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  • A Missouri alum makes the case for why sitting down with the Tigers and renewing the Border War should be near the top of Kansas's to-do list after hiring Les Miles.
By Joan Niesen
November 21, 2018

Les Miles is Kansas’s head coach. That’s a perplexing sentence for a number of reasons, but probably not for any of the Jayhawks’ 2019 opponents. Indiana State, Coastal Carolina and Boston College are not scrambling to back out of their non-conference commitments; what Miles has ahead of him is a major rebuild, albeit one that David Beaty got started these past few years.

Miles needs to get recruiting in shape, eke out some sort of offense and continue to develop the Jayhawks defense. But just as importantly, he needs to win back a fan base that hasn’t seen a .500 season in a decade, one that’s more than happy to bide its time until basketball season each year. Refreshing recruiting sites to analyze Bill Self’s talent stream is more thrilling than turning on a Kansas football game, much less getting off the couch and heading to the stadium.

So here’s a solution to that apathy. Maybe it’s the spirit of rivalry week that has me thinking this way—rivalry week, which I haven’t managed to care about since 2011. That’s the last year Missouri (the agonizing but lovable team I grew up in St. Louis cheering for) played in the Big 12, the last year of the Border War. Once the Tigers bolted to the SEC, Kansas refused to keep the rivalry alive—at an interesting turning point for both programs. Missouri was about to win the SEC East in two straight years, 2013 and ’14, before taking a dip. Kansas was about to sink deeper into football hell.

Now, the athletic director who hit pause on the rivalry, Sheahon Zenger, is gone. And Kansas has a new coach who knows the power of a rabid fan base and heated rivalries, who loves to run his mouth and have some fun. There’s no better time. Bring back the Border War.

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Logistically, getting the game back on the docket would come with a delay; both teams have their first open nonconference dates in 2022. Maybe they could move something around, opt out of an FCS matchup or two in the meantime, but regardless: even the game on the schedule in four years would be great for football in the Midwest.

Consider this: In 2011, the last year of the Border War, it was the oldest continuous rivalry west of the Mississippi and the second-oldest rivalry to be played without a pause in the entire college game. It might have taken place in the heart of flyover country, between two programs without any level of historic greatness on the gridiron. But people in Missouri hate Kansas, and vice versa, and the root of those feelings dates all the way back to the Civil War. That’s when Kansans raided Missouri and burned several of the state’s western towns to the ground. Missourians, in turn, raided Lawrence.

The men from Kansas who first set fire in Missouri? They were called jayhawkers.

I know I’m on the wrong side of this thing, historically. (Missouri was a slave state at the time, Kansas a territory about to enter the Union, and that tension fueled the carnage.) But by the time I got around to pledging my football allegiance, all I knew was a modern hatred: football and basketball, rooted in my family’s blood for generations. It wasn’t so much that we went to Mizzou—my relatives who lived in Missouri at the time of the Civil War didn’t go to college, and neither did their children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren. It was that we were Missourians, period.

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A high school friend of mine, from a family of Mizzou people, decided to attend Kansas for college. She married a guy from Kansas. Her wedding, in Lawrence, was during the Big 12 men’s basketball tournament. Kansas was eliminated the day before. (Missouri would go on to win, around the time the reception started.) During the festivities, my friend’s dad pulled me aside to express relief. Had Kansas won, he revealed, the band was scheduled to appear at the end of the reception. He still hadn’t quite figured out how, morally, he was going to reckon with having to stand by for such an affront.

I don’t watch much Missouri football these days. I’d rather the Tigers win, but I can’t muster much beyond that. I don’t think about Kansas often either, but I can comfortably say that the tiny sports fan who occasionally jumps in the pit of my belly when I least expect it did a cartwheel when the Jayhawks lost to Nicholls State in Week 1. It’s a cheap joy, though, knowing Missouri can’t do anything to pile on, that it hasn’t had a hand in the second half of this decade of football misery in Lawrence.

Thanksgiving week is supposed to be turkey and pie and Mizzou-KU, a drive across the state in weather that might be icy or balmy depending on the year. No manufactured rivalry with Arkansas can fill that void, and even after 100 years of SEC play, that’d still be the case. And so if Kansas football is back—or at least starting the process of clawing its way back—sitting down with Missouri, calendars open, should be near the top of its to-do list.

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