Halfback Coan at center of debate between rivals

Kansas and Missouri both list the 1960 Border War game with an asterisk. Whoever gets credit for the victory gets the all-time series lead. Who's right? Who's wrong? Depends on which school is doing t

As long as Kansas University’s football rivalry with Missouri stays close — as in, too-close-to-call close — Bert Coan always will have his place in Border War lore.

Who could have imagined as much, almost 44 years to the day after his first KU-MU game in 1960? Who would’ve thought that a chunk of the bickering between the two states — as if they don’t have enough to bicker about — is fueled by a talented halfback who played two decades before any current player was born?

But somehow, it is so. As long as the victories keep alternating between Missouri and Kansas — as they have since the inception of the Big 12 Conference (a 4-4 mark by both schools) — Coan will be brought up in office debates, message-board battles and media-guide disputes from Great Bend to St. Louis.

Heading into today’s 1 p.m. showdown in Columbia, Mo., the all-time series between the two schools is at 52-51-9. That much is certain.

Problem is, neither school can agree on who’s leading.

Kansas has a case. There have been 112 games played in the rivalry. Kansas has won 52 of them, lost 51 and battled to a tie nine times.

But Missouri sees it differently. A 1960 swatting the Jayhawks handed the Tigers isn’t an MU loss, says Mizzou, because the Big Eight Conference ruled Coan ineligible by a 5-3 vote several weeks later, resulting in a Kansas forfeit and technically making the Tigers victorious by a 1-0 score.

The all-time series can — and will — be argued to great lengths until one school runs away with this rivalry. But if neither has done so after 112 meetings, why start now?

So, in the great debate over who’s superior, the argument always will find its way back to 1960 — and to a nimble-quick halfback named Bert Coan.

Kansas fullback Doyle schick (30) carries the ball during the Jayhawks' stunning 23-7 win over previously unbeaten Missouri in 1960. MU was later awarded a forfeit victory when KU running back Bert Coan was declared ineligible.

“Never really had a chance”

The 1960 KU-MU game was one of the most anticipated battles in the history of the series. At the time, Missouri was the No. 1-ranked team in college football, owner of a 9-0 mark. KU was 6-2-1, with losses to Iowa and Syracuse, each of which were No. 1 in the country at the time.

The winner of the season finale would take a 31-30-8 lead in the series and be undisputed Big Eight champion — or so it was thought.

Leading up to the game, speculation ran rampant that Coan was ineligible. Coan transferred to KU from Texas Christian after his freshman year, and many thought KU benefactor Bud Adams illegally was behind the move. Adams had bought Coan a plane ticket and accompanied him to an All-Star game in Chicago the summer after his freshman year, though Adams said at the time that his actions had nothing to do with his ties to Kansas, and during the trip, did or said nothing to convince Coan to attend KU.

Once Coan transferred, though, eyebrows raised, and rumor had it that MU athletic director Don Faurot was the most proactive in prosecuting Kansas. Meanwhile, Coan missed part of the 1960 season with a hurt shoulder, but contributed in a 34-6 victory over Colorado and was expected to play the next week against mighty Missouri on Nov. 19, 1960.

An unidentified Kansas defender tries to tackle Missouri running back Donnie Smith (45) during the 1960 game.

The Jayhawks were adamant they broke no rules in acquiring Coan and planned to use him against the Tigers. He had join a loaded backfield that included Doyle Schick, Curtis McClinton and the great John Hadl. Missouri countered with All-American Danny LeRosa, a talented end and wide receiver.

As it turned out, the game wasn’t even close. As Journal-World sports editor Earl Morey wrote in the Nov. 21, 1960 paper, “Missouri coach (Dan) Devine said the better team won, and he’ll get no argument from the Kansans. On this given day, Missouri never really had a chance.”

It was a stunning 23-7 victory by Kansas, which clinched a Big Eight title and would have put KU in the Orange Bowl had it not been on probation for previous rules violations.

The players didn’t seem to mind, though.

“We won the championship,” Schick boasted at the time, “and we won it by beating the hell out of Missouri.”

Coan played, as expected, and rushed for 67 yards on nine carries. That left a loophole the Tigers would try to crawl through. A Big Eight faculty meeting on Dec. 8 in Kansas City, Mo., addressed and voted on the issue of Coan’s eligibility.

Taking it back

Representatives from all eight schools had a vote on the issue. Prior to the meeting, a 6-2 vote was required to pass measures concerning eligibility. It was a certainty that Kansas would vote that Coan was eligible, and Kansas State and Oklahoma State were known to have sided with the Jayhawks on the issue, too.

But, in a bizarre twist, the first order of business at the meeting that day changed the policy, and a simple majority — instead of three-fourths — was all that was needed to pass measures like the one Coan was about to be tried on.

It turned out to be awfully convenient for those against the Jayhawks: KU was stripped of its Big Eight title — and of victories over Colorado and Missouri — by a 5-3 vote. Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State all saw the Jayhawks innocent of providing “excessive entertainment” to Coan, but the fresh policy made their perspective the losing side.

Aggravated Journal-World columnist Bill Mayer wrote in the next day’s paper, “Missouri winds up with an ‘unbeaten’ season, 10-0 with the most synthetic title the Big Eight ever will confer on anyone.”

The Associated Press agreed. Missouri won the Orange Bowl the next month, and technically finished the season 11-0. But the Tigers finished fifth in the AP poll, while Minnesota was named national champion despite two losses.

Along with the forfeits, Coan was ordered to sit out the first five games of the 1961 season. It didn’t matter; Coan broke his leg in spring practice and never returned to the Jayhawks. He ended up playing seven seasons in the NFL, including six with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Will either side win?

Missouri now celebrates 1960 as an undefeated season, complete with its first of two Big Eight championships. On page 546 of this year’s Mizzou media guide, the Nov. 19, 1960 game is recorded as a Missouri victory with a “7-23” score and an asterisk.

Kansas lists the game as a win by a “23-7” score and an asterisk, too.

The line above the 1960 KU-MU game may make the debate more of a toss-up then anything, though. That was the oft-forgotten Colorado game, the one KU rolled through that was later declared a 1-0 Colorado victory because of Coan’s participation.

The irony of it all is that the Buffalos don’t even seem to want the win. In its media guide, Colorado still has its 1960 record at 6-4, instead of the improved 7-3 after the ruling. A footnote under its results from 1960 says, “Kansas used an ineligible player and that game was later forfeited to Colorado, but all records are computed with the result that took place on the field.”

The Buffalos make matters — and the all-time series — even more complicated. Technicalities and off-field rulings say Mizzou is up 52-51-9, but on-field play and a neutral party (Colorado) imply that Kansas has the edge.

So who’s right? Which school will be looking for a two-game cushion in the all-time series, and which school will look to tie the series back up at Faurot Field this afternoon?

The answer, of course, is as easy as it gets: Depends on whom you ask.