Let’s make this very clear to start: tomorrow’s Kansas-Missouri football game should be played the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Always. Without exception. I know, I know, when played in November, the game meant something to both teams other than just being a rivalry game exactly once in the past 20 years: 1981, when both teams entered the game 7-3. By moving the game to an earlier point in the season, the argument goes, hopefully both teams are still playing for something other than pride. But come on, the oldest rivalry west of the Mississippi and you just yank it away from its traditional date? Kansas-Missouri deserves the same respect as Michigan-Ohio State, Texas-Texas A&M, and Duke-North Carolina. It felt right being the last game on the calendar. An appetizer to the coming Thanksgiving celebration. A bow to tie up the season, good or bad. Sure, it’s been seven years since the game was played on its traditional date, but I’m still writing this under protest. (I’m well aware there are many big rivalries played throughout the college football calendar. However, most of those have traditionally been played at their current dates, not moved around for almost a decade like KU-MU.)
There is nothing better in sports that college football rivalry games. I love college basketball far more, but rivalries are different there. You almost always have two, even three chances to face your rival in basketball. Bragging rights change hands quickly in the winter. Plus, the wide-open nature of the NCAA tournament reduces the importance of rivalry games. Sure, they’re great for fans and TV viewers, but in the big picture they’re less important.
Football rivalries, on the other hand, are much different. There’s one chance to play your rival. A single opportunity to claim the Little Brown Jug, Indian War Drum, or Floyd the Pig for 12 months. Three hours to earn the right to shove it back in the face of your friends, neighbors, and coworkers for a year. One day, circled on the calendar months in advance. Despite the prospects for your team’s season, this game means more than all the other games combined.
You team sucks? Beating your rival (especially if they’re making a run towards a bowl game) can mask a lot of other failures. Have a team that’s playing not just to get in a bowl game, but also to work its way into the elite round of bowls? Defeating your rival is the cherry on top of a dream season.
Basketball is played in a vacuum. You may remember an icy drive to the game, or walking across campus in sub-zero temperatures, but those elements have nothing to do with the game. From cool, crisp fall afternoons with gentle autumn lighting to the days when you pack on four layers and secretly hope the game gets out of hand early so you can flee inside to a heated room at halftime, the weather always become part of the football experience.
These are the games you never forget. I was as exhausted after listening on the radio to the 46-44 Kansas win in 1989 as if I had actually played in the game. I can still see Tony Sands running for a then NCAA record 396 yards in the bitter cold in 1991. I see Chip Hillary’s head smacking into the Omniturf in Columbia in 1992, ending our chances of winning that game on our first possession (I angrily told MU fans around me, “At least we’re going to a bowl game.” Didn’t make Thanksgiving in Kansas City any easier to take.). Corby Jones’ schizophrenic career (Two of his turnovers, in his first start in 1995 turned a close game into a blowout. 1996: his redemption, one of the best single performances in the series. 1997, again, Corby’s mistakes turn one of the ugliest games into a narrow KU win. Finally, 1998, when Corby’s leadership turned a close game into a blowout in MU’s favor.) Turn in a career performance against your rival, and you’ll drink for free the rest of your life. Old men will come up, wrap their arms around you, and tell you how much your performance meant to them. They will toast your name with a tear in your eye. Drop a pass that would have given your team the win, some bitter alums will never forgive you.
On rivalry days, conventional wisdom goes out the window. Heart overtakes mind. Fiery speeches from former coaches and players ensure that current players understand the significance of the game. It’s not just about team, school, sports. It’s about history, right and wrong, good and evil. Winning becomes important for personal reasons, not just for the benefit of the team.
I’ll be watching tomorrow from the comfort of my basement. There will be Boulevard beer, Gates barbecue sauce, and if I get my ass in gear today, I’ll finally have the school flag flying from the house. I’ll be watching with both an MU alum and some KU alums. We’ll have our own little version of the groups that will be spread throughout Memorial Stadium tomorrow. And when it’s over, I’ll be finding some goalposts to tear down when Kansas marches off the field (having thought better of picking up Mark Mangino) with a 45-41 victory. (Like I’m picking against the alma mater!) Rock Chalk!