If Colorado returns to Big 12, it brings plenty of history

Former University of Kansas basketball star Wilt Chamberlain in a game against Colorado in 1958 at KU's Allen Fieldhouse. He was an All-American in 1957 and 1958. PHOTO/Bill Snead, Lawrence Journal-World

In a world of increasingly outlandish conference realignment rumors — many of which, indeed, seem totally ridiculous until they come to fruition — the latest bit of gossip to take the nation by storm has a refreshing familiarity.

The University of Colorado has been floated, discussed and endlessly analyzed, perhaps most notably in an Oklahoman column by Berry Tramel on May 23 and CBS Sports piece by Dennis Dodd a week later, as a candidate to rejoin the Big 12 Conference.

The Buffaloes currently play in the Pac-12, a league that has been the subject of wild and wide-ranging speculation since USC and UCLA announced 11 months ago their stunning move to leave for the Big Ten. In that period, though, there have actually been no additional membership changes to the conference (unless, of course, you count the previously arranged addition of San Diego State and UC Davis as women’s lacrosse affiliates for 2023-24).

Now that one school seems to be gathering enough momentum to leave the Pac-12 — Dodd reported that a source said Colorado was in “substantive” talks, which is about as definitive as it gets these days — of course it’s the one that was part of the Big 12, playing Kansas every season, as recently as 12 years ago. Not to say that a far-flung Gonzaga or UConn or some Arizona school joining the conference isn’t in the offing, but the leader in the clubhouse right now is just one state away.

Granted, a lot has changed in CU sports in a dozen years. The most salient difference dates back to just six months ago: Since December, Deion Sanders has been ensconced as Boulder as the Buffaloes’ football coach. His bravado, his razing and reconstruction of the CU roster, his social-media-focused style — all these have resulted in a dramatic surge of attention to a program that finished 1-11 last year.

Fundamentally, though, CU remains the same school that KU shared a conference with for 73 years, dating back to the days of the Big Seven (!), until the Buffaloes’ formal departure in 2011. They have plenty of history together, history that is worth revisiting in advance of a possible move.

The schools have been inextricably linked by numerous athletic moments over the years. Colorado routed KU 41-10 at Memorial Stadium on the way to its lone championship in 1990. Five years later, still ranked No. 4, it lost to an underdog Jayhawk squad as part of KU’s 10-2, Aloha Bowl-winning season, one of the best in modern program history. The roles were reversed in 2007, KU’s Orange Bowl year, but the Jayhawks were lucky to escape Folsom Field with a 19-14 win.

Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing gets rid of the football as Colorado defenders Marquez Herrod (90) and B.J. Beatty close in during the third quarter Saturday, Oct. 17, 2009 at Folsom Field.

By the time CU left the Big 12, it led the all-time series in football 42-25-3, but KU got the last laugh with an absurd 2010 victory in which it scored 35 straight points in the fourth quarter, capped with a game-winning touchdown by running back James Sims, to win 52-45. Of course, the Jayhawks only scored 24 combined points the next three weeks and finished 3-9, and that memorable win went down as one of Turner Gill’s five victories at KU.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the series is a more lopsided 124-40 in KU’s favor for the men’s basketball team. Just a few months before Bill Self came aboard in 2003, the Jayhawks lost 60-59 on a Stephane Pelle 12-foot jumper with 25 seconds left to snap a 27-game winning streak against the Buffaloes. (That ended up turning into CU’s only NCAA Tournament team between 1997 and 2012.) Self then went unbeaten against CU for the rest of the school’s Big 12 tenure — the closest call came in February 2010, when Marcus Morris tallied six points in overtime to secure KU a 72-66 victory.

The Jayhawks weren’t as lucky in 2013. The first meeting between Self and KU grad Tad Boyle went Boyle’s way when Askia Booker hit a game-winning, buzzer-beating 3-pointer on the run to give the Buffaloes a stunning victory in Boulder. Both the 2003 and 2013 defeats came when Kansas was ranked No. 6 and Colorado was unranked.

Kansas won in Lawrence in 2019, and the two teams were supposed to play in December 2021, but the game was canceled due to COVID-19.

photo by: Associated Press

Kansas’ Udoka Azubuike gets past Colorado’s Dallas Walton to shoot during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Lawrence, Kan. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The women’s basketball series between KU and CU has been hotly contested at 36-33 in the Jayhawks’ favor, and will be particularly interesting to watch if the Buffaloes rejoin the Big 12 given that both teams have surged into newfound prominence in recent years. CU just reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in 20 years, while KU made an NCAA Tournament and then won the Women’s National Invitational Tournament in consecutive seasons. The two teams’ last meeting in 2013, when they were no longer conference foes, saw the Jayhawks knock the Buffaloes out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round. KU coach Brandon Schneider and CU’s JR Payne have yet to meet during their respective tenures.

Kansas guard Markisha Hawkins, left, blocks the way to the basket against Colorado guard Chucky Jeffery in the first half of a first-round women’s NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, March 23, 2013, in Boulder, Colo. KU won the game, 67-52.

Other team sports have featured few head-to-head matchups between the two schools since 2011. After this season, Kansas soccer will have played Colorado College — which is only Division I in two sports — more (thrice) than it has played the University of Colorado (twice) since the Buffaloes left the Big 12. KU leads the tennis series 27-18, but that series has been inactive for seven years.

For many years, volleyball had the most unbalanced results in favor of the Buffaloes, who at one point beat the Jayhawks on 26 straight occasions during a period of national success, until they lost a five-set conference-opening contest in 2000. The two teams haven’t gone head to head since 2010, and in that time Kansas has improved dramatically under Ray Bechard, highlighted by the 2015 campaign that saw the Jayhawks reach a national semifinal.

If the cupboard seems a little bare in terms of spring sports, it’s because Colorado doesn’t have baseball or softball. If it were to rejoin, it would become the only Big 12 school with neither diamond sport. Iowa State doesn’t have baseball, and Kansas State, TCU, West Virginia and incoming member Cincinnati lack softball.

It’s easy to get carried away imagining Kansas men’s basketball playing regular conference games at Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center or UConn’s Gampel Pavilion. And the Jayhawks may do so in time, but the Big 12 will have to beat out other conferences for the Bulldogs’ affection or coax the Huskies out of the competitive Big East. The most likely scenario right now is that KU’s newest conference foe ends up being, in fact, an old one.