The last rivalry standing is a Powercat and Jayhawk license plate meeting at a bar to watch the game and make fun of each other. Kansas vs. Kansas State. Snob Hill vs. Silo Tech. This scene will take place across the metro area and throughout Kansas when the schools play basketball for the 279th time in Manhattan on Monday night.
“Growing up in that area,” says Steve Henson, the former K-State basketball star from McPherson, “it’s all you knew. It’s just something that was right there in front of us at all times.”
It is omnipresent but still a bit cool, at least when compared with Louisville-Kentucky or Alabama-Auburn or some of the nation’s other great rivalries.
The Sunflower Showdown lacks a lot, starting with a better name — and don’t underestimate that in a modern college sports world that’s all about branding and marketing. The athletic competition dates to at least 1898, but really, to the 1860s when the governor (who was from Lawrence) vetoed a bill that would’ve put the state university in Manhattan.
A Lawrence man undercut Manhattan, but with KU-MU you had ancestors who killed each other. In modern terms, KU vs. K-State could use more competition and a few more moments — and would it be too much to ask for a few vocal villains?
Mostly, the hottest parts of this rivalry are behind the curtains, stoked by the two most popular (and successful) men in the state. Bill Snyder doesn’t like this out there, but the stories are whispered about how his perpetual focus and drive spike the week before the KU game. The football game is almost always a mismatch, but the poorly kept secret is that Snyder usually covers the spread (18 of 22 overall, including the last). Upon taking over at KU, Charlie Weis said his first goal was to find out why “the school up the road” has had so much more success.
In basketball, Bill Self and Bruce Weber have their own history, with the latter following the former at each man’s previous job. Self, just like Snyder, puts a quiet but stern emphasis on rivalry. The basketball games are usually as mismatched as the football games — just in the opposite direction — but Self’s 22-3 record against K-State isn’t just happenstance. Since taking over at K-State, Weber has been open about how his success will be measured in large part by whether he can beat KU.
So this is a rivalry fought most visibly on two fronts, with each holding a distinct advantage on one. There is an emerging and interesting third front, though, and some hope that perhaps the rivalry can get back to its fiercest moment in modern times.
Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” the first “Die Hard” movie and the end of “Dallas” were, like, totally far out when the Sunflower Showdown was at its best and most competitive. This was the 1987-88 school year.
They used to call the football game the Toilet Bowl, and for good reason. This was before Snyder came to Manhattan, back when K-State fans tore down goalposts even for wins over Division I-AA teams (hey, it didn’t happen much) and the program was earning Sports Illustrated’s title as worst in the country.
As bad as they were, the Wildcats weren’t far behind their in-state rival in 1987. In the previous 10 years, the Jayhawks had experienced a one-win season, a two-win season, two three-win seasons and just one bowl game. The year before, they lost 64-3 to Oklahoma and 70-0 to Nebraska (though, in KU’s defense, those games were both in Lawrence, which meant the other schools didn’t bring their fourth- and fifth-stringers to play the second half).
In the fall of 1987, the football game appropriately ended in a tie when KU’s Marvin Mattox blocked Mark Porter’s field goal. K-State finished that season 0-10-1. KU went 1-9-1 (it beat Division I-AA Southern Illinois by a point). Mike Hayden gave the Governor’s Cup to no one.
As down as the football programs were, basketball was just as hot. This was Mitch Richmond’s senior season, when he and Henson formed one of the nation’s best backcourts. Lon Kruger, himself a small-town Kansas kid who grew into a two-time Big Eight player of the year for Jack Hartman, returned to coach K-State and push the program back into the national conversation.
Kansas had its own star player-and-coach combination, the thick-lensed Larry Brown and uber-talented Danny Manning. Richmond went for 35 points as the Wildcats broke KU’s then-record 55-game home winning streak. KU won its last game in the old Ahearn Fieldhouse.
K-State blew out the Jayhawks in the Big Eight tournament that year, and that should’ve been it, but both teams were matched in the same region of the NCAA Tournament and met in Pontiac, Mich., with a spot in the Final Four on the line. It would’ve been K-State’s first Final Four since 1964, under Tex Winter, but KU avenged the conference tournament loss and eventually won the national championship.
Manning was an All-American after that season, and Richmond was a second-team All-American. Both men graduated and became first-round picks in the NBA Draft. Brown also left KU after the season, replaced by Roy Williams. Kruger stayed two more years before being replaced by Dana Altman.
Just as relevant to this discussion, Snyder arrived in Manhattan for the 1989 season.
This is when all four teams in the two most visible college sports diverged. K-State left KU behind in football, and KU spread the gap in basketball. The rivalry would never be the same.
Since that year, KU is 57-7 in basketball. K-State is 18-7 in football. The schools are now fighting their most intense battles away from the court or field, which is fine, but the part of the rivalry shown on ESPN could use a pick-me-up, too.
The coaches wage a territorial battle. Weis tries to claim some of K-State’s football turf; Weber knows he’ll be measured largely on whether he can shrink the gap in basketball. Both men are paid millions for their (so far unfruitful) efforts.
The hottest part of the rivalry has now moved away from our television screens. The schools are putting more resources than ever into student recruitment.K-State ranks first among state universities in top scholarships like Rhodes and Goldwater over the last 25 years, while KU is sixth nationally. Arizona is the only other state with two schools in the top 10. Manhattan also has made national waves with the Bio and Agro-Defense Facility
planned to open next year.
In real-world terms, of course, academics and student life are more important than a basketball game. But both schools also understand the money and prestige at stake in sports. Inherent in that is the need to catch up to the school 80 minutes down Interstate 70, which is at least part of why K-State built that basketball practice facility and KU has spent so much money on football infrastructure and (over)paying its football coaches.
But until and unless those investments show up in competition, this remains a somewhat peculiar rivalry when compared with others nationally: most heated around academics, and decidedly one-sided in each of the two sports people care about most. It will simmer like that, then — ready to blow when the holds of power change, neither fan base pouring too much of their hearts into the games so long as the status quo maintains.
“In my career, I did a lot of K-State games and had many, many close K-State friends,” says Max Falkenstien, who broadcast 60 years of the rivalry on KU’s radio network. “Still do, too. We golf together. They put their K-State bag on the cart, I put my Jayhawk bag on the cart, and we take off and there we go together.”
Falkenstien is asked if he ever golfs with Missouri fans.
“No, never do,” he says. “Just doesn’t ever work out that way.”
You could do worse to describe the state of the Kansas-Kansas State rivalry. Friendly enough to golf together, competitive enough to take pride in dominating a sport, and devoid of the sort of outward and mutual hatred that always defined the KU-MU games.
“It’s about as intense as it can be,” Falkenstien says. “But it’s not as intense as when KU played Missouri.”