It’s time for Tigers and Jayhawks to make up

05/18/2014 12:26 AM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Tom Mendenhall lives on a road called Quantrill’s Pass, a designation for which his family evidently went to some extremes to get the naming rights.

“We built a subdivision and named the street,” said Mendenhall, who last year ventured to Lawrence to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Quantrill’s savage attack.

On Saturday at University Field, he was the fellow walking around with a “BURN-KU” license plate hanging from his neck and toting a stick from which dangled a red-and-blue-painted rubber chicken in a noose — a similar ensemble to the one he once took into Allen Fieldhouse.

This is all in fun, the 66-year-old Mendenhall wants you to know. Besides, he figures it all started with the Jayhawker militia running “this area for a while,” like his great-grandmother told him they did.

“Things happened,” he said.

Of infinitely less consequence, and for far lesser reasons now, the flagship educational institutions of the states remain embroiled in a blame-game that has put a freeze on the oldest athletic rivalry west of the Mississippi.

For one shimmering moment on Saturday, in front of a crackling crowd of 1,392 dotted with KU visitors, the Missouri-Kansas athletic rivalry was rekindled in an NCAA regional softball game won 6-3 by the Tigers.

Since virtually nothing is indisputable when it comes to KU-MU, the game either was the 897th or 913th time the schools had met head-to-head in football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball or softball. The discrepancy is in baseball, which each school counts differently.

And that doesn’t account for the dozens, if not hundreds, more times they met head-to-head or in tournament formats since 1891 in a relationship that morphed together through Missouri Valley to Big Six, Seven, Eight and 12 … included continuous contests in at least one sport through two World Wars and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic … and adapted to navigate brawls and forfeits and bubbling bad blood.

Some of that spirit was encapsulated last Sunday in the words of MU shortstop Corrin Genovese, who upon seeing the brackets announced playfully told reporters:

“I know (Kansas is) kind of scared to play us in football and basketball, so it’s good that we can keep tradition going and hopefully let them know who’s boss and who will always be better in the rivalry.”

But for all the rivalry has meant and endured and still should be, it has been stalemated by realignment.

Seconds after the victory was secured Saturday, MU athletic director Mike Alden asked, “Why would you not want to play that? When you think about that type of competition and the healthy rivalry, why wouldn’t you want to play?”

The answer from KU remains unchanged and essentially goes like this:

Missouri betrayed the Big 12 and Kansas by leaving the imperiled conference to join the Southeastern Conference.

Therefore, everything is different and KU can’t play because Mizzou needs KU more than KU needs it, especially in Kansas City.

And then Kansas fans who are angry say, besides, we don’t care anymore (though in the process protest too much).

But there’s so much that doesn’t make sense about this stance, really.

Wouldn’t KU have embraced the harbor of the Big Ten or even the SEC if it had the chance as the Big 12 was teetering, for instance?

And blame Mizzou for leaving, sure, but then why does KU basketball play Colorado, which actually was a key part of destabilizing the Big 12 when it left a year earlier?

And why does KU schedule Nebraska in softball when the Cornhuskers were the most pivotal chess piece of all in the beginning of the chaos in the Big 12 when they opted to go to the Big Ten?

But forget about all that, and about Texas A&M starting the movement all over again after all had seemed to settle down, and let’s just put the yoke on Mizzou.

Great. Own it, MU.

So … now what?

What’s the point of being “right” if something substantial is lost by it?

As much as we’ve made it all about money and leveraging and like this is all some kind of Game of Thrones, doesn’t the appeal of college sports still come down to fun and entertainment and traditions?

And protest if you must, it’s an absolute certainty that a restart of Kansas-Mizzou football or men’s basketball (among other sports) would be scalding hot tickets no matter how good or bad any of those teams are or where they’d play.

That’s why KU first baseman Maddie Stein said after the game: “It’s definitely fun reliving the rivalry. … It’s always fun when there’s more than just playing for yourselves or your school.”

That’s why Kansas fan Travis Jones, 35, woke up Saturday in Gardner, Kan., saw that KU and MU had won Friday and would be meeting for the first time head-to-head since Missouri left for the SEC in 2012 and told his wife, “Border Showdown. Let’s go over.”

So they loaded their three daughters and two of their friends in the car and made the trip to Columbia, KU flags flapping from their car.

“I think it’s an awesome rivalry,” he said. “Good rivalries are healthy for college sports.”

He misses it but understands both sides, he said, adding, “I don’t know if anybody’s going to budge at this point.”

For that to happen, Mizzou probably needs to do more to extend the olive branch to Kansas, because it’s not publicly clear just how frequently or sincerely those gestures have been made.

But there’s little doubt this is in the hands of Kansas. And there’s no indication of anything thawing on its end.

Maybe it will help some that KU men’s basketball coach Bill Self thinks enough of MU’s new coach, Kim Anderson, to have offered congratulations. Self also has spoken with Anderson about assistant coach possibilities.

Self represents the athletic department, of course, but his influence is such that if he wanted to play … they’d play.

As dug-in as he’s been, though, that still seems far-fetched.

But just maybe Saturday will help, either by priming the pump or as a testing ground of sorts.

“That would be so cool if we could be the ones who kind of jumpstart things,” MU coach Ehren Earleywine said, later adding, “I think it’s time to move on. This is fan-driven, these college sports. Let the fans have what they want, you know?”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian.

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