Monday, November 21, 2011

After a season of distractions, focus shifts to Border War

Seemingly all season long in college football, off-the-field events have overshadowed the actual games, both at Missouri and across the nation. Last week was no exception, with Missouri coach Gary Pinkel’s stunning arrest for drunk driving.

It was an indefensibly dumb move for a coach who makes thousands of dollars a day not to call a cab or catch a ride with someone else. It was disappointing to see the leader of a program that has struggled recently with drinking and driving make such an error. But Pinkel was contrite and apologetic, and the athletic department suspended him for a week and imposed financial penalties totaling over $300,000 in lost bonuses and pay.

Without Pinkel, against an underwhelming Texas Tech team last Saturday, Missouri fell behind, rallied in the fourth quarter, and then Dominique Hamilton tipped a pass inside the 10-yard line and Michael Sam intercepted it at the four to preserve a 31-27 win. The victory improved Missouri to 6-5 (4-4 in Big 12 play), making them bowl eligible.

And now, after a season of conference realignment speculation and a week of hearing that Pinkel told police he couldn’t count down from 72 to 63 under normal circumstances, the focus is squarely on the field for Missouri’s last game, the Border War game with Kansas (2:30 p.m. Saturday on Fox Sports Network).

With Missouri moving to the Southeastern Conference starting next season and Kansas saying it won’t schedule nonconference games with Missouri, this is the 120th and, for the foreseeable future, last meeting between these ancient rivals. And that’s a shame.

The series is legendary for how bitterly and closely contested it is. Since they first met on Oct. 31, 1891, they have played 119 times. Nine times they tied, and each team has won 55 games on the field in the series. (Missouri claims a 56-54-9 series lead, given that Kansas had to forfeit the 1960 game for using an ineligible player. Kansas, naturally, disagrees and counts the results on the field for its 55-55-9 series total.)

It is the oldest college football rivalry west of the Mississippi River and the second oldest overall. The rivalry’s roots stretch back to actual armed conflict before and during the Civil War. It is black and gold versus red and blue. The Columns versus Mount Oread. Missouri’s soybean farmers versus Kansas’ wheat farmers. It is the culture, the history, the rivalry, and a desperate desire to beat the other.

This year Kansas (2-9, 0-8 in Big 12 play) is simply awful. They’ll likely give it all they have against their chief rival, but Missouri has the talent to overwhelm the Jayhawks, who are 1-15 in Big 12 play under embattled coach Turner Gill.

It’s been a season of distractions, and the final outcome of this Border War seems predetermined. But on Saturday take a moment, or maybe several, to savor this rivalry that has meant so much to both schools. Here’s hoping that someday the Tigers and Jayhawks find a way to battle it out on the gridiron (and the basketball court) again.

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