Hey, SEC fans, here's a primer on some of the football traditions at Missouri. That way you'll be better able to welcome the newcomers from the Show-Me State next season, when the conference begins play with its third team named Tigers: Mizzou students celebrate huge wins by hauling the goalposts the 17 blocks from Faurot Field to a tavern called Harpo's. Seniors playing their last home game—as 26 were last Saturday in a 31--27 win over Texas Tech—help themselves to one of the white stones making up the vast Rock M above the north end zone. At the end of the third quarter Tigers partisans sway in time as the Marching Mizzou band plays the Missouri Waltz. It's more Lawrence Welk than House of Pain, but that's true of the state in general.
This is an article from the Nov. 28, 2011 issue
As they look ahead to life in a new conference, most Missouri fans will have to make peace with the idea of altering and discarding other time-honored traditions. Indeed, that process has already begun: They'll spend this week preparing to say goodbye to the oldest rivalry west of the Mississippi.
Saturday's game against Kansas is more than a contest between a so-so team (Mizzou is 6--5) and a dreadful one (the Jayhawks are 2--9). It is the 120th—and possibly final—edition of the so-called Border War (recently renamed the Border Showdown, though virtually no one calls it that).
This week the nation celebrates that late-November tradition that brings families together. We speak of course of Rivalry Week, stuffed with long-simmering grudges such as the Iron Bowl (Alabama-Auburn) and The Game (Michigan--Ohio State).
The Border War lacks the luster of those marquee matchups but still is uniquely hostile. In 1863 a band of 450 irregulars led by the Confederate guerilla William Quantrill attacked Lawrence, Kans., slaughtering scores of unarmed citizens and torching parts of the city. Defensive Missourians reliably point out that Quantrill was retaliating for Jayhawkers' repeated incursions across the border to terrorize people from their state.
The point is that, as interim Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas notes, "in 1863 they were shooting at each other, and 30 years later, in just about the same place, they played the first game."
In the Coen brothers' movie True Grit, Jeff Bridges's character, Rooster Cogburn, is a former member of Quantrill's Raiders. Had Neinas seen the movie? "Yeah," he says. "I was disappointed by it."
He preferred the original—"the John Wayne version."
Somehow that's not surprising.
No conference has been more dysfunctional in recent years than the Big 12, which has gone from healthy to intensive care to death's door to stable condition, all in the last 17 months. In late September, Neinas replaced ex-commish Dan Beebe, under whose watch the conference's demise began and who was forced out in a power play by Oklahoma, which said, basically, He goes or we go.
Neinas took office too late to talk Texas A&M out of its plan to leave the Big 12 for the SEC. So he devoted considerable energy to retaining the Tigers. But on Nov. 6 the school made it official. One hundred and four years after it became a charter member of the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association, which became the Big Six, which morphed into the Big Eight, which evolved into the Big 12, Missouri was filing for divorce.
One of the draws of the SEC was its stability, says Tigers athletic director Mike Alden—an eminently reasonable explanation that Neinas dismisses as "so much poppycock."
"They wanted the grant of rights"—which ties much of the school's television revenue to the conference for six years—"so we get the grant of rights," Neinas growls. Missouri wanted equal revenue sharing, he adds, and the Big 12 members agreed to it. "Now they gotta find another excuse" for bailing, says Neinas.
More overtly bitter to Missouri's move than Neinas was the initial reaction from the University of Kansas, whose public relations office tweeted, "Missouri forfeits a century-old rivalry. We win."
"We're sorry to see a century-old conference rivalry end," said Kansas chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little. "Missouri's decision may have implications for fans and for the Kansas City area, but it won't affect the long-term strength of the Big 12."
But those who accuse the Tigers of casually discarding the rivalry overlook the fact that despite Missouri's imminent departure, the Border War need not die. There are plenty of ancient, spicy, interconference rivalries: Clemson--South Carolina, Georgia--Georgia Tech and Florida--Florida State, to name a few.
"We're really happy to be in the SEC," says Alden, "but we also want to continue playing Kansas for another 119 years, in all of our sports. To say it can't happen because we're not in the same conference? It doesn't hold water."
Alden spoke at halftime last Saturday, his high energy level belying the eventful workweek he'd put in. Three days earlier coach Gary Pinkel had been arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. Alden suspended the coach without pay for one game (at least), and the day before the game Pinkel pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of DWI.
In compiling an 83--54 record in Columbia, Pinkel has never been accused of being risk-averse. He was a behind-the-scenes force in Missouri's jump to the rugged SEC and is one of many Tigers who would love to keep Kansas on the schedule. But the feeling isn't mutual.
"We feel that the rivalry belongs in the Big 12," says Kansas wide receiver A.J. Steward, echoing the company line laid down by coach Turner Gill and athletic director Sheahon Zenger. The latter prefaced that opinion with a description of Kansas as "a great Midwestern school, loyal to our Midwestern conference and to our Midwestern roots."
Give me a break, says Brian Brooks, a former Missouri student who is now an associate dean and professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. "I hate to lose the rivalry as much as I can't stand Kansas, but we've offered to continue it, and they're the ones saying no." The demise of the Border War, in that case, "is clearly on them."
"They're just feeling hurt right now because they have no place to go. If the Big Ten offered to take Kansas, they'd be out of there tomorrow."
An undergrad in the 1960s, Brooks is old enough to remember the '60 Border War. Kansas beat the 9--0 Tigers with a backfield stacked with future pros including Bert Coan, who, it was later revealed, had accepted a plane ride from a booster. Despite being stripped of that victory by the Big Eight, the Jayhawks insist on counting it as a win in the series, which, according to them, now stands at 55-55-9.
"Typical Kansas arrogance," fumes Brooks. "They cheated, were ordered by the conference to forfeit and still claim the game as a win."
What we are seeing, in the disintegration of the rivalry, is evidence of why it is such a great one. "It's something that we need to hold on to," said Luke Lambert, a Tigers senior linebacker. "A lot of teams don't have a game like this. This has been going on for hundreds of years," he said, exaggerating only slightly.
"It's an honor to be playing in this game," says Darrien Miller, a Jayhawks freshman running back from Blue Springs, Mo., who still catches heat from people back home for "going to the dark side"—i.e., Lawrence.
"We hate them, they hate us," says Missouri offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach David Yost.
Saturday's Border War will serve as a measuring stick to see how far each program has fallen since 2007, the high-water mark of this game, when No. 3 Missouri beat second-ranked Kansas 36--28. The showdown may also serve as a capstone for a rivalry that is nowhere near ready to die.
One thin wall separates the room for postgame media interviews at Faurot Field from the Tigers' locker room. It was in the latter space, 20 or so minutes after the win over the Red Raiders, that defensive tackle Dominique Hamilton revealed still another tradition. He did this by leading his teammates in a Kansas-specific cheer:
"Rock chalk, chicken hawk," he bellowed.
Came the deafening reply: "F--- KU!"
The feeling in Lawrence is mutual.
For a deeper dive into the Border War and into the passion of nine other classic football rivalries, download SI's Football Rivals app. It's free. Available for iPad, iPhone and Android smartphone. Go to Si.com/rivals.