With Border War Future Uncertain, Missouri Savors the MomentPosted by dnspewak on February 5th, 2012
Danny Spewak is an RTC correspondent. You can find him on Twitter @dspewak. He filed this report following Missouri’s victory against Kansas.
Less than 24 hours before Saturday’s Border War showdown between Missouri and Kansas, severe weather swept through mid-Missouri and pelted students camped outside of Mizzou Arena with thunder, lightning and gusting winds. ”Obviously, we have the greatest fans in college basketball,” student section director Molly Krutek said. “Standing out here in the rain and the hurricane weather we’re having.” Tents were collapsing. Visibility had dwindled. Athletic department officials even cautioned Krutek and other leaders about the possibility of an evacuation, forcing them to frantically mark students’ spots in line in case of an emergency.
It looked like the scene of a war movie. In a way, it was. There was an epic feel to the hours leading up to Saturday’s game, since the contest marked the Jayhawks’ final trip to Columbia as a Big 12 foe. After more than 100 years of bitter, Civil War-based hatred, coach Bill Self said his program will no longer schedule MU in protest of the school’s departure for the Southeastern Conference. KU’s decision to discontinue the series made the game a final battle of sorts, not to mention an ESPN College Gameday contest between two top-10 teams fighting for first place in the league standings.
That’s why not a single student folded a tent or abandoned the scene on Friday night. The stakes were too high for a little rain to get in the way of possibly the most important Border War game in series history. And just as MU students fought adversity by braving thunderbolts in the sky, the Tigers clawed from an eight-point deficit in the final minutes on Saturday to earn a defining 74-71 victory over Kansas. It was a team effort. In every way. “I have to give the win to this crowd because they were incredible,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “I think that we don’t win this game without their energy and what they brought to the table tonight.”
After coaching in his first MU/KU game, Haith said “it will be a shame” if the rivalry ends, referring to the crowd as the loudest he’s ever encountered as a head coach. Self seemed to agree on some level, sharing Haith’s assessment of the 15,061 screaming fans at Mizzou Arena. “This is hard for me to say to Mizzou people, but I thought tonight that was about as good and classy of an atmosphere as there is.” Minutes later, Self changed his tune in the postgame press conference. He vowed not to schedule Missouri again “in the immediate future” because of the school’s switch to the SEC. “It’s not because I don’t like Mizzou,” Self said. “It’s just kind of the way it is right now… They chose to be somewhere else. That’s their prerogative.” But even after paying homage to the fans in Columbia, he said he felt no remorse on behalf of either MU or KU supporters for ending the series. “If anybody should feel bad for anybody, it’s the players only, who don’t get a chance to play. But not the fans. The fans, to me, don’t drive the bus. At all,” Self said.
Tell that to students like Krutek, some of whom spent 72 hours in a tent outside of Mizzou Arena to watch Self’s team play. When the two teams meet in Lawrence later this month, Kansas students will surely bring the same passion, energy and Hooverville-like villages to Allen Fieldhouse. Self may have said the fans do not “drive the bus,” but both Missouri and Kansas supporters pay hundreds of dollars a season to validate Self’s program and his livelihood as a $3 million-a-year head coach. Yet Self still emphatically said the fans’ interests do not factor into the decision to continue the Border War. “I don’t feel bad [for the fans]. Missouri wanted this,” Self said. “So why should I feel bad?”
Self’s insistence on ending the series means frantic comebacks like Saturday may never happen again. Performances from Marcus Denmon, who scored 29 points and made an off-balance three-pointer to snatch the lead in the final minute, may also never happen again. Dramatic buzzer-beaters from David Padgett and Zaire Taylor won’t happen; overtime games like 1992 and 1997 won’t happen, either. Count Missouri’s Mike Dixon as one of the proponents of the rivalry. “Where we come from in Kansas City, it’s Kansas and Missouri fans everywhere. You can’t just sit here and say it was an ordinary game because it’s not,” Dixon said. Saturday’s game certainly was anything but ordinary. Not with the Big 12 standings, NCAA Tournament seeding and the history of the rivalry on the line. “It was a memorable game,” Haith said. “A classic.” In the February 25 rematch, the 267th Border War game may very well play out in the same manner.
But even another historic finish may not be enough to save this rivalry.