KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The first interview I arranged when I arrived at The Star in 2013 was with Kansas coach Bill Self, since I’d known him for years and wanted to talk to him about the obvious void on the Kansas City sports scene.
No, not the fact that the Chiefs hadn’t won a playoff game since 1994 or the Royals since 1985 – each drought mercifully since remedied.
The Kansas-Missouri rivalry, a tradition 150 years in the making, abruptly had vanished into the vortex of college athletics: the hysteria of realignment that rattled the traditional order … and the aftershocks that said somebody has to pay for what’s lost.
When I spoke with Self about then and at various points between then and KU’s announcement Monday night that the rivalry will be resumed starting next December with a six-game men’s basketball series, he talked with a sort of conflicted conviction.
“We miss Missouri. Without question. For the immediate future, for both programs, there is something missing – for the immediate future,” he said, but was then quick to add, “But from our standpoint, they’re not part of our long-term future.”
Or he’d note that Missouri hired Quin Snyder over him and say, “I will admit that there’s not a game that I’ve enjoyed coaching more in on our schedule than going to Columbia” … before saying that the game he always had “circled in my mind” didn’t feel the same because “the dynamics have changed.”
It was if he were trying to convince himself, really. Or as if ignoring it would make it go away.
“Nobody’s going to view it as a great rivalry five years from now; nobody’s going to view it as a rivalry 10 years from now,” he said then. “There will be somebody else who will emerge in some way, shape or form that kind of fills that role for both programs.”
Not so much, as it happens.
Because this was always bigger than the institutions themselves or their current caretakers.
Because as much as MU antagonized KU by leaving and as much as KU wanted to posture that MU thus didn’t exist any more, they remained in each other’s DNA.
Kansas athletic director Jeff Long, whose daughter, Christina, goes to Missouri, in a statement on Monday acknowledged the obvious that has been stifled for so long.
“One of the best aspects of college athletics is rivalries, and we are thrilled that our fans and student-athletes will get to experience this Border Showdown rivalry once again,” he said. “We have quietly sought input from fans and supporters on the renewal of this series, and we believe the overriding sentiments are that this historic rivalry should resume.
“While this series does not include each of our sports teams competing in the Border Showdown at this stage, we feel this is the first step to expanding it in the future. We are excited for this rivalry to begin anew next year and believe it will be great for all fans of college basketball.”
As it should be. Because the only real losers were all of us missing out on something unique that was and should be part of the fabric of this community.
In some ways, their relationship practically was a living, breathing entity distinguished by its interdependence as much as its hostility.
Its absence has been a shame and a waste, precipitated by MU’s maneuver and accelerated by KU’s pettiness. Either side could justify its stance, of course, and it’s also easy to wonder how the other would have behaved if the situations had been reversed.
But what silliness this has been.
When Missouri left the quivering Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference in 2012, crassly punctuated by fans chanting “S-E-C” and players wearing SEC T-shirts when the men’s basketball team won that year’s Big 12 Tournament at the Sprint Center, Kansas basically said you left us and now we don’t want anything to do with you.
And by Kansas saying that, we mostly mean Self, whose success and charisma translates to enormous influence.
Whatever else was going on at KU, however much some officials might have felt deceived by Missouri in the process of its departure, if Self had wanted to play Missouri … Kansas would have kept playing Missouri.
Now, Self is saying it and … shazam.
“Jeff and I discussed the idea of playing Missouri on many occasions, including speaking with other coaches here at KU, and we all felt the timing is right to renew the rivalry,” Self said in the school’s Monday statement. “Even though we haven’t played the last few years, I know it was something our players and fans missed, and so did I.
“The interest generated in the 2017 exhibition game was far greater than I envisioned it would be which made it obvious to me that our fans were eager to see a Border Showdown matchup.
“Having coached a lot of games vs. Missouri in my time here at Kansas, I could not be more excited to start this series up again.”
It’s not immediately clear what precipitated the resumption of the series, scheduled for the Sprint Center next year and in December 2025 and alternating between Allen Fieldhouse and Mizzou Arena in the four seasons between.
Multiple regime changes no doubt are part of the thaw. And Self and MU coach Cuonzo Martin have great respect for each other, which was part of why they were able to arrange a charity exhibition game at Sprint Center in 2017 that we wrote at the time had win-win-win-win-win elements to it: for hurricane relief, for each school, for Kansas City and toward a potential future.
Sheer time surely has helped soothe things, too.
It’s also true that this upbeat news serves each school well right now: Kansas, with NCAA controversy swirling around its program, and MU, seeking both its biggest postseason win since that day at Sprint Center in 2012 and to enhance the presence that’s been diminished in Kansas City since it started facing south and east.
You could almost say they … need each other?
It’s just that it couldn’t be denied forever.
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