(Editor’s note: This story is part of The Star’s annual football preview, which will appear in three special sections in the Sunday, Aug. 28 print edition and also on KansasCity.com and The Star’s Red Zone Extra app.)
Let’s be honest. Kansas City has never been considered a college football town. For that reputation, a constant presence and a national focus are requisites. Neither is present.
There have been moments, none greater than in 2007, and those who were here won’t soon forget the spine-tingling events of that Nov. 24.
Missouri and Kansas began a run of the Border War at Arrowhead Stadium, and just the novelty of the first MU-KU game at the Chiefs’ home would have drawn plenty of attention.
But this one delivered the Border War of ’em all. The Jayhawks were 11-0 and ranked second in the nation, the Tigers stood 10-1 and third. A day earlier top-ranked LSU had lost. Unfathomable as it seems today, KU-MU was for No. 1 and one victory away from playing for the national championship.
The weeklong hype was unlike anything Kansas City had experienced for football, and the second-largest crowd in Arrowhead history showed up to watch the Tigers prevail.
Fast forward to nearly a decade later.
Missouri has switched conferences. Kansas football has bottomed out. The Border War has been shelved, and the teams fell one game short of completing a six-year deal.
But that’s not all. The last Big 12 football championship game was played here in 2008. From 1998, when Nebraska met Oklahoma State, until 2011, there were 17 games involving Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
Missouri’s victory over Brigham Young last year was the lone meeting of major conference teams since 2011.
College football may not have been a Kansas City thing, but it’s been more than this. If you’re looking for a culprit, point the finger at realignment.
When the major conferences began playing musical chairs six years ago, the Big 12 and Big East took the biggest hits. Big East football was realigned out of existence. The Big 12 survived, but the losses of Missouri to the Southeastern Conference and Nebraska to the Big Ten changed the gravitational pull of both schools.
Kansas City was something of a crossroads for the Tigers and Cornhuskers, who passed through on the way to many opponents.
This had been true since 1907, when representatives from those schools joined three others in Kansas City to form the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association, and remained part of that conference and its changes to the Big Six, Seven, Eight and 12 for more than a century.
The basketball tournament, the annual meetings, the indoor track meet — if it involved the conference, Kansas City was the destination. There had been pockets of football games but nothing substantial until the Chiefs got involved in a big way and Arrowhead’s gates swung open to the conference and its members.
Now, the major-college football presence in Kansas City is on hiatus, and it’s more than that for one Nebraska fan.
“Things are a lot different in KC for us Huskers fans,” said Steve Becher, a Nebraska graduate who lives in Lenexa and has coordinated events for the KC Huskers club. “It’s almost like Nebraska football is forgotten in KC. Out of sight, out of mind.”
Becher said he misses the coverage in The Star and the chatter on sports talk radio, especially when Nebraska was gearing up for Kansas State.
The notion that Nebraska longs for a return to its conference roots is met with an eye roll among most fans, except those in the Kansas City area who used to love the short trips to Manhattan, Lawrence and Columbia.
It’s different for Missouri. Besides last year’s football game, the Tigers have played a handful of men’s basketball games at the Sprint Center, including a meeting with Kansas State in last year’s CBE Classic.
“I’ve always thought of Kansas City as a college basketball center, and Missouri continues to be a part of that,” said Paul Blackman, a Kansas City attorney and former president of the Tiger Club of Kansas City.
It’s true that Kansas City has maintained its status as a hoops haven. The Big 12 men’s tournament is locked in for four more years and hasn’t lost an ounce of energy through realignment. The CBE Classic brings in a major event on Thanksgiving week, and the Sprint Center is a regular destination for the NCAA Tournament.
And it would be unfair to omit the presence of Division II football in Kansas City, which is stronger than ever with a regular appearance by Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association teams at Arrowhead during the regular season and the NCAA championship at Children’s Mercy Park.
If anything, Blackman said, the new directions of Mizzou and Nebraska have made Kansas City a more national college crossroads, with its directional signs pointing toward the Big 12, SEC and Big Ten.
“You could argue that this is where three major conferences intersect,” Blackman said.
Perhaps. But it’s also where major-conference football teams play more infrequently these days.
Blackman has a solution for that.
“Early-season game, Missouri-Nebraska at Arrowhead,” he said. “Maybe down the road.”