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.

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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.

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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.