A wall in the Vanier Football Complex at Kansas State holds shelves of bowl game and conference trophies. But before those awards come into view, a glass case devoted to a single piece of hardware is the centerpiece of the entrance lobby.
The Governor’s Cup, possessed by the winner of the Sunflower State showdown between Kansas State and Kansas, has taken up residence in Manhattan for the past three years, and stands front and center to greet visitors.
“There’s a reason it’s there,” Wildcats wide receivers coach Michael Smith said. “That’s how important that game is to us.”
But how important has it been to Kansas?
Nobody in Lawrence suggests it’s not. Not senior safety Lubbock Smith, who remembers cheering on his future school from his Dallas home when 2007 when the Jayhawks won a thriller at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.
“I saw what that game meant to every Kansas citizen,” Smith said.
Not secondary coach and special teams coordinator Clint Bowen, a Lawrence High product who has played and coached against the Wildcats.
“Lot of Kansas kids on both rosters,” Bowen said.
Not athletic director Sheahon Zenger, the former K-State assistant coach who holds degrees from both schools and watched the Wildcats wallop the Jayhawks for a second straight year at Memorial Stadium in 2011.
“From Bill Snyder I learned about relentless pursuit of goals,” Zenger said.
Zenger now wants the Jayhawks to use that method to beat K-State.
The sentiment is there, but some Kansans say there’s been a different vibe for the Jayhawks when it comes to its in-state rival compared to KU’s other historical nemesis, Missouri.
Topeka attorney and Kansas State fan Dan Lykins has missed two Wildcats football games — home or away — since 1972. But as a member of the Kansas Board of Regents he supports all state schools, and he took in a couple of KU-Missouri games at Arrowhead Stadium.
“I’d talk to fans from both schools before the game, and there was downright hatred there,” Lykins said. “I’d never seen it to that extent with K-State and KU.”
Now that the Tigers are members of the Southeastern Conference and no longer part of the Jayhawks’ schedule, Kansas can turn in only one direction to satisfy a basic need of sports — winning the priority game, the one circled in red (or purple or blue), or face the wrath of your fan base.
Can the Jayhawks pour their rivalry energy into one school, and feel about the Wildcats as Kansas State linebacker Tre Walker does about the Jayhawks?
“The rival is the team you can’t stand,” said Walker, a junior from Olathe. “For us, that’s KU. We respect KU. But we don’t like KU. We play that fight song of theirs during the week and it gives us a burning sensation.”
The Jayhawks burned with embarrassment each of the last two falls, losing on their home field to the Wildcats by a combined score of 118-28.
Bowen, who has spent 16 of his previous 19 seasons as a Kansas coach or player, said he’s heard from countless former Jayhawks who have welcomed him back after a two-year absence and are fired up about the selection of Charlie Weis as head coach.
“They’re ready to see the program take off,” Bowen said. “And personally, we all want to get this thing back to where we all know it should be as Kansas fans and Kansas people.”
Part of that rejuvenation is finding a way to beat Kansas State.
Lykins is the ideal tour guide through the Sunflower State rivalry.
His credentials are bolstered by regular attendance at K-State-KU games for more than four decades, football and basketball.
“Our stadium, their stadium, Ahearn, Bramlage, Allen, Kemper, Sprint Center, even the Pontiac Silverdome,” Lykins said. “There have been some great games. But maybe it’s not been all it can be.”
If the Sunflower Showdown doesn’t maximize spirit, blame coaching excellence.
Three have shaped the profile of the rivalry — or help douse it — for several years: Snyder, Roy Williams and Bill Self.
Simply, they’ve overwhelmed the competition.
Snyder lost his first two games and three of his first four to the Jayhawks after arriving in Manhattan for the 1989 season. Since then, his teams have gone 15-1 against KU, including wins in all three games during his second tenure. Eleven of Snyder’s victories have been by at least four touchdowns.
Before Snyder arrived, the 1980s produced plenty of low-grade football, but in the previous 11 meetings, the toss-up series went 6-4-1 in Kansas’ favor. The Jayhawks lead the series overall 65-39-5.
Basketball has bounced in the opposite direction. Williams went 35-4 in 15 years against the Wildcats and won his final 26. Self is 18-3 against K-State.
Before the Williams era, the Jayhawks and Wildcats battled on even terms on several metrics. When the Wildcats advanced to the 1989 NCAA Tournament, they moved ahead of KU in all-time NCAA appearances 19-18. The Jayhawks haven’t missed a NCAA Tournament since then. Kansas State has been to five.
From 1946 through 1990, Kansas State won more conference crowns, 15-14. Since then, Kansas leads in that department 17-0.
Former Kansas football coach Mark Mangino, who spent eight seasons on the Wildcats’ staff, and former Wildcats basketball coach Frank Martin, used to say Jayhawks-Wildcats wasn’t a rivalry because their programs weren’t strong enough to make them so.
Both did something about it, with Mangino’s Jayhawks breaking an 11-game losing streak to K-State in 2004, and Martin’s Wildcats ending a 25-year home floor losing streak to KU in 2008.
But for a rivalry to gain its full intensity, the other side has to find ways of winning, upsetting a favorite, beating a buzzer, crushing the opposing fan base. That hasn’t happened nearly enough in the past quarter century of the Sunflower Showdown.
Another sign the rivalry that could use a jolt: Too many Kansas State fans at Memorial Stadium and too many KU fans at Bramlage Coliseum. They come expecting victory and are often rewarded.
“In basketball, I don’t think KU has looked at K-State as a big rival in at least a generation,” Lykins said. “And in football, it’s obvious that in the Bill Snyder era, it’s been lopsided.
“To me, that’s not good for the state. The teams need to be more competitive against each other for the rivalry to be everything it can be.”
Former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti agrees. He spent 20 seasons in Eugene, the final 14 as head coach, and every season the Ducks geared up for two major rivals: Washington, their next-door neighbor, and Oregon State, in a game known as the “Civil War.”
To Bellotti, fans’ hatred seemed split, but he held one opponent above the other.
“A lot of fans wanted me to say that Washington was our biggest rival,” Bellotti said. “But I would never say that. Oregon State was our biggest rival. That’s where you live. You go about that one differently.”
A major qualifier when measuring against the Kansas schools: Oregon and Oregon State have played recent, meaningful football games at the end of the season.
The Wildcats and Jayhawks have played for more than century and rarely have ended the season against each other. The crescendo spot on Kansas’ schedule traditionally went to Missouri. Kansas State-Kansas slides to different weekends, and this year they’ll meet on Oct. 6.
And truth be told, Kansas and Kansas State haven’t done much in the sniping department. Oh, fans will get after it some with the Snob Hill vs. Silo Tech stereotypes.
A rubber chicken dangling from poles has replaced the live chicken that used to get tossed on the floor at Ahearn during KU player introductions. There was the great food fight of 1978, when K-State tossed bananas at Kansas’ Donnie Von Moore, and KU fans pelted Curtis Redding with hot dogs.
In those days, the intensity level of KU-K-State, surpassed KU-Missouri, at least in basketball. Students camped outside of Allen Fieldhouse for the Wildcats, not the Tigers.
Then Snyder and Williams and Self started doing their thing and some enthusiasm had to be manufactured.
Attempting to fire up his first KU squad against the Wildcats, Mangino said that when he worked in Manhattan, K-State would spend half the week preparing for Kansas and the other half working on a future opponent.
Snyder’s response was delivered in a 64-0 package that weekend in Lawrence.
Around that time, some Wildcats’ fans were in the market for a more satisfying rivalry, and Nebraska filled the bill.
“That’s what some people wanted to flip our rivalry to Nebraska, but I never did,” Smith said. “To me, it’s always been Kansas.”
Even when they’ve been nice to each other?
When Kansas basketball star Thomas Robinson lost his grandparents and mother within four weeks, a scholarship fund was started for his younger sister Jayla. Martin was among the first to donate and encouraged Kansas State fans to do so as well.
Two years ago when the Big 12 appeared to be falling apart in 2010, sentiment among the Regents and state politicians was to keep Kansas and Kansas State in the same conference.
Perhaps what the rivalry needs, besides some good competition, is a spark, an incident, a slight. Maybe Lykins can supply it.
In 2002, he ran as a Democrat against Republican Jim Ryun, the former Kansas track star, for U.S. Congress. For 30 years, Lykins had attended every Kansas State football game in Manhattan, and he asked Ryun if they could tape a debate earlier in the day so Lykins wouldn’t miss an evening kickoff against Texas.
Ryun said no.
The Wildcats lost 17-14 when Jared Brite’s 32-yard field goal attempt was deflected with seven seconds remaining.
“I still think, if I was there, yelling and screaming, maybe he would have made that,” Lykins said.
But Lykins can muster hate for KU only when the Jayhawks are playing the Wildcats.
“I pull for the state,” he said. “It was different with Missouri.”