Fork in the Road: Why Kansas and Missouri football have traveled distinctly different roads since 2008

On August 21, 1863, confederate and Missouri men under the direction of William Quantrill attacked the pro-union town of Lawrence, Kan. in a move that would change the course of sporting history.

It was a one-sided battle, small in the grand scope of the raging civil war. However, it pushed the two opposing states into a Border War.

No one knew at the time the tension that would remain 150 years later. Fortunately, it has taken a much different form. Missouri and Kansas – the oldest rivalry west of the Mississippi River.

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Here we are in 2013. And within the last two years, the first separation of one of the fiercest rivalries in all of sports. It took until the year 2012, and Missouri’s move to the Southeastern Conference finally split the two.

But for the last five years, the football programs of Kansas and Missouri have already been on their own distinct paths.

In 2008, the Jayhawks won its last game against the Tigers – Mizzou would win the final three matchups. Each team played and won in a bowl game that year. And from that point forward the incredibly drastic split begins.

“Missouri would have some ups and downs,” said Blair Kerkhoff, who covers college sports for the Kansas City Star. “Now they’re almost off the charts good. And Kansas is a straight line down.”

After finishing 8-5 with a bowl victory in 2008, the Jayhawks won their first five games in 2009 against inferior opponents. After beating Iowa State on Oct. 10 of that year, it took Kansas until Nov. 16 of 2013 to beat a current Big 12 team. After the first five games in 2009, the Jayhawks have a combined record of 9-46 and have yet to post more than three wins in a season.

On the flip side, Missouri has found a mixed bag of success that does include four 8-win seasons and the current 11-2 SEC East division championship team. In the past five years, Mizzou has a record of 41-24, a stark contrast from its rival.

Two important factors have proven to be the catalysts in the detached realities of the two programs.

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Gary Pinkel has been the coach for Missouri’s since 2001, a long-standing mark of consistency and stability. The Jayhawks have had three different coaches in the last five years alone, a point that the Kansas City Star’s Sam Mellinger is quick to note.

“Mike Alden (Missouri athletic director) has had the occasional ‘opportunity’ to fire Pinkel,” Mellinger said. “They’ve always stuck with him. Alden made it clear that loyalty was important when he hired Pinkel.”

It is a far cry from the coaching carousel that has been the Kansas football program. Mark Mangino headed the team from 2002-2009, but was fired after a 5-7 finish and reported off-the-field problems.

“It’s the hiring of Turner Gill,” Mellinger said. “There is so much stupidity in that move, from running Mangino out, to paying Gill $2 million a year.

“KU football can be good, but there isn’t a lot of margin for error. Perkins’ decision to hire Gill was a horrendous error.”

When opportunity knocked to fire Mangino, KU Athletic Director Lew Perkins answered. Mike Alden remained loyal to Gary Pinkel throughout his failures. Perkins saw an additional reason to get rid of his coach after a below average season on the field. And he took the bait.

“Do you really think Mark Mangino would have ‘resigned’ if the Jayhawks were 9-3?” said Mick Shaffer of Kansas City’s Time Warner Sports. “The character issues would have been overlooked or dealt with without a coaching replacement. After all, Gary Pinkel has a DUI.”

Alden had the chance to jump ship on Pinkel. He did not, and his loyalty and the program’s stability because of it have paid dividends. Kansas’ decisions on coaches reflect the exact opposite approach, and provide equally opposite results.

“You can win at KU. You just can’t do it making desperate decisions,” Mellinger said.

***

The other critical factor is the advantage in recruiting Missouri has maintained over Kansas. The Show-Me state with its two major cities (STL, KC) generates more far talent than Kansas and doesn’t have to share it between multiple division 1 programs.

Kansas must recruit against an established program for its talent. Mizzou, effectively, has shut down the borders and keeps many of the in-state top prospects.

Mizzou’s move to the SEC in 2012 also an important recruiting aspect.

“It adds street cred,” Shaffer said. High school players want to play in the best conference, with the best teams, so they can get the most exposure. The SEC offers more than the Big 12 can, hands down.

“Missouri’s rise is a combination of a renewed energy surrounding the SEC move,” Mellinger said. “Pinkel and the coaching staff’s ability to find two- or three-star recruits who turn into stars like Michael Sam, and a generally higher level of recruiting.”

As football evolves into a high-flying, throwing game, the importance of recruiting the quarterback position increases.

At the most even point, the Tigers’ Chase Daniels and the Jayhawks’ Todd Reesing slung the ball around to provide the most exciting head-to-head matchups between the two teams. Since then, similar to the path traveled by both teams, Mizzou has had success and Kansas has not.

“One of Kansas’ biggest reasons for failure during this time is not finding a quarterback to replace Todd Reesing,” Shaffer said.

Kansas can look to Texas, where both Reesing and Daniels are from. But any recruits must go through the filter of Texas schools and the buffer that is Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

The Jayhawks essentially only have rights to the hand-me-downs.

***

As Kansas and Missouri continue to distance each other, the same question is always brought up. When will their paths meet again?

In football terms, the answer is fairly clear.

“I don’t think it makes sense for KU to play MU in football right now,” Shaffer said.

The roads traveled for each program are currently veering too far in opposite directions for a game in football. Non-conference games are too valuable and a bowl game seems less likely than getting struck by lightning, twice.

The hardwood would be the nearest hope for the first interaction since the divorce.

Even if it doesn’t happen voluntarily in basketball,” Mellinger said. “The NCAA Tournament seeding committee is far too ornery not to ignore the possibility of MU and KU on the same side of the bracket.”

For now, there must be content with the split. Even for those who provided some of the greatest moments in the Border War’s history.

“It’d be great to find a way to renew the rivalry,” said former KU quarterback Todd Reesing. “But you know that’s easier said than done.”

NEWKUMU
(Graphic by Jackson Long)

The Kansas City Star’s Blair Kerkhoff on the paths traveled by Kansas and Missouri, and the future of each of their football programs.

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Todd Reesing: Taking care of business

Todd the Businessman is sitting in Austin-Bergstrom International Airport waiting for his noon-flight to take off. First, he’s heading to Des Moines, then a connecting flight to St. Louis for his work. Todd the Businessman is an associate for the Austin-based financial group Dimensional Fund Advisors. The date is December 10, 2013.

Five years and 11 days earlier, Todd taking care of a different type of business and taking a different type of flight.

He was Todd the quarterback. Todd the Savior. Todd Reesing.

In the midst of a shootout with fellow Texas gunslinger Chase Daniels, Reesing and the Jayhawks trailed the Missouri Tigers 33-37 facing a 4th and 7 at the Mizzou 26 with just 33 seconds left.

The rest is ingrained in Kansas football history.

It is Reesing’s favorite play during his time playing quarterback for the University of Kansas. His redshirt was pulled nine games into the 2006 season in a comeback victory against Colorado. He never gave up the reins from that moment on.

But to Reesing, that play would stick with him forever.

Records still stand today from Reesing’s lengthy career under center for KU. He finished the following season and graduated with his business degree. Jayhawk fans went on to view a continuingly poor stretch of football. Reesing turned into Todd the Businessman.

It is a role that he says he is very comfortable in. He is back in his hometown of Austin, where he attended high school at Lake Travis. He resides in the state that is the most captivated by football at every possible level. And of course, he works for David Booth – a Lawrence, Kan. native and KU donor who contributed $9 million to build the Booth Family Hall of Athletics attached to historic Allen Fieldhouse.

Literally and figuratively, Reesing has returned to a place not far from home. He’s surrounded by things that are familiar to his stint of stardom at Kansas. He takes great pride and humility in his time on the field – thankful for the opportunity given to a quarterback who can’t measure up to six feet.

But for now he’s Todd the Businessman. And while the love and appreciation for football is there, today it can take a backseat.

For now, Todd Reesing just wants to take care of business.

Q&A with KMBC-9 Sports Director Johnny Kane

In the wee early hours of April 8th, 2008, Johnny Kane gobbled the best Denny’s breakfast he ever had.

Just hours earlier, Kane was in the Alamo Dome for Mario’s Miracle – the shot that propelled the Kansas Jayhawks to an NCAA National Championship victory. But in the front row, he was no spectator.

Kane was the sports director for KSTN in Topeka at the time, a middle stop in a well-traveled career path. He studied broadcast journalism at the University of Ohio and earned a post-graduate internship in Hopkinsville, Ky. After three months, he took a job at the same WKAG station and stayed for over two years. Following five years in Topeka, including covering of the Jayhawks’ national championship, Kane moved to KMBC-9 News, the ABC affiliate in Kansas City.

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Why was the 2008 NCAA Final Four your favorite event to cover? 

“When you cover a team that ‘wins it all’ it’s a pretty special feeling. You go on the road with the guys and experience the highs and lows along with them. I thought it was a great group to cover the entire season. It was a magical run, and I think Bill Self dialed up the right calls at the right times to get them there. The championship was played in San Antonio, which is one of my favorite U.S. cities.”

What was the weekend experience like in San Antonio?

“When you’re strolling down the River Walk and see the top college basketball coaches all gathered at the same restaurant, it’s quite a sight. We worked hard all week to bring the Topeka community all the sights and sounds of San Antonio. There wasn’t much down time, but once I filed my final report on Monday night, early Tuesday morning, I ate the best Denny’s breakfast I’d ever had.

How much did you get to “enjoy” that experience, even though you were there for work?

“I took a lot of pictures and saved many of the tapes from that weekend, so I could reflect. It was a special night. When you work hard, even if it’s not a national championship setting, you draw enjoyment from the material you produce.”

What is the coolest restaurant and bar in San Antonio?

“Casa Rio.”

Working in Topeka, was there a certain Jayhawk feel for the town during the tournament?

“Without a doubt. It’s all people wanted to talk about when I met them. I remember agreeing to get a matching Jayhawk tattoo with some woman if they won it all. She’s still trying to track me down.”

What was your reaction to Mario Chalmers’ shot?

“I was sitting courtside about 30 feet from Chalmers when he hit the shot. I leapt feet first into a security guard. He helped me back to my seat. Later that night I called my mom from the court. She became a KU fan because of it. True story.”

In overtime, what was the feel of the arena? Was all the momentum for KU?

“You did have that sense. You never really ‘know’ but everyone in media row knew that the OT session was a mere formality. The pendulum had swung in KU’s favor, and the environment was truly electric.”

What that evening like after the game?

“I spent the majority of the night working, editing our packages to feed back for the morning shows. I’m sure it was crazy. All I know is the line at Denny’s went out the door. I ended up sitting with an assistant coach from St. Mary’s.”

Do you remember a particular journalist segment you did from that weekend?

I don’t know if it was our best piece, but the game recap about Mario’s shot was special because we did our standup from that spot on the floor. The confetti was all over the place. The only video used in that piece was the shot.”

Who was your favorite interview from the weekend?

“The best interview was with Bill Self following the win. He was exactly the same.”

What are a few other events that compare to Mario’s Miracle?

“That stands alone, but I really enjoyed covering the Emporia State women’s 2010 national championship in St. Joe. That was a special team that cut down the nets. I also have fond memories of covering the MLB All-Star Game in 2012.”

What type of “Kansas City” event would need to occur to take over as the number one memory? 

“Royals World Series would be the closest anything could come.”