University of Missouri

In this Kansas corner, it’s about football and fried chicken

If the college game is considered the main course of Kansas’ sports interest, think of the state like this: Football is to chicken as basketball is to beef.

Wha ?

OK, check out the state’s sporting and feasting flavors. Basketball wasn’t invented in Kansas, but natives like to say the state poured the foundation for the game’s growth and its traditions. James Naismith, Phog Allen, Tex Winter, Ralph Miller, Wilt Chamberlain, Eddie Sutton, Danny Manning and so many others shaped the basketball-centric personality that fills every corner of the Sunflower State.

Just as beef is the entrée of choice for most of Kansas. After all, the state ranks among the nation’s leaders in beef and cattle production.

But one portion of the state goes another way, in sports and culinary favorites.

Look southeast, about as far in that direction the eyes can strain, toward the corner of Kansas that sits only a few miles from the borders of Missouri, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

There, in Pittsburg, Crawford County and the region, folks live for football and fried chicken.

The area is home to the local college anchor, Pittsburg State, which enters 2012 with the most victories (656) of any program currently categorized in NCAA Division II. The Gorillas extended the lead in that department by winning their second NCAA championship last December.

This is where high school — and chicken restaurant — rivalries grew fierce, and families send bands of brothers off to prep, college and, in some cases, professional football careers.

Stretch the boundary a bit and fold in some of the nation’s top junior-college football, including six-time national champion Butler County in El Dorado.

Tim Beck, Pittsburg State’s coach, didn’t grow up in the area. He’s from central Kansas and didn’t know much about the school or region. But Beck’s high school coach told him if he wanted to immerse himself in pigskin, head to Pittsburg.

“I remember being told that nobody cared about football like the people of Pittsburg, and that stuck with me,” Beck said.

After a two-year stop in junior college, Beck arrived on campus as a defensive back in 1985, starting his coaching career there in 1987, and has never left, taking over the head-coaching job two years ago upon Chuck Broyles’ retirement.

“People here rally around it,” Beck said of football. “They take a lot of pride in it.”

As they do their chicken.

How to explain the different tastes?

It starts with what the land has provided.

Because much of Kansas is farmland, rural towns were sparsely populated. Even as the state developed, many high school graduating classes away from the more populated northeast region numbered in single digits — too small to field a competitive football team but big enough to produce a solid starting five. Plus, a winter indoor activity fit nicely into the farming calendar. From a practical standpoint, basketball made more sense for much of the state.

Southeast Kansas grew in a different way.

This was coal country. And zinc and lead. In the 1880s and 1890s, something akin to the California gold rush happened in Kansas, with people from the East Coast, plus immigrants — mostly from Eastern Europe — flooding the region to work its mines. Southeast Kansas earned the nickname “The Little Balkans.”

Among the early families in the area were the Franchiones, who settled in Girard. Dennis, the grandson of Italian immigrants, would coach at TCU, Alabama and Texas A, among his other stops.

Men spent their days in the mines, and the work was dirty, exhausting and dangerous. As sports developed across the nation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the one that appealed in southeast Kansas reflected the region’s work ethic.

“The kind of jobs and activities that were going on here, this was always a tough, combative corner of the state,” said Randy Roberts, curator of special collections and university archivist at Pittsburg State. “The nature of the game, I think, speaks to the history of the culture here.”

Southeast Kansas seemed no different than other parts of the nation where coal mining and manufacturing took root: the Great Lakes, Ohio, Western Pennsylvania — all areas that lead with football.

Indeed, Pittsburg, Kan., originally known as New Pittsburg, took its name from the industrial city in the East that also loves its football.

Where population trickled across central and western Kansas, people poured into the southeast, some 42,000 in southeastern-most Cherokee County in 1900, and 62,000 in Crawford County (Pittsburg) in 1920. With those numbers, and plenty of communities sprouting in the area, there was no problem finding enough bodies to field solid football squads.

Football came to Pittsburg State in 1908, but by then it had already been established in local high schools such as Pittsburg, Columbus, Fort Scott, Cherokee, Girard and Joplin, Mo. Some of the state’s earliest and most bitter rivalries originated here.

In 1912, Pittsburg and Columbus started a series stopped only for a period when the schools’ enrollment disparity grew too large. It’s called the Coal Bucket game, and the winner maintains possession of a 38-pound traveling trophy.

“That game had a viciousness that people in Southeast Kansas still exalt in,” Roberts said.

While the series was dormant, the trophy was kept at Pittsburg State’s Special Collections, and would be loaned out for team reunions. Sometimes, people would just come by to rub it or pose with it in a photograph.

“It’s an iconic part of football in this area,” Robert said.

The rest of Kansas hasn’t exactly existed in a football void. Kansas State, ranked in the preseason polls, begins a third decade of excellence under Bill Snyder. Gale Sayers once galloped at Kansas, which is five years removed from an Orange Bowl-trophy season.

Similarly, Pitt State hasn’t been bereft of basketball. The Gorillas’ home floor is in John Lance Arena, named for the coach who won 656 games in his career, including a then-college-record 47 straight during a stretch in the early 1930s.

But in 1957, Pitt State won the NAIA football national championship, and four years later won a second. The coach was Carnie Smith, and although the Gorillas had won plenty of football games before the titles, the banners helped establish football as the school’s primary sports identity.

Today, Pitt State plays in Carnie Smith Stadium.

“He’s the one who really got it all started,” Beck said.

A member of that 1957 team, John Levra, spent a lifetime in coaching, including 22 years in the NFL. Basketball was important when he attended Arma High, and the Arma-Frontenac high school football rivalry was an intense Thanksgiving Day staple. But when Pittsburg won the 1957 championship, things changed.

“The interest just became incredible after that,” Levra said.

After Smith, more coaches passed through the Gorillas’ program, none posting losing career records. In 1985, Franchione, who had coached in the high school ranks and on Kansas State’s staff and served as head coach at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan., took over at Pittsburg. In five years, he lost one conference game, made two trips to the NAIA semifinals and guided the Gorillas into Division II and the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.

Broyles, the defensive coordinator, was next. In his second year, he guided the Gorillas to the Division II championship. There would be three more trips to the title game plus nine conference championships in Broyles’ 19 years.

Beck, like Broyles, won his national championship in his second year — defeating rival Northwest Missouri State at Arrowhead Stadium and in the playoffs — and the success passed to the next generation of Gorillas. Senior defensive back Chas Smith is the youngest of four brothers to play at Pitt State, along with his father Chuck, who is a 300-game winner as head coach of St. Mary’s-Colgan High in Pittsburg.

Such football families are not uncommon in southeast Kansas. Perhaps the most notable are the Meiers of Pittsburg. Adam went to Pitt State, Shad and Dylan to Kansas State and Kerry to Kansas. Shad played six NFL seasons and Kerry is a member of the Atlanta Falcons.

Chas Smith said the only time growing up that he didn’t follow Pitt State’s games is when he caught one of the Meiers on television. Otherwise, in southeast Kansas, Saturdays were always about one team: Pittsburg State.

“I never went to a game anywhere else,” Smith said. “Only here.”

That kind of devotion is why Pitt State athletic director Jim Johnson doesn’t worry about the kickoff times of the larger schools that are within driving distance of his campus: Kansas, Kansas State, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.

Fans of the Gorillas aren’t conflicted.

“Here, they’re Pitt State fans first,” Johnson said.

Everybody has a favorite chicken place, and some lines are not to be crossed.

As Pitt State associate athletic director Dan Wilkes talks up Barto’s Idle Hour in Frontenac, a voice booms from another office.

“Gebhardts!” insists promotions director Heidi Johnson, and the drive to Mulberry is well worth it.

The Travel Channel brought its “Food Wars” program to Pittsburg in 2010 and pitted the city’s famed chicken restaurants — Chicken Annie’s is separated by 300 feet from Chicken Mary’s — against one another in a taste test.

Chicken Annie’s opened in 1934 because Annie Pichler’s husband lost a leg in a mining accident and couldn’t work. For income, Annie cooked chicken and served it to miners at their home. Chicken Mary’s opened eight years later under similar circumstances.

Football doesn’t happen in Pittsburg without a chicken connection. It’s standard fare at summer camps, where kids gnaw on legs and wings. It’s also served at coaches meetings — don’t forget the German potato salad. And postgame feasts? Prepare to wait at any of the restaurants.

But only at your favorite. Roberts married into a family that dines exclusively at Chicken Mary’s.

“I’ve been to Annie’s one time in 15 years and that’s because my wife wasn’t with me,” he said. “You know, it’s like children: we fight or quibble with each other about which is best. But if an outsider says something unkind, then we all band together and support it.”

In the same way the people of southeast Kansas support their football.