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Thursday, September 12, 2013
Some rivalries can survive realignment

By Eamonn Brennan

Just how powerful is conference realignment?

In a sports world full of clumsy, inane analogies to armed conflict, the Border War -- the centurylong rivalry between Kansas and Missouri -- legitimately deserved its designation. The Jayhawks and Tigers first met on the gridiron in 1891, just 36 years after a perfectly real, horribly violent border war broke out between pro-slavery Missouri and abolitionist Kansas, as The New York Times recounts:
In 1855, Missourians crossed the border in droves to vote in the first Kansas election, and 6,000 votes were somehow cast by a total voting population of 2,905 to elect a proslavery government. New Englanders opposed to slavery organized to send settlers, money and guns to the antislavery residents there. Amos Lawrence, a New England textile magnate whose name was given to the city where the University of Kansas now stands, helped ship hundreds of rifles to aid the fight against the “border ruffians” from Missouri and the proslavery settlers in Kansas.
It did not take long for violence to erupt. On May 21, 1856, parts of Lawrence were destroyed when Missourians marched on the town with five cannons in tow. A day later, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was beaten almost to death on the floor of the United States Senate by a Southern congressman upset by Sumner’s speech, “The Crime Against Kansas.” A week later, John Brown and several abolitionists hacked five proslavery Kansans to death with swords.

Today, when you check in to a hotel in Kansas City, those senseless horrors are impossible to fathom. But the up-close-and-personal violence -- neighboring cities burning, rival bands of "Jayhawkers" fighting to the death, dignitaries beaten to a pulp on the Senate floor -- is really only a handful of generations removed from present day. People still remember. They just express themselves differently.

For example: In April 2012, the morning of Kansas' national title showdown with Kentucky, the morning announcements at an elementary school in tiny Lee's Summit, Mo. -- a 20-minute drive from the Kansas border -- included the Jayhawks' fight song. In roughly 99 percent of the country, that would be seen as a small, token gesture toward regional sporting spirit. In Lee's Summit, it was a slap in the face:
“As a parent of two and a taxpaying resident of the Lee’s Summit R–7 School District, I am shocked and disappointed that there was an apparent attempt to indoctrinate Lee’s Summit school children to be KU fans at Trailridge Elementary this week,” said Brian Yates, a former state representative and graduate of the University of Missouri, at the time. “Playing the KU fight song or any college fight song over the intercom in a publicly funded elementary school is unacceptable.”

Indoctrinate! Another example: In 2011, the town of Osceola, Mo., passed a citywide resolution condemning the Jayhawks' nickname, which it saw as a "celebration of this murderous gang of terrorists by an institution of ‘higher education’" in a "brazen and malicious manner."

A couple of weeks ago, apropos of nothing, a Lawrence resident who had stumbled upon that old school-announcements chestnut sent me an email. He felt obligated to explain:
People that have not grown up in this area have no real understanding of this rivalry between MU and KU. To quantify it with words just diminishes the intensity of it.
This was never a sports rivalry. This was hatred that is taught and bred into the youth on both sides of the border. […] The memories are vivid and each side has their version of what "really" happened.
People along the border communities of Kansas and Missouri murdered each other at will. Bands of men from Missouri would ride into Kansas and indiscriminately kill men, women and children and so did bands of men from Kansas as well as Union forces into Missouri. This didn't happen once or twice. This occurred regularly for 8 years before the Civil War and then throughout the Civil War. It doesn't matter which side won, the Union or the Confederacy. For us it never ended.
We don't like them and they don't like us. That's the way it was, is, and will be.

In 2012, after more than 120 years of expressing their fans' intense distaste for the Kansas Jayhawks at least once a year, the Missouri Tigers left the Big 12 for the SEC. The two played three more times in the 2011-12 season, each game more thrilling than the last. And then, just like that, it was over. Kansas basketball coach Bill Self, his blue-blooded program having been made suddenly vulnerable by Big 12 turmoil, loudly proclaimed that he didn't see the need to play Missouri anymore.
"I will say this," Self said in 2011, when Missouri announced its impending move. "The media is not going to dictate who we play. I’ll dictate who we play as long as I’m coaching here. I have no ill will toward Missouri at all, but to do something at a time that could be so damaging and hurtful to a group, I can’t see us just taking it and forgetting."

The two schools haven't played since. There are no future plans to do so. The Border War, at least for basketball purposes, is dead. How powerful is conference realignment? That's how.

Syracuse and Georgetown never shared that kind of immense historical baggage. (Thankfully, because sheesh.) The SU-GU distaste was sparked in purely sporting terms: When John Thompson Jr. "closed" Manley Field House in 1980, ending the Orangemen's 57-game win streak in the last game in the building, Syracuse fans boiled over. Their hatred of Georgetown might not have been preceded by a decade of Civil War-era violence, but it is a product of shared cultural memory. No one talks about Manley Field House like that.

In the 30 years since, both programs have won titles and been consistent national powers. Thompson's mid-'80s teams brimmed with "Hoya Paranoia"; Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone made him the second-winningest coach of all time; and the rivalry blossomed into the Big East's best and most reliable fixture, the marquee matchup in the country's marquee hoops attraction.

In 2013, those two teams played their last game as co-members of the Big East. Syracuse was headed to the ACC, set to be part of a new marquee basketball league; Georgetown had found refuge in the new Big East, a smaller, basketball-only assemblage. For the most part, conference realignment avoided drastic changes to the status quo. It hasn't been as bad, or as crazy, as we all thought. But it did kill the Border War. Now, it had taken Syracuse-Georgetown, too.

That's why this news is so very exciting. Syracuse and Georgetown are in talks to keep their rivalry alive, with the most prominent option being a 10-year, rotating home-and-home contract being enthusiastically pushed by Boeheim and Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross. There are still plenty of details to iron out, of course. Georgetown still needs to accept and hasn't commented. There are modern, real-world concerns to attend to: Will the logistics of each team's schedule line up? Does Georgetown get as much out of the game as Syracuse, which very much enjoys the chance to play in downtown Washington, one of the hottest recruiting hotbeds in the country?

But all of that stuff is minor, even petty. The fact is, Syracuse and Georgetown have a chance to do what Missouri and Kansas couldn't: keep a storied, cherished rivalry alive in the face of shifting conference allegiances. They have a chance to set a precedent for what appears to be a future of pretty much nonstop conference changes. League affiliations might come and go, but rivalries deserve to stand the test of time.

Kansas and Missouri had that once. Syracuse and Georgetown, thankfully, are doing their best not to lose it.