A Rivalry Is Born
At first glance, the Kansas-Missouri football rivalry would appear to have all the ingredients of any great gridiron rivalry. In the first place, it has proven to be remarkably even. As of the 2007 season when the 116th game in the series was played, the second oldest Division IA rivalry stood but one game in the Jayhawks’ favor at 54-53-9. However, since Kansas was compelled to forfeit its 1960 victory, Missouri fans can reasonably claim that the series stands iin their favor at 54-53-9.
Further, through the years the underdog has come out on top nearly as often as the favorite, which is quite possibly the signature characteristic of classic gridiron rivalries. Although a favored MU team soundly defeated KU in November 2006, the last few years provide ample evidence of this. In 2005, for instance, the Tigers had entered the game as six point favorites but wound up losing to the Jayhawks 13-3.
Likewise, in 2004 the Jayhawks defeated their archrivals 31-14 despite entering the game as nine-and-a-half-point underdogs, and the 2003 contest saw an unranked Kansas squad knock off a ranked Missouri team that the Las Vegas odds-makers favored by more than 10 points. What’s more, the rivalry has roots that stretch back as far as Bleeding Kansas — a prologue to the Civil War — well before the first football game was played on any college campus.
In short, the KU-MU rivalry has everything associated with the great collegiate football rivalries except for one thing: maniacal, unbridled passion. Fans of the Tigers and Jayhawks don’t spend 364 days talking about the previous match up and anticipating the next showdown. Most sports fans in Lawrence live for March, not for September. And this is hardly surprising since KU has developed into a “basketball” rather than a “football school.” This was not, however, always the case. There was a time when fans of the flagship universities of Missouri and Kansas thought football was the quintessential college sport, when fans of the defeated team could not shrug their shoulders at yet another loss and console themselves because their team had played hard.
The heyday of the football rivalry between Missouri and Kansas came in the first few decades of the 20th century when the game had fewer rules, less protective equipment, and served as a proving ground for the players’ masculinity rather than as a cash cow feeding network television and university coffers. It was a rivalry, which thanks to the legacy of historical antipathy between the residents of Kansas and Missouri had seemed old at its very beginning. It witnessed its first tussle in Kansas City’s Exposition Park on Halloween Day 1891 when the Jayhawker and Tiger gridiron squads re-ignited a “Border War” which had lain dormant since the end of the Civil War.
As the Lawrence Daily Journal pointed out in the days leading up to the first football clash between Missouri and Kansas, the prospect of a Tigers-Jayhawkers tangle had “awaken[ed] a great deal of interest” among the alumni of the two schools and throughout the region. This might be expected since Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox had taken place scarcely a quarter century earlier, and undoubtedly many still lived who had donned either gray or blue uniforms and had been witnesses to the events of Bleeding Kansas. But even many of those too young to remember Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence or the theft of Missourians’ property by Jayhawkers found themselves intrigued by the match up.
Not surprisingly, the weeks leading up to the contest had seen the regional papers cover virtually every aspect of the impending clash. Sketches of the 14 players from each squad – the 11 starters and three reserves – had appeared in various Kansas and Missouri publications. Although no formal line was set, the match was pretty well handicapped. The Missouri eleven had less experience than their opponents from Lawrence, but were a shade heavier and didn’t have the sorts of injury problems that burdened KU, which would be forced to take the field with its best player sidelined. (John Kinzie, the captain of the Jayhawkers, had been hurt in an intra-squad scrimmage and “was not sufficiently recovered … to play.”) On top of that, two other Kansas starters were hurt but capable of playing. Despite these medical casualties, however, consensus opinion favored Kansas in the showdown.
On the Thursday before the first KU-MU gridiron contest, the Kansas City Star reported, “All the preliminaries for the opening game of the Missouri and Kansas series of football matches [had been] completed.” The University of Kansas squad had received its first crimson uniforms three days prior to the Saturday clash and so would be sporting them for the first time in the Jayhawker-Tiger showdown that was to launch the University’s second football season. (Crimson had been selected as the University’s “athletic color” earlier in the month, leaving the official school colors yellow and blue.) Transportation concerns had been ameliorated when, recognizing the appeal of the game, all of the rail lines connecting Lawrence to Kansas City offered specials on their tickets. (The Wyandotte and Northwestern road would claim the lion’s share of the business as it dropped its rates first – to one dollar for a round trip ticket. The other lines would eventually match the price, but by then they had lost their chance at snaring a significant portion of the Lawrence-Kansas City traffic.)
Arranging the “preliminaries for the opening game of the Missouri and Kansas series” had proven somewhat more difficult for the men from Columbia since they had had to make all of their arrangements for the game without the support of the university they represented. Indeed the University of Missouri’s “faculty and president” were “opposed to the team [going] to Kansas City” to meet the Jayhawker squad and consequently had not even proven amenable to furnishing the squad with “a room [on campus] in which to hold a mass meeting to arouse enthusiasm for the game.” Nonetheless, the Tigers had made reservations at the Centropolis Hotel, vowed to bring pro-Missouri “rooters” with them, and were “confident of winning the game.”
At 6:30 Friday evening, the night before the game, the Missouri squad quietly disembarked from their train and made their way to the hotel. Less than 12 hours later, the first fans arriving from Columbia would shatter the stillness of the Halloween morning by shouting “Rah! Rah! M.S.U.! Missouri University! Ray! Rah! Rue!” By 9:45 on Saturday morning, it was KU’s turn to arrive, and downtown Kansas City rang with KU’s “Rock Chalk” cheer as the men from Lawrence and 200 or so students (including, the Kansas City Star noted, “about thirty ladies”) made their way to the Coates House, which was to serve as “University headquarters” for the game. (As one of the most conspicuous manifestations of university pride, college cheers were taken very seriously at that time. Indeed, the Friday edition of the Star had published the words to both the Missouri and Kansas cheers as an aid for those planning to attend the following day’s contest.) Meanwhile, other MU and KU fans trickled into the city through various means, including five determined KU students who lacked the money to purchase a rail ticket and had walked the 39 miles from Mt. Oread to Exposition Park.
Nonetheless, most of those who filled the bleachers as the inaugural Tiger-Jayhawker football game prepared to get underway that afternoon called Kansas City home. The Kansas City Star estimated that about 300 of the approximately 3,000 people who attended the first game had actually come from Lawrence. As the University of Missouri was farther from the field than was KU, it seems unlikely that more than that number arrived from Columbia. Thus perhaps only one quarter of the fans watching the showdown were from either college town.
The Kansas contingent made its way to Exposition Park first “and promptly took possession of the west bleachers.” In contrast to the University of Missouri’s official lack of support for the game, KU Chancellor Francis Snow and about 15 other faculty members from Lawrence ranked among those bedecked with crimson ribbons, sashes and neckties. (At that time, of course, standard attire for sporting events was more formal than the present-day. Women generally wore dresses and men wore suits and hats. Thus support for the University wasn’t demonstrated through sweatshirts and T-shirts, but rather through ribbons of the school’s color adorning the hair of women and hats of men as well as through sashes and neckties.)
As KU supporters “yelled themselves hoarse” Missouri fans flooded into the stadium, and soon the “college cries of the rival universities filled the air,” Taunts arose as well, especially from the Missouri “rooters” who jeered the “Kansas crowd with the epithet ‘Rainmakers,’” a mocking reference to the ongoing and largely unsuccessful attempts of the Sunflower State to artificially increase precipitation through such means as planting trees and setting off explosions. (KU professor Lucien Blake recently had publicized his theory that exploding a squadron of small balloons in the atmosphere would produce the necessary conditions to cause rain.)
At 2:40 in the afternoon, 10 minutes later than the scheduled kickoff time, the event which “for the past three weeks … [had] been the sole topic [of discussion] in college circles in both states” got underway. Things started off poorly for the Jayhawkers as Missouri won the toss, consequently chose to defend the south goal, and claimed the first possession. On their first play, the Tigers reeled off a long run that brought them into Kansas territory. Three plays later, a Missouri halfback slipped around the left end and galloped in for a touchdown. The Missouri kicker, however, “made a sorry attempt, kicking too low” and so Missouri led 4-0. (At the time a touchdown was worth four points, a field goal five points, and the conversion two points.)
Kansas rebounded quickly. On their next possession, the Jayhawkers plunged into the end zone for a score, tying up the game. But they were just beginning. The men from Lawrence managed two more touchdowns before the half and were about to score another when time was called. As it was, after the men in crimson had crossed the goal line for their third score, fullback Archie Hogg converted the only “extra point” of the day to give the Jayhawkers a 14-4 lead.
Hogg had also set up the score by kicking the ball into the end zone where one of his teammates fell on it. This, of course, would not be allowed today, but the rules of football at the time differed but little from those of rugby. Indeed on the day of the game, the Kansas City Star announced, “American Rugby rules [would] govern the match.” Despite the fact that half time “probably prevented the Kansans from scoring another touchdown,” the west bleachers were “one mass of waving streamers of bloody hue, while the Kansas University cry filled the air.”
After the 10-minute break, the Tiger squad apparently regrouped as it stopped KU for several consecutive Jayhawker possessions. Unfortunately for the men from Columbia, they couldn’t take advantage of Kansas’ stalled offense. When Missouri’s starting left end went down with a sprained ankle, KU’s Hogg (who was the hero of the game) swept around the left side for a touchdown to extend his team’s advantage to 14. A few minutes later, the KU fullback made “the most brilliant play of the game” when he fielded a punt, feinted as if he intended to kick it back down the field, tucked the ball away and rolled down the sideline for a score.
Trailing by 18 points, the “Missourians grew desperate and did what they should have [done] earlier in the game, go through by mere force of weight.” Just before the final whistle blew, KU allowed a Tiger back to roll “out from under the struggling heap of humanity clear of the bunch and [score] Missouri’s second touchdown.”
When the game ended in a 22-8 KU victory, a “mighty yell went up from the Kansas delegation and they broke into the field and carried off the victorious team while the Missouri eleven quietly disappeared.” In the hours after the game, delirious Jayhawker supporters, “enveloped in crimson bunting,” paraded through the streets of Kansas City lifting their beloved "Rock Chalk" cry time and again.
When the team returned to Lawrence at 10:00 that night, “an enthusiastic reception committee” greeted its members. Chancellor Snow and a number of professors (who had apparently returned earlier than the team) led the throng awaiting the victorious squad. The crowd “marched through town and proceeded to celebrate the great victory by bonfire,” which was held in South Park at the “urgent request of the mayor, who stated that the city had no fire protection.” The celebration of the Jayhawker triumph over the Tigers (and of Halloween) continued long after the fire had been reduced to smoldering coals. The exuberant students, the Lawrence Daily Journal informed its readers, remained “out all night doing considerable harmless mischief.”
“A return game,” the Kansas City Star reported on the Monday after the game, had been “talked of for Thanksgiving Day.” But the talk of such a rematch did not come to fruition, at least for that year. Indeed, although 1891 and 1892 saw the football Jayhawkers roll up an impressive record of 14-1-1, neither year saw a Thanksgiving Day clash between Missouri and Kansas. In 1893, however, the squads from Lawrence and Columbia initiated a tradition of Turkey Day battles held for the most part in Kansas City.
KU would dominate the series early on, losing only four of the contests held on Thanksgiving in the Midwest metropolis. Nevertheless, despite the lopsidedness of the rivalry’s early years, the “Border War,” as the rivalry became dubbed, grew until the students at both universities found themselves, on Thanksgiving morning, giving “thanks on that day because there [was] such a game as football.”
Within a few decades following the end of the traditional Thanksgiving Day games in Kansas City, the rivalry began to cool off as neither school consistently fielded great teams. Even so, as the years progressed, this dimming ardor for the game failed to prevent both sides from taking slaps at the other when it was possible. One notable instance came in 1930 when Missouri led a conference investigation into KU’s football practices – particularly as they affected the Jayhawker’s star player, “Jarring” Jim Bausch. Missouri accused Bausch of “professionalism” and the University of recruiting him. (At the time recruiting was not only illegal but was considered immoral.)
KU Chancellor E.H. Lindley, Athletic Director Phog Allen, and virtually every Kansas newspaper denied the charges. Bausch, for his part, spoke out in his own defense, charging that representatives of Missouri’s athletic department had in fact offered him money during the 1929 season to lure him to Columbia. His charge, however sensational, did not stop the investigation. When it became apparent that KU had no intention of declaring its star player ineligible, Missouri led the other conference schools in turning to their trump card.
On October 24, 1930, four of the five other schools in the conference voted to refuse to schedule games against Kansas the following year if KU did not wash its hands of Bausch. (Of the Big Six schools, only Kansas State, KU’s intra-state rival, had abstained from the vote, refusing to oust its fellow Regents school from the conference.) By December, faced with the unappealing alternative of being left conference-less in 1931, the University of Kansas decided that it would be in its best interest to declare Bausch ineligible. (Bausch actually spared KU the formality by declaring his intent to forfeit the remainder of his eligibility by playing in a post-season all star bowl game.) Thus it was that for all practical purposes Missouri brought an early end to the collegiate career of one of the best football players ever to don a helmet and pads for the squad from Lawrence.
KU, for its part, was not above taking pot shots at Missouri when the opportunity arose. Phog Allen, for example, was a Missouri native but incited the ire of his home state by talking about Columbia as if it were a backwater town, mocking its “muddy streets” and “boarded up storefronts.” And in the 1930s, following a Jayhawkers’ homecoming loss to the Tigers, the nationally renowned editor of the Emporia Gazette, William Allen White, jumped into the fray when he wrote an editorial criticizing Missouri for having “football politics piped into the state treasury.” Implying that KU had lost the game because the school hadn’t bothered to foster such connections, he asserted that Missouri placed an exaggerated emphasis on football and, in essence, contended that the loss proved that Kansas had taken the moral high ground. He concluded that “there [was] no difference between the Missouri team and a professional team” – a bit of a slap at the school that had led the effort to disqualify Bausch. In a poignant closing sentence, he linked the rivalry with its Bleeding Kansas roots and justified the KU defeat, proclaiming “And if Quantrill in Lawrence is unavenged and if Jesse James is still riding the Missouri highway, what of it?”
Nonetheless and in spite of such needling, the potential for a truly bitter rivalry was mitigated somewhat by the fact that neither football team developed into a national powerhouse. This prevented the rivalry from developing into the sort enjoyed by Ohio State and Michigan, Alabama and Auburn, or Florida State and Miami. As interest in the football rivalry began to wane in the 1930s, various attempts were made to rekindle it but they proved, for the most part, unsuccessful. Missouri, for instance, briefly switched the games held in Columbia back to Thanksgiving and in 1944 there was another Thanksgiving Day clash between the two teams in Kansas City. The latter, held in Ruppert Stadium did prove successful in arousing interest in the game, but the city’s attempt to permanently relocate the game there proved futile.
Perhaps the most notable of the attempts to re-ignite interest in the annual gridiron contest came in 1937 when a group of alumni from the two universities purchased an Osage tribal war drum from a pawnshop in Kansas City. They painted the mascots of the two universities on opposite sides of the drum, which certain important alumni members autographed. The drum was to serve as a trophy to be awarded to the winner of the Tiger-Jayhawker showdown. (For a quarter century prior to the institution of the “War Drum” trophy, a football painted in the two schools’ colors had been exchanged.) As the 1937 contest ended in a tie, the drum remained on “neutral ground” in Kansas City until the Tigers claimed it with a 13-7 victory in 1938. For several decades, the drum was apparently exchanged after the game, but enthusiasm for the trophy had dissipated entirely by the early 1980s. Indeed no one even seemed to realize that it had been lost after Missouri’s 55-7 spanking of the Jayhawks in the 1979 game.
In 1986, however, both universities (neither could remember when the trophy had last been exchanged) vainly searched their campuses to find it. When the schools proved unable to locate the old drum, the two athletic departments donated $35 apiece to purchase a new one. (Predictably, shortly after the new drum had been purchased, the old one was found. Indicative of the lack of prestige attached to the old trophy by the 1980s, it was found in a cardboard box in the basement of the MU student government offices.) In 2000, the “War Drum” trophy was renamed the “Marching Band Drum Trophy” which is probably apropos considering the quality of the football squads the rivals had generally produced over the course of the 20th century.
Although it did not take many decades for the passion of the annual gridiron showdown to diminish, the fact that Kansas City is home to a large number of both MU and KU alums has ensured over the years that supporters of the two schools stake some measure of pride in the ongoing contest. Not surprisingly then, attendance at the MU-KU game has generally brought out one of the year’s largest crowds. And there have been three exceptional years when both squads were ranked in the Associated Press poll.
The first such clash came in 1960 when an KU team ranked 11th by the Associated Press upset a Missouri team holding the AP’s top ranking in the Tigers’ backyard in a 23-7 rout. Similarly, in 1968 an Orange Bowl bound Jayhawker team squeaked by a nationally-ranked Tiger squad that would go on to topple a Bear Bryant coached Alabama team in the Gator Bowl. However, the “Border War” has not seen a gridiron contest with both the Tigers and Jayhawks ranked since 1973, when KU slid by Missouri 14-13. By contrast, the hardwood floors of Allen Field House and the Hearnes Center have regularly hosted tussles between top-25 KU and MU basketball squads.
Indeed, it is probably fair to say that by the last decades of the 20th century, the focus of what had begun as a football rivalry had shifted to the basketball court. Fans of the respective schools’ athletic programs have in recent years become far more passionate about the basketball games between the border rivals than the gridiron contests. Given the enthusiasm surrounding KU basketball, that is hardly surprising. Further, since both schools have recently fielded top-flight basketball programs, there has tended to be more at stake on the hardwood than on the gridiron. But the marks of the old football rivalry remain – including a propensity for upsets. The 1997 Jayhawk basketball squad, for instance, which many sports journalists believe to be the best team not to win a national title, lost only one regular season game. As might be expected, it was at Missouri.
With Missouri seceding from the Big 12 union beginning in 2012, the rivalry is on hold until the Kansas Athletics department decides to schedule the Tigers again. At the current time, this does not seem eminent.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas