He has taken his thoughts off of hated Missouri for just a moment, and the softer side of Don Fambrough takes over. His mind is in rewind mode and doesn't stop until it goes back 35 years. He's on a driveway in Hiawatha on a cold and snowy night. He has just given his best recruiting pitch, done his best exaggerating, turned on the charm thick as he could for the family of Michael McCoy because he so wanted him to play football for him at Kansas University.
"The campus is up on a hill," Fambrough told the recruit's mom. "And when the boys get tired of practicing they go for a swim in the lake at the bottom of the hill."
Nothing but a blank stare that's almost as cold as the wind that awaits him outside on the driveway. She wants her boy to go to Dartmouth and the coach knows it. He senses his best pitch has fallen on deaf ears. Feeling defeated, he says his goodnights and his thank-yous and heads for his car. Oh well, can't win 'em all.
"I walked out there in that snow and ice and just as I opened the car door, I felt an arm around me," Fambrough recalls. "It was Michael. He said, 'Coach, I'm coming to KU. I'll take care of momma.' And that storm just parted. It absolutely parted. The moon came out. The stars shined. That was the great thing about recruiting, when you hear that. Same feeling as winning a game."
All these years later, McCoy's an orthopedic surgeon in Topeka and an arm is around his coach again, same as it has been for nearly four years. That's how long it's been since Fambrough lost his wife Del, a school teacher in Lawrence for 30 years. Fambrough takes great comfort in the letters and phone calls he receives from his former players. He was there for them in the years they grew from men to boys. And they're there for him now, trying to fill the void. Isn't that how family is supposed to work?
"That's the most rewarding thing of all my coaching, the players I had," Fambrough says in an atypically shaky voice as he walks toward the small memorabilia room in his house. "Especially since Del passed. They include me in everything they do. They won't let me get lonesome."
McCoy, Mike Wellman, David Lawrence and countless others forever stay in touch with the man who learned the art of recruiting from basketball coach Phog Allen and learned to despise Missouri as if he were born to do it. He brags about all their accomplishments and trusts them to the bone. McCoy will be performing surgery on his old coach soon, but it had to wait until after the Missouri game. Fambrough didn't want to be in a sling for today's big game.
The first thing he points out in his memorabilia room is the wall that has plaques recognizing five different teaching awards won by Del. Then he points to a wall where there are three images in a frame: himself as a player at KU, wearing a red No. 22 jersey; himself as a coach at KU; the beautiful face of a young lady.
"I wanted to play football. I wanted to coach football. And I wanted to marry the beauty queen," Fambrough says. "I did all three."
His Jayhawks won the first football game played at Syracuse's Carrier Dome and he has the newspaper clipping to prove it. It's on the opposite wall of a 1969 clipping that shows the public voted him as a guard on KU's all-time football team. Then there's the picture of him with Sen. Bob Dole, for whom he worked for three years. Not to be forgotten is the MVP plaque from the 2004 alumni game, during which he kicked a pair of extra points. That one makes him chuckle.
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This has been a particularly busy week for Fambrough, as it is every year. At least from this side of the Border Showdown, Fambrough is the face of the rivalry, thanks to his unbridled hatred of Missouri. He's wanted as a speaker here, there and everywhere. Jayhawk coach Mark Mangino has him talk to the team every year late in the week to fan the animosity flames. He loves to talk about his hatred for all things Missouri.
"We get with it," Fambrough says of his annual talk to the players. "We get down to talking about my experiences with Missouri, which have all been bad. I don't call it a showdown. It's not a showdown. It's a damn war. They started the war, and eventually we're going to end it."
He gives the players his version of history as it relates to William Quantrill and his Raiders.
"I got all excited talking to my team one time," he recalls. "I don't think I even knew who Quantrill was at the time. I just read about him in a history book. I was just thinking of something to say and I went on and on and I mentioned the fact that it was a war and anyone who had ever played in that game knew it was a war and not a showdown.
"They started the war when Quantrill came over here, killed all the men, raped all the women, and turned around burned the damn town down. I don't know why I said this, but I added a little to it and I said we found out Quantrill was a Missouri alum.
"Well, I had a wild-ass freshman that year, we had him trained, and he believed everything I said. You mention Missouri to him and he'd jump out that window. And I went on about how Quantrill was a Missouri alum. The following Monday, and this is the truth, he had a history test and one of the questions was 'Who was Quantrill?'
"I'll be damned if he didn't put down there that he was a Missouri alum. Thank goodness this professor was a good friend of mine. He called me and said 'Don, I'm gonna make a deal with you. I'm gonna let you coach football and I'll teach history.' I said, 'By golly, that's a deal.'"
To this day, that phone call cracks up the old coach. Ask him about the source of his feelings toward Missouri and his smile vanishes, he moves to the edge of his seat, and begins talking with his hands. He talks about how he started his college career at Texas, then joined the Air Force during World War II, where his commanding officer, Ray Evans, convinced him and four others to join him at Kansas University to resume their football careers.
Before the war, freshmen were allowed to play four years of varsity football and it was determined that players returning from the service would be allowed to do so, even though freshman ineligibility had become the new rule. Getting angrier by the word, Fambrough tells of how Missouri coach Don Faurot held an emergency Big 6 meeting after spring practice was completed in 1948 and changed the rule so that Fambrough and four others were denied eligibility for their senior year.
"Missouri didn't have any players in the same situation the following year, so he changed the rule and he waited until after spring practice so our coach, J.V. Sikes, wouldn't have a chance to train anybody to play quarterback," Fambrough relates. "Our chancellor was so upset he withdrew from the Big 6, until the five of us went up to see him and convinced him not to do that. Coach Sikes called the baseball coach and asked if he had anybody who could play quarterback."
He did and with Lynwood Smith catching up to Dick Gillman's overthrown passes, the Jayhawks went 7-3, which Fambrough calls, "the best coaching job I've ever seen."
Fambrough's anti-Mizzou feelings intensified when, coaching the freshman team in 1949 at a game in Columbia, he was told by one of his players that the physical education students working the first down chains were rolling a couple of yards worth of chain around the pole, meaning Missouri needed to advance the ball only eight yards for first downs. Fambrough sent one of the managers into the stands to get Faurot, told the Tigers varsity coach what was going on and was infuriated when Faurot told him, "Oh Don, it's just a freshman game. It doesn't mean anything."
To which Fambrough responded, "Listen, coach, we came here to kick your ass and that's exactly what we're going to do. It may not mean anything to you, but it damn sure does to us."
And then there was the time when Fambrough was an assistant on Sikes' staff and the Jayhawks were in Columbia for a Thanksgiving Day game. With no hint of the snow storm that would hit Thanksgiving morning, the team had not packed the proper clothing for the game and couldn't buy any because the stores were closed. Sikes sent Fambrough to the equipment room to see if Missouri could sell them anything, be it torn up old jerseys or anything else they could use to stay warm.
"They said: 'We don't care if you freeze your ass off. We wouldn't give you a rag if your life was depending on it,'" Fambrough recalls, still angry after all these years.
Sikes asked George the bus driver if he could park the bus behind the bench, so the players could sit on the heated bus to keep warm when not on the field. George told him the gate was locked. Sikes asked George if he thought the bus could knock down the fence.
"This old boy bristled up and said: 'You bet it can, coach. Can I do that?' Old George, he was all KU. Coach Sikes said to bring it in. This is the truth. He revved that thing up and knocked that gate down and parked the bus right behind the bench," Fambrough says, loving the memory. "When our boys weren't playing, we'd bring them in the bus with the heater on. It got down to 8 degrees that day, dangerous cold and the snow was piling up."
So Fambrough felt cheated by Missouri as a player, a freshman coach and an assistant varsity coach. Oh well, at lest they never slighted him during either of his two stints as KU's varsity coach, right? Wrong.
"My team, goes over there, another miserable day of rain and snow," he recounts. "After the game, last game of the season, kids started to take a shower. No hot water. So I saw one of their people there and I asked: 'Is Missouri having the same trouble over there in their dressing room?' 'No coach. They have plenty of hot water.' So I vowed I would never cross the state line the rest of my life. I would never go into that state."
Years later, that vow was almost broken. Almost.
"I had a pretty bad illness and Del was still living then," the coach says. "They wanted me to go to some hospital over there across the line and I said 'I'll die first.'"
Del instructed the doctors to put him to sleep, transport him to Kansas City via helicopter, and bring him back to Lawrence without ever telling him what they did. After thinking about it, Del changed her mind and told the doctors, "We better not do that. If he wakes up and finds out where he is, he's going to do something to embarrass all of us."
Last year, after watching KU get a win against Texas "stolen from them by a bad call" and seeing how committed they were at practice after that, Fambrough decided he had to be there to watch the Jayhawks beat Missouri, and beat the Tigers they did.
Before the game, Fambrough ran into Mizzou broadcaster John Kadlec, against whom he had played. And Kadlec told him, "Don, I understand you have called everybody in Missouri a dirty S.O.B. Please tell me you haven't said that about me."
"Not yet, John," Fambrough told him. "But you're on the list."
Kadlec laid a bear hug on him, at which point, someone said, "Go get the photographers. Fambrough's hugging a Missouri man. We'll never see that again."
Fambrough can be heard today on the Jayhawk Radio Network getting interviewed by Lawrence, one of his old players. Fambrough might even tell the story of when Pepper Rogers was coaching the Jayhawks and superstar running back John Riggins had done something to draw his ire, which triggered this exchanged between Rogers and Fambrough:
Rogers: "I'm not going to let him play this week."
Fambrough: "Coach, we're playing Missouri this week."
Rogers: "Well then, I won't let him play the following week."
Fambrough won't have to tell Lawrence there are two seasons for KU football players. There's the Missouri season and the rest of the season.
And Lawrence won't have to have his arm around his old coach during the interview. Even if it's not there physically, Fambrough knows it's there.