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A College Football Rivalry With Civil War Roots

November 20, 2007

I finished my bachelor’s at the University of Missouri, soon to be formerly known as the University of Missouri-Columbia, in 1994. As with Madison in the University of Wisconsin system, the Columbia campus is the oldest and most distinguished in the Missouri system.

When I attended “Mizzou,” as it is often called by alums, it was a basketball school. At the time the College-Basketball-Hall-of-Fame coach, Norm Stewart [left], had climbed his second mountain of success there—the first being scaled in the early 1980s. While the football team had aspirations it never made it over the hump. Those were the Bob Stull years [lower right]. He seemed like a nice guy, but the team was not so great. I attended only two football games in my five years there.

Mizzou’s biggest rival in athletics is the University of Kansas, or KU. The MU/KU basketball games in the early 1990s were always sold-out, and perhaps deserving of the hype. For KU, coach Roy Williams patrolled the sidelines. The little guy was—and still is—a bundle of energy. But he now coaches at North Carolina (where we all knew he’d end up), and Norm Stewart is retired.

I’m compelled to reflect on those days because the times have definitely changed. While Mizzou and KU still have solid basketball teams, with the latter’s being better than Mizzou’s recently, football is now center stage at both schools. Kansas’s football team is currently ranked #2 in the AP poll, while Mizzou’s is #3. The game this coming weekend will take place at the Kansas City Chief’s Arrowhead Stadium.

While we can take for granted the excitement of Missouri and Kansas fans, the game is also receiving national attention. Exhibit A is this front-page article from today’s Wall Street Journal. Authored by Adam Thompson, here is the title: “The New Powers In College Football Carry Old Baggage As Showdown Looms: Kansas and Missouri Fans Re-Fight the Civil War.”

While I appreciate the attention being paid to my alma mater, I love the way the article highlights the intersection of real U.S. history and sporting culture. Here are some excerpts:

– “As the universities of Kansas and Missouri prepare to play the most important football game in their 116-year-old rivalry, trash talking is rampant here in a metropolis that straddles both states.”
– “This trash talking is focused on which state’s residents behaved more abominably amid the Civil War. Fans ‘go back to the history books and start calling people names for things that started 150 years ago,’ says Kevin Worley, a Kansas City-based documentary filmmaker who isn’t immune to that tendency himself. A die-hard Missouri fan, Mr. Worley suspects that “there’s this ancestral hatred of Kansas bred in me” by a lineage traceable to soldiers who marched with Confederate general Jo Shelby.”
– “To many here on both sides of the [Missouri-Kansas] state line, the game is merely a proxy for a war that never really ended. Perhaps no other football rivalry in the nation pits against each other states that once fought as brutally as did Kansas and Missouri.”
– “Evidence that the feud is ongoing can be seen on the back of Dave Hickerson, a Missouri fan. …He sported a University of Missouri football jersey that bore the name not of Chase Daniel, the team’s spectacular quarterback. Rather it said Quantrill. A Missouri hero and Kansas villain, William Quantrill [right] led a Rebel guerrilla unit that in 1863 burned and pillaged Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas, in the process slaughtering about 150 people, including children. ‘I don’t think there’s anything redeeming to be said about [the jersey] except that it’ angers Kansans, says Mr. Hickerson.”
– “But Kansans have their own T-shirt that they hope will offend Missourians. The shirt says: “Kansas: Keeping America safe from Missouri since 1854.” The shirt features a drawing of abolitionist John Brown [right], who before his famous raid on Harpers Ferry led murderous raids against farms and families in pro-slavery Missouri. ‘They’re the slave state. We’re the Free State. Look who won out in the end,’ says Heather Knox, a 25-year-old accountant and Kansas alumna who lives in Kansas City, Mo.”
– “On the gridiron, theirs is the oldest major college rivalry west of the Mississippi River. Neither team is usually a contender for the national title; their showdown more often determines third- and fourth-place in the six-team North division of the Big 12 conference. But bitterness on the football field goes back a long ways. The two sides can’t even agree on their series’ all-time record. Missourians say the series is tied 53-53-9, while Kansans say they own a two-game lead. The point of contention is their 1960 meeting, which the Jayhawks won with ineligible players. That loss killed Missouri’s best chance at a national title, and the Tigers have never again reached No. 1 in the polls.”
– “Neither school has ever won a national football championship. Indeed, neither team has finished atop their conference since 1969.”
– “[Their] hatred dates back to the 1850s, when the Great Plains state of Kansas became a beachhead for men around the country committed to ending slavery. Many, however, hid behind that noble cause, all the while killing, pillaging and raping their way across the culturally Southern state to the east, Missouri. These Kansas guerrillas called themselves Jayhawkers — supposedly a combination of two birds, the jay and the hawk.
– “It is a sore point among Missouri fans that the University of Kansas mascot is the Jayhawk. Matt Gaunt, a development officer for Missouri’s agriculture college, concedes that his state’s fighters committed atrocities as well, but notes that Missouri never named a team after them. Some argue that Missouri’s mascot — the Tigers — are named after some pro-Union forces in an otherwise Confederate state.”
– “But the hometown of the Missouri Tigers, Columbia, is still known as ‘Little Dixie,’ and many in Missouri remain proud of their Confederate past. It’s enough to start former Missouri player Brandon Barnes, who is African-American, wondering whether Tiger fans are ‘hating the Jayhawkers for something I might celebrate.’ But then he remembers the time that Jayhawk fans threw ice at him and footballs at the Missouri team bus. ‘We hate each other for a reason,’ he said, as he sat in a Kansas City bar on Saturday.
– “The game this Saturday will provide the perfect capper to a college football season where up has been down. Traditional powers like Notre Dame have stumbled badly while upstarts like South Florida have joined the Tigers and Jayhawks in making once-unthinkable runs for the top. Neither Kansas nor Missouri was expected to win the six-team Big 12 North division. That crown was supposed to belong to the Nebraska Cornhuskers, a team that is 5-6 and that lost to Missouri and Kansas by a combined score of 117-45.”


So, what kind of professional response do I have to this crass commercialization of higher education, elevation of sports over academics, and misappropriated Civil War memory?

Go Mizzou!

Yes, I’m pathetically—at times—part of the problem. But at least this endeavor has some real history associated with it. – TL

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