Sam Mellinger

Around KU, a strong distaste about resuming Border War with Mizzou

The intensity of the KU-MU game of Nov. 24, 2007, may never be repeated, despite overtures from Missouri’s new athletic director. The sentiment in Lawrence remains overwhelmingly opposed to renewing the Border War.
The intensity of the KU-MU game of Nov. 24, 2007, may never be repeated, despite overtures from Missouri’s new athletic director. The sentiment in Lawrence remains overwhelmingly opposed to renewing the Border War. deulitt@kcstar.com

This time, the questions are natural. They are needed. They are coming in the wake of Missouri hiring a new athletic director.

His name is Mack Rhoades, and he is friendly with Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger, which is a big change from the last Missouri athletic director. That was Mike Alden, and even he knows his name is something like a curse word around Lawrence.

When Alden retired recently, he mentioned more than a few times that he hoped the Border War rivalry could be renewed, a nod to the understanding from all sides that the way he led Mizzou’s departure from the Big 12 left many at KU feeling misled, or worse.

One of Rhoades’ talking points has been an open desire to play Kansas again, and his mention of having discussions with Zenger has let fans and media fill in the blanks.

Zenger and the rest of the KU administration have not commented on this publicly, at least not in depth, so speculation about a resumption of the Border War has begun to gain traction among some fans. This makes it a good time to mention that there is no indication from Lawrence that renewal is more likely now than before.

Quite the opposite, actually.

“They are the only school I can say I truly have a distasteful feeling about,” said Dana Anderson, one of KU’s top boosters. “Some of that goes back to Missouri being a slave state and Kansas being a free state. I see no virtue at all. I don’t see how it helps our athletic program in any way.”

There is no such thing as unanimity in a group as big as a major university’s fans, but sources in and around KU say Anderson’s view represents a strong consensus among the athletic department’s administrators, boosters and others close to the program.

(Mobile users, tap here to participate in The Star’s online poll on whether the Border War rivalry should be renewed.)

Sentiment inside the KU athletic department to schedule Mizzou in any sport has all the momentum of a broken-down cement truck, which might be more than can be said of the sentiment among KU’s biggest boosters.

Here is a scene described by multiple people around the Kansas athletic department. A KU donor will, without prompting, ask administrators if they’re thinking of playing Mizzou again. When the answer comes back “No,” the response is often the same: Good, because if you ever do, you should all be fired.

Renewal of the Border War has been talked and written about over and over, including in this column, but almost always through the lens of when the schools will start playing again. I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone, and I still believe the schools should play. It would be great theater, and loads of fun, particularly here in Kansas City.

But after conversations with Anderson and others — some for attribution, most not — I do understand the KU side of this more than ever.

And, more to the point today, I’ve never been more pessimistic about the rivalry’s renewal.

“There’s a pretty good commitment not to do it, there’s no doubt about that,” said John Hadl, the former KU football All-American, and now an associate AD.

Hadl and others say that commitment is at least as strong now as it’s ever been. That’s a rebuttal to what’s seemed like subtle but steady momentum, not just with Rhoades replacing Alden, but with Bill Self vaguely talking in January about missing the rivalry. (It wasn’t lost on anyone that he made these comments the day after Alden announced he would resign from MU.)

The Kansas resistance is deep-rooted and at least three-pronged: practical, emotional and vindictive.

If we take those aspects in order, the practical aspect might be easiest to miss among all the heated talk.

Because even if there were no rivalry, no history and no hatred, it’s hard to see why Kansas would want to play Missouri in either football or men’s basketball.

The KU football program is in a desperate place, and scheduling a certain loss makes no sense. The basketball program can be on national TV whenever it wants and puts a clear priority on putting together the toughest schedule it can. Kansas has been first in strength of schedule each of the last two seasons, and it is regularly in the top 10. A game with Missouri would not help.

There is a bigger practicality at work here, too. Because while it is true that the rivalry began before KU and MU shared a conference, and has roots all the way back to the Civil War, it is also true that it burned much hotter when the game meant something.

The memory tends to highlight the 2007 football game at Arrowhead, when both teams were ranked in the top three nationally. This was one of the great college games in our region’s history. But just four years later, the last of those games played in front of 47,509 fans and 28,907 empty seats.

These are athletic programs in very different places now, both literally and figuratively. Kansas can’t beat Missouri in football and has virtually nothing to gain by playing in basketball.

It’s hard to see how such a game benefits Kansas, at least at the moment.

“I just don’t see it,” said Mark Allen, a Kansas booster and the grandson of Phog Allen. “Some of these things may have run their life expectancy, you know what I’m saying? Maybe it’s that we had a great rivalry but it doesn’t have the intensity anymore. If we did play it, would it have the same intensity as when you’re both vying for the conference championship? I don’t think so.”

Of course, this rivalry has often veered away from the practical.

Relationship analogies are often misplaced in sports, but Missouri’s move from the Big 12 to SEC played out like a nasty divorce. There is a feeling in Lawrence that Alden and Mizzou misled Zenger and Kansas.

Some can see that MU acted in its best financial interest — the way any business should — but that’s a very different thing than not being angry about how it happened.

Colorado left the Big 12 first, and KU has played the Buffaloes in basketball. That is often explained away by Colorado’s basketball coach being a Kansas grad, but the whole thing speaks to the unique dislike that KU holds for MU. To stretch the divorce analogy, this was more than irreconcilable differences.

There is a mutual distaste between the schools, and while that can be good drama for fans and potentially profitable for athletic departments, it becomes an obstacle when one side is as dug in as Kansas is.

Hadl brings an interesting perspective here. He is in the minority of those with deep KU ties, in that he would like to play MU again, and he’s one of the very few (particularly among administrators) to say it out loud.

But he’s also a realist, and he sees where things stand. Baylor women’s basketball coach, Kim Mulkey, had the line about not sleeping with your ex-spouse after a divorce, but in this case, there are many around the KU athletic department who would see playing MU again like opening a business with the ex who lied to and cheated on you.

“We didn’t like them anyway,” Hadl said. “And they don’t like us anyway.”

Three years ago, a lot of us thought these emotions would dissipate over the years. Time heals all wounds, you know, and maybe there just hadn’t been enough time yet.

But next year’s senior class will graduate having never been in school for a regular-season Border War game in any sport, and by all indications those wounds are not healing — they are building scar tissue.

It was just a momentary memory lapse, but it’s interesting that in the crazy aftermath of an overtime win against West Virginia, Self called it the greatest win he’d had at Allen Fieldhouse. He later admitted he’d forgotten about the last Mizzou game. That amnesia is telling.

The whole reason to play the rivalry games again is for moments like that final KU-MU showdown, but those old competitive passions are being buried with fading memories and ongoing bitterness about how Mizzou left the conference.

So instead of longing for that old passion, there is constant reinforcement of why the game isn’t being played. This is the vindictive part of KU’s refusal to play the game.

“That’s a decision (MU) made, and there are ramifications of those decisions,” Anderson said. “It was a great rivalry. I see no reason to continue it, because they left the conference. You pay a penalty for that, from my point of view.”

So, the old MU athletic director is out and the new one is spreading a message of goodwill, but it takes two to make a rivalry ... and in Lawrence, this issue is as dead as ever.

The closest thing to optimism in Lawrence about renewing the rivalry is the occasional “never say never” line from someone. But it would likely require an almost complete turnover of administration and coaches, plus a reversal of sentiment among the school’s influential fans.

Even with the conversation changing over recent months, the underlying obstacles have never been greater.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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