The ribbon of red down Interstate 35 has commenced.
The license plates, bumper stickers and flapping flags signal the invasion of Iowa State University fans. The exit at Bethany, Mo., is a common place for them to fuel up and eat.
“Stopping at Bethany is a ritual,” said Pam Mundt of Ames, Iowa, home to the Cyclones. “A sign at the Dairy Queen there says, ‘Welcome Iowa State Fans.’ ”
Then the cardinal-and-gold pilgrimage flows southwest, on to Kansas City — a kind of mecca for thousands upon thousands of Iowa State men’s basketball fans who crowd annually into the Sprint Center for the Big 12 Tournament.
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Just how many is difficult to pinpoint. Some say more than 15,000 flocked here each of the last two years, when their team won the trophy under the leadership of a coach everyone called “the Mayor.”
But once in town, they don’t all head to the arena. Many watch the games at Kelly’s Westport Inn. It’s said that in the days before email, makeshift signs along I-35 instructed travelers: “We’re meeting at Kelly’s.”
Should the Cyclones advance past their quarterfinal matchup with Oklahoma on Thursday night, more will come. Yet victory this year may elude these ’Clones, as the Mayor parted ways to coach the Chicago Bulls and Iowa State is seeded No. 6.
But even if they suffer an early exit from the tourney, expect relatively few to leave.
“It’s like a little vacation,” said Harry Mundt, Pam’s husband, as he nursed a cocktail that one Lenexa place dubbed “the Cyclone” just for the occasion.
A 25-year attendee of the tournament, he added: “It’s a lot of fun to see what people do for us.”
What’s really at work here? Why would Iowa State boosters flock south every March in such numbers?
Some of the reasons are obvious, some not so:
▪ Iowans have only so many sports-fan options.
Like fans anywhere, “to support a team, you’re making decisions — monetarily, timewise, how much you’re willing to travel,” said Daniel Wann, an Overland Park native who researches the psychology of sports fandom at Murray State University.
“At some point you’re going to ask yourself, ‘What basket am I going to put my eggs into?’ ” Wann said. “If you’re a sports fan in Los Angeles or Chicago or Dallas, the choices are colossal. In a state like Iowa, your choices are limited.”
So collegiate athletics rule, making followers of both Iowa State and the rival University of Iowa Hawkeyes among the best-traveled fans anywhere. And high school sports — among them, wrestling and girls basketball — command as much ink in Iowa newspapers as do the colleges.
(Best maybe to avoid bringing up media coverage to our visiting Iowa Staters. Many gripe that the Hawkeyes get far more of it.)
They won’t care for this observation from Wann, either: “Fans may also ask themselves, ‘Which team can regularly compete for national attention?’ It’s not going to be Iowa State football.”
▪ The drive for most is short enough to easily get them here and long enough to keep them.
From Ames it’s about four hours, a near-perfect distance for Kansas City businesses hoping to fill restaurant booths and hotel rooms through the duration of the tourney.
“You’re not so close that you’d go to a game and then head home,” said Bud Nicol, executive director of the Hotel and Lodging Association of Greater Kansas City. “You’re going to settle into the festival atmosphere.”
Should the Cyclones advance, the I-35 pilgrimage will heat up. Students are known to pour in for the weekend matchups; some may not even miss classes if the team plays Friday night.
▪ Up north, they’re eager for spring.
Come tourney time around the Iowa State campus — the northernmost in the Big 12 — winter is still hanging around.
For the Mundts, part of the pleasure of the annual trip is seeing magnolia trees budding around Kansas City. They usually don’t have to bundle up as they might still do back home.
“We can go home knowing that spring is coming there, too,” said Harry Mundt.
▪ They know Kansas City well and enjoy being here.
“Why is it that Iowa Staters love coming to Kansas City?” asked Jeff Johnson, president of the university’s alumni association. “I’m not going to minimize this. You have a great, great city...
“Your people have really embraced the Iowa State people. ... For many of us, it’s become almost a family ritual to make this pilgrimage.”
The older fans have seen our city change as we have.
They sort of miss watching games at Kemper Arena — “Hilton South,” to them, a reference to the crazy atmosphere of their own Hilton Coliseum.
And while they love jamming into the Power & Light District and throwing back drinks at McFadden’s (Iowa State’s “official” social headquarters during the tournament), hundreds gathered Wednesday night at their traditional watering hole, Kelly’s in Westport.
General manager Mark Weber recalled how Kelly’s became such an integral part of local Cyclones lore.
“It started with four guys one Saturday afternoon in the 1980s,” Weber said.
It was tournament week for what then was the Big Eight. The four Iowa State customers had tickets but were happy to stay at Kelly’s and watch the games over beers. They gave the tickets to ISU students who left delighted and spread the word of their good fortune in Westport.
“The next year, it was 12 Iowa Staters sitting here watching the games. And it just grew and grew from there,” said Weber.
When The Kansas City Star relayed this history to the visiting Mundts, the couple nodded.
“Yeah, I know that story,” Harry Mundt said. “One of those first four guys was my physician.”