Many of you are probably like me and feel fall is the best of the seasons. With fall, the heat starts to break with cooler temperatures. The fall foliage is amazing, especially where I grew up in Virginia. We get to celebrate Halloween and Thanksgiving, but mostly of all we get football.
I love college football; not just the game but the entire culture surrounding it. I was fortunate enough to earn my masters at Virginia Tech during its height with Michael Vick, and because my wife worked for the Corps of Cadets, we had 50-yard line tickets. Then while earning my doctorate I was able to call the hogs along with 70,000 Razorbacks fans. It’s a unique experience.
However, recently the sport I love is taking a hit with NIL deals, transfer portals, and conference realignment. One of the hardest parts of the realignment is the breakup of traditional rivalries, which are a fundamental part of the game and bring together entire communities and states, even if the unification is in hatred of each other. While many of the rivalries are still intact, Michigan v. Ohio State and Cal v. Stanford and others are coming back together, BYU v. Utah, many others are being split up and will potentially strip away an important part of the game.
While most rivalries are just sports related, historically speaking, there are some – and one in particular – that goes beyond sports.
Some of the hardest breaks are going to be the interstate rivalries. Here in Oklahoma the Oklahoma v. Oklahoma State Bedlam game goes way beyond the field. All the K-12 schools join in the rivalry with canned goods or blood drives. It’s a game that builds all week with trash talking followed by a year of bragging rights. With OU now leaving for the SEC in a money grab, I predict the state will suffer.
Now we are being told the yearly Red River Rivalry between OU and Texas will end as the SEC is doing away with divisions and so the match will not be a yearly event. I’m not sure, but that could also possibly doom the other SEC rivalries like Alabama v. Auburn. Can you imagine a season without the Iron Bowl or the Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party? I don’t want to.
Luckily most of the oldest rivalries are still intact. Yale v. Princeton is the oldest, started in 1873 and the most played game ever is Lafayette v. Lehigh with 158 games.
Yet, one of the oldest important rivalries and one that has significant historic roots has not survived realignment.
In 2012, in one of the earlier conference shifts, Missouri announced that it would leave the Big 12 for the SEC. In doing so, it destroyed a rivalry that officially goes back to 1891 but unofficially began in 1854. In that year, Kansas exploded into violence as pro-slavery forces from Missouri began to raid into Kansas to attack anti-slavery forces. The two sides were fighting over whether the state should join the Union as a free or slave state.
Both sides organized themselves as the official government of the state and both sides wrote a constitution and sent it to D.C. to apply for statehood. The pro-slavery element organized themselves in Lecompton, Kansas, and were known as Border Ruffians. More importantly the anti-slavery forces organized themselves in Lawrence, Kansas, and became known as Jayhawks. The violence between the two known as Bleeding Kansas would last up to and past the Civil War.
While there were large battles in Kansas and Missouri, the majority of the fighting in this region was guerrilla action. The Jayhawks, also called Red Legs, raided into Missouri causing all sorts of devastation including the sacking of the town of Osceola. Later, several women related to the Missouri raiders were arrested and put in prison in Kansas City.
In 1863, the prison collapsed and killed several of the women. These two events led to the Missouri men known as Bushwhackers retaliating by riding through Kansas cutting huge swaths of destruction.
The most famous incident happened in August of 1863 when Missouri men, under the direction of William Quantrill, sacked the town of Lawrence, killing around 150. At the same time, Missouri towns organized themselves into home guard units to protect themselves against future raids. The Town of Columbus, Missouri, was no different when they organized their home guard calling them the Tigers.
Jump ahead to 1891. Both states had built state institutions and prepared to meet on the gridiron. The University of Kansas, in Lawrence, called their team the Jayhawks, while the University of Missouri, in Columbus, were the Tigers. Both were named after guerilla groups that terrorized the other.
Today I know the OU v. OSU fans claim hatred, but in these early games there were Civil War veterans from the two sides standing on the sideline staring at each other as they had once done on the battlefield.
While there are stories of veterans shaking hands at reunions like Gettysburg, it was much harder to reconcile between guerilla groups. These groups terrorized families and killed innocents. And now, for many too old to still fight, footballs replaced bullets and there seemed to be more than just bragging rights on the line.
This game, deemed the Border War, later changed to the Border Showdown after 9/11, has brought out passions over the years even as the veterans faded away. The rivalry lasted for decades including 2007 t-shirts from Missouri referencing the sacking of Lawrence, while Kansas students wore shirts with John Brown and the fictional quote of keeping America safe from Missouri since 1854.
Fortunately, there are supposedly talks of renewing this historic rivalry. While this one may have hope, there are many more that may be doomed to end. While this hurts the game, it unfortunately hurts the fans and communities that celebrate these games even more.
James Finck, Ph.D. is a professor of history at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. He can be reached at HistoricallySpeaking1776@ gmail.com.