August 21, 1863, William Quantrill and his band of Confederate rebels rode into Lawrence, Kansas. The city, about 50 miles from the state border, was considered an abolitionist stronghold. Quantrill was the leader of a pro-slavery Missouri militia that some historians have called the Civil War’s most vicious fighting unit. Quantrill and his men had little interest in the distinction between civilian and soldier, and that day in Lawrence, they killed more than 150 men and boys before setting fire to each building they passed.

N orm Stewart has been around the Border War since 1952. As a high school senior in Missouri, Stewart was recruited by Dr. Forrest Allen — as in Allen Fieldhouse — but eventually chose to attend Mizzou. Stewart began coaching after his college career ended, and in 1966 he was named head coach of Missouri’s basketball team. He would stay for the next 32 years.

Stewart was known for his own set of anti-Kansas sentiments during his time in Columbia. One year, when circumstances didn’t allow the Tigers to stay in Lawrence the night before a game at KU, a reporter asked Stewart why he’d chosen to stay in Kansas City. Rather than move on to another question about his team’s performance (they had lost), Stewart claimed that he’d never spend a dime in Kansas. It was a well he’d return to often. At Mizzou, if you’re not going to win, hating the Jayhawks is the next best thing. “Every time I wanted to get out of a bad question,” Stewart says, “I would make reference to that.”

Truthfully, Stewart enjoyed the rivalry with Kansas. He liked playing there. He liked coaching there. Mostly, he liked winning there. After he retired in 1999, Stewart was invited to be recognized at halftime during games at other Big 12 schools. Stewart, who dislikes attention almost as much as he dislikes losing, declined several of the offers. When Roy Williams asked Stewart to come to Lawrence, he felt it was his duty to make the trip. KU honored him with a rocking chair at halftime. Stewart remembers telling Williams: “‘We shouldn’t stand too close together.’ And he said, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘Well, there’s a lot of your fans that don’t like that you invited me here, and a lot of my fans don’t like it because they didn’t want me to accept the invitation. So don’t let them get us with one shot.'”

Stewart only remembers the games getting ugly a few times, most notably on March 11, 1961, when he was the coach at Northern Iowa. Mizzou’s Charles Henke scored 24.6 points per game in 1961 and is a member of the university’s athletic hall of fame, but the question Henke hears most often concerns that day at Brewer Fieldhouse in Columbia. Early in the second half, Kansas’ Wayne Hightower stole the ball just past midcourt, and after being fouled hard by Henke, Hightower took a swing at the Missouri senior. Henke punched back, and before long the brawl engulfed both teams and members of the crowd. “I think that’s the biggest fight Missouri and Kansas had since the Civil War,” Henke told Fox 4 in Kansas City.

Henke said no one had to tell the players that they were supposed to dislike KU. It was understood. When I got to Missouri in 2006, I was a kid from Chicago who knew little of the history between the schools. During my sophomore year, the rivalry saw its biggest football game ever, a no. 4 vs. no. 2 matchup where the winner would probably become the no. 1 team in the country heading into the Big 12 Championship Game. And while the history was rehashed incessantly that week, it took two more years for me to realize just how much it mattered. As a student journalist covering the football team in 2009, I was waiting in the interview room after Mizzou beat Iowa State on senior day when a noise started to build behind the wall. It was a murmur at first, and as the chant grew louder and faster, the words became clear. Rock, Chalk, Chicken-Hawk. Rock, Chalk, Chicken-Hawk. The pace quickened, as it does in the authentic KU version, to the point that the words blended together. Then, with perfect clarity — Fuck KU!

The players appreciate the rivalry, but most often, the ugliness is left to the fans. Nick Collison remembers a female KU fan coming to a game against Missouri with a fake black eye and a T-shirt that read, “Ricky’s girlfriend.” Missouri guard Ricky Clemons had just been charged with misdemeanor assault. “I don’t think many people know how dark it is,” Collison says. “There’s really a hatred there.”

Taunts get personal in many heated rivalries, but in the Border War, the insensitivity can take a historical, violent theme. One of the more shocking pieces of rivalry memorabilia (and there are many) is a T-shirt with an image of Lawrence set ablaze above the word “Scoreboard” and the Missouri logo. Mizzou fans are not alone in invoking the states’ violent past. In KU’s student section on Saturday afternoon, students in the front row painted their chests with letters spelling “John Brown,” an ode to the abolitionist who led raids in Kansas and elsewhere throughout the 1850s. A century and a half removed from the tensions that created the states’ mutual dislike for each other, students born in the 1990s were paying homage to conflicts that most Americans never consider outside the pages of a history textbook.

T here weren’t too many fighting words — chanted or uttered — on Saturday afternoon. Most of the taunts from KU fans dealt with Missouri’s bolt from the Big 12. Signs in the student section read, “KU Won’t MIZZ-You,” and, “If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Leave Em.” During Kansas free throws, “S-E-C” could be heard from a small, Missouri-gold section tucked into an upper corner of the Phog.

Blame for the Border War’s end has been cast from both sides. Missouri’s departure from the Big 12 officially took place in November, but it began in the summer of 2011. When Nebraska bolted the conference for the Big Ten, and the great realignment scramble began, Mizzou hoped to join the Huskers. At the time, the Big Ten offered stability in the form a more lucrative television contract and a more equitable revenue-sharing deal that Missouri couldn’t find in the Big 12.

When the Big Ten indicated it had no interest in the Tigers, panic set in. Big 12 juggernauts Texas and Oklahoma were shopping for new homes in the Pac-12 and elsewhere, and it seemed like Missouri would be left out of a major conference when the realignment music stopped. Those fears were quelled when the Red River rivals chose to stay in the Big 12, but last season, Texas A&M reignited the issue when it announced it was leaving for the SEC.

Speculation began anew. Would Texas and Oklahoma flee? Would the Big 12 disband? And if so, where would the rest of the conference’s schools go? Eventually (read: after the Pac-12 stated they had no interest in expanding), the Longhorns and Sooners assured fellow Big 12 members that they would remain with the conference. Missouri remained unconvinced. In October the Big 12 voted to impose a more equal form of revenue sharing that included a six-year grant of rights, thus providing a stability closer to what the schools had desired. Missouri still decided that fleeing south was in its best interest. Although the Big 12 became more stable, the threat of being held hostage by the conference’s football powers after the grant expired remained a possibility.

Kansas has called Missouri’s move a cash grab and accused its rival of walking away from more than 100 years of the schools’ shared history. Mizzou administrators have been adamant about their desire to continue the rivalry. Missouri governor Jay Nixon has suggested that an annual matchup on a neutral corner, perhaps Kansas City’s Sprint Center, is something the rivalry deserves. To Bill Self, it deserves more.

“It’s not the same,” Self says while answering questions after Saturday’s game. “Missouri has to market their future. We’re their past.

“It’s a shame it’s going to end, but it’s definitely going to end. Playing them once a year with nothing on the line, it doesn’t have the same value as playing them twice a year with a championship on the line.”

H istory seeps through the walls of Allen Fieldhouse. Final Four banners hanging from the rafters stretch the length of the court and more. They’re mirrored by conference championship banners from 12 decades — from the Big 4, the Big 5, the Big 8, and the Big 12. Throughout the first half, Missouri met the challenges of the Fieldhouse with the calm of a senior-laden team who had seen them before. Each time Kansas made a play that sent the crowd into a frenzy, Marcus Denmon and Kim English made one of their own to stem the momentum. Mizzou closed the first half with a 13-1 run.

But Allen Fieldhouse was in rare form during Saturday’s second half. Self said that the atmosphere in the building over the game’s final 10 minutes was the best he’d seen since 2003, when he arrived in Lawrence. Eric Chenowith, who played on Kansas teams with Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz, Collison, and Kirk Hinrich, and who flew in from California to witness the rivalry’s final conference game, said it was unlike anything he had ever experienced.

As the Jayhawks chipped away at a 19-point Missouri lead, the building began to shake. Conversations with those seated a few feet away were lost in the noise. The banner hanging at one end of the building, “Pay Heed, All Who Enter: Beware of the Phog,” needed no explanation. A rivalry that lives on history fed on the stakes that it has so often lacked. A century of animosity came down to one game, between two of the top five teams in the country, for the Big 12 title. That day, there was no more perfect place to see college basketball, and that’s because Missouri was there, and because it might never be again.

Kansas came all the way back, and with the game tied, Thomas Robinson swatted Phil Pressey’s layup at the buzzer. The din of the crowd continued long after the horn. “I don’t think I’ll ever be part of something like that again,” Robinson said.

The Tigers refused to wilt in the extra period, again leaning on Denmon to get points when they needed them. With 12 seconds left and the Jayhawks trailing by one after a Denmon jumper, Tyshawn Taylor drove the length of the floor and drew a foul. The senior made both free throws, and with eight seconds remaining, the Tigers had one possession left.

The decibel level in the arena hovered around 120. “I used to say it’s so loud that it’s almost quiet,” Collison says. “You can’t hear anything.” For the first time all game, Mizzou seemed affected by the noise. Michael Dixon dribbled upcourt with an inexplicable lack of urgency, and by the time he drove into the lane and passed to Denmon on the wing, time had run out. Kansas had found a way to win, 87-86, just like they had so many times before.

Self came onto the floor, and he and his players reveled in the moment. The crowd remained in the stands and cheered. The pocket of Missouri fans moved down from their section in the corner and soaked up jeers as they walked by. As they sulked toward the exit, scattered Jayhawk fans lobbed chants of “S-E-C!” One wore a gray shirt with blue lettering: Breathe if you hate Missouri. Mizzou fans may never again have to endure an atmosphere so vicious, and that really is a shame.