When Missouri announced that it was leaving the Big 12, I was shaken to the roots of my being. The idea was unthinkable. It felt as if some basic law of nature had been violated: Spring would no longer follow winter, chocolate ice cream would no longer taste good. It was a denial of geographic reality, as if the new map would show a blank space east of Kansas, with the legend, “There be dragons here.”
You see, I grew up in Kansas City on the wrong side of State Line: the Missouri side, that is. The antagonistic entanglement of Kansas and Missouri was in my DNA. From the beginning, I sensed that something was the matter with Missouri, that it was somehow tainted, perhaps because it was on the wrong side in the Civil War. For as long as I can remember, I aspired to escape to Kansas, a place where I could start over, a pure, unspoiled and virtuous state.
Trapped in Missouri, I lived a kind of double life and suffered a prolonged identity crisis. When I went to summer camp in Minnesota, I stood up in the mess hall and sang along with the Kansas campers, “For I’m a Jay-Jay-Jay-Jay Jayhawk up at Lawrence on the Kaw.” Thirty-four years ago, when I managed at last to settle in Kansas, I felt reborn. My self-esteem soared. I walked with a spring in my step and a bit of a swagger.
Part of my transformation was due to the fact that I became a Jayhawk basketball fan. Rooting for a dependable winner made me feel like a winner too. Since a lively rivalry is an essential part of being a fan, my antipathy to Missouri made it natural for me to champion the crimson and blue. I felt as if I had chosen light over darkness, good as opposed to evil. It made me feel like a better human being.
Missouri fans willingly embraced the role of bad guys. They eagerly crossed the line between wholesome support for their own team to pathological hatred for their Jayhawk rival. The Antlers proved to be world-class boors. The Missouri players often behaved like thugs. It was a joyous thing to see them grind their teeth and writhe in agony when our side won. To lose an enemy that can make you fighting mad is as bad as losing a friend.
“Got a bill that’s big enough to twist a tiger’s tale…” No longer will those words stir memories of triumph and revenge. The sordid pursuit of money has rendered them meaningless. Tiger tradition has been transformed into a commodity, the Tiger “brand.” A great rivalry with its roots in the free state-slave state border wars has been tossed in the ash can of history. Those who made this decision to jump ship have shown contempt for Missouri’s past, for the shared memories of Missourians, for Missouri fans. To paraphrase Sitting Bull, they sold their souls for a piece of bacon fat. It seemed like a natural fulfillment of Missouri’s flawed character. The only proper response is disgust.
Even if Kansas goes on to win the national championship, I will always remember this as the year of the spectacular come-from-behind victory over Missouri in their final showdown. The Jayhawks have given us another year to celebrate, to be proud, to be thankful we are on the right side, that we are “us,” not “them.”