When I told my St. Louis dentist, Jay Joern, an ardent Mizzou fan, I’d be moving to Kansas City, his first reaction was to insist I live on the Missouri side. After all, he noted, legendary MU coach Norm Stewart prided himself on never spending any money in Kansas.
Or so he thought. When I told him that Stewart, in fact, had acknowledged he just liked to say that for theatrics, Dr. Joern slumped back in his seat as if I’d told him there was no Santa Claus.
He was just one of many to weigh in on the unique matters of the Missouri-Kansas border, which even in my few weeks here since arriving to work for The Star I’ve come to learn has seeped far deeper into the landscape than anyone can understand from afar.
I’d studied it, interviewed people about it and been here enough over 25 years that I thought I had a sense of that pulse. Yet it’s evident I’ve got a lot more to learn about the depths of that — not to mention plenty of other things about the area. (Why 7 Highway, for instance, instead of Highway 7?).
Still, this much I can tell already: Something fundamental is missing from the Kansas City sports scene right now, and not just because the Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game since 1994 and the Royals haven’t since beating the Cardinals in the 1985 World Series.
A year ago this month, Mizzou’s departure to the Southeastern Conference became official, and the MU-KU rivalry as we knew it came to an end. Just like that, a tradition 150 years in the making vanished.
Like each other or not, Mizzou and Kansas have to start playing each other again. Soon. It’s bigger than the institutions themselves, or the current leaderships and decisions they’ve made. It’s about the very underpinnings of the area, essential to the tapestry and part of the DNA in sports and beyond.
Two entities that feed off each other by definition need the other, even if they don’t see it in the moment.
“It’s just sad,” said Royals pitcher Aaron Crow, who grew up in Topeka, played at Mizzou and has jousted with Jayhawks fans ever since.
The state of affairs is symbolically bookended in the Framewoods Gallery windows on Massachusetts Street in Lawrence.
Prominently displayed among other works are artists’ renderings of “Blood-Stained Dawn” — William Quantrill and his raiders’ savage attack of Lawrence on Aug. 21, 1863 — and “The Final Battle,” a scene from Kansas’ 87-86 overtime basketball victory over Mizzou on Feb. 25, 2012.
Each image tells its own vivid tale, but considered together they represent another: the span of the bygone era, from the roots of the Mizzou-Kansas rivalry to its apparent last signature.
“We miss Missouri Without question For the immediate future, for both programs, there is something missing — for the immediate future,” Kansas coach Bill Self said Thursday in his office. “But from our standpoint, they’re not part of our long-term future. And we’re not part of their long-term future.”
Self says this without a hint of rancor, by the way, just a matter-of-fact statement that Mizzou’s move from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference was a rejection of its past, one that jeopardized the stability of those left behind.
In some ways, in fact, Self is downright nostalgic about Mizzou.
“I will admit that there’s not a game that I’ve enjoyed coaching more in on our schedule than going to Columbia,” he said, reminding that he’d long been tethered to MU since playing and coaching at Oklahoma State against Missouri in the Big Eight. “Hey, I wanted the Missouri job; they didn’t hire me. Then I go (from Tulsa) to Illinois, which is Missouri’s biggest non-conference rival, and we have great fun in that series. Then I come here, where it’s the most bitter rival.
“It was always a game that was circled in my mind. I don’t have that same feeling now. The dynamics have changed.”
Not that everyone entwined with KU feels that way. Former star Bud Stallworth, for instance, was visiting Kansas on Thursday. Asked if he thought the games should be resumed, he said, “Absolutely.”
Told his answer, Self laughed and said, “Because he dropped 50 on Missouri” in a 1972 game.
“It’s all very kind of complicated, and there are a lot of different layers to it,” former Kansas basketball star Ryan Robertson said.
Robertson, who is married to a former Mizzou soccer player, encapsulates some of that himself. He says “as a fan” he’d “love to see Kansas and Missouri continue to play basketball games” but that as a former Jayhawk he understands the school’s resistance and believes MU needs the game more than Kansas does.
No matter who or what you want to blame for the rivalry abruptly going dormant, all the fan teasing and taunting and hatred and humor that had a tangible epicenter simply rings hollow now.
“When the dust settles here and people get to what the new long-term normal should be, it’s my hope that we could rekindle this in a late December or early January annual game” at the Sprint Center, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said by telephone Thursday, adding that such a game would be a natural along the lines of the “iconic game” MU plays against Illinois in St. Louis every year.
Without that? It’s all just the sound of one hand clapping, and toward what end, exactly? If they don’t play, there’s no focal point and not even satisfying trash-talk. Reveling in the other’s failures in other galaxies is nothing like relishing direct victory.
Maybe time will heal, or at least soften, KU’s stance of declining to engage MU’s repeated offers to extend the series in a new context.
“I understand, absolutely, that we’re the institution that made the decision to go to the SEC; I got it, we understand that,” MU athletics director Mike Alden said Wednesday, adding that Mizzou chancellor Brady Deaton and Alden had tried without being “invasive” to continue to make overtures to KU administrators. “But we also understand that this rivalry and these relationships have been built for over a century. And so, while at some moment in our history we made the decision to go to the SEC I just think that those types of decisions of a moment in time, you would hope that they wouldn’t affect generations.”
But at this moment in time, anyway, Kansas isn’t receptive.
“My opinion is still the exact same it was a year ago, and it’s not a hatred opinion,” Self said. “It’s just like, ‘Hey, you took your ball and went and played with somebody else. We’re not just standing on the sidelines waiting to play with you. We’ve got other people we can play.’”
As for down the road?
“Maybe the next coach may see it differently, or maybe the next chancellor, or maybe the next athletic director,” Self said, “because time does have a way of soothing some things.”
But even as time might ease tensions, it also might foster apathy.
“Nobody’s going to view it as a great rivalry five years from now; nobody’s going to view it as a rivalry 10 years from now,” Self said. “There will be somebody else who will emerge in some way, shape or form that kind of fills that role for both programs.
“And it may not ever get to the level that the Kansas-Missouri deal got to. It probably won’t. I don’t see how it can. But it’s still going to be somebody else.”
And it’s going to leave a void if it comes to that. Even if both sides can feel justified in their actions, it’s a net loss for Kansas City.