Commentary

Midwest college grudge matches vanish during conference realignment

July 11, 2022 5:45 am

Members of the Missouri Tigers celebrate after winning the Big 12 Basketball Tournament against the Baylor Bears March 10, 2012 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images).

My wife’s stepdad, Mike, was notoriously slow to soften. This was especially true if you were me, the bouncy, naive kid dating his stepdaughter.

One particular interaction between us lives in family lore. I came to visit Kansas City as a mop-haired photojournalism freshman at the University of Missouri. However, a baby shower swamped the house with diapers, pink baby toys and cooing aunts. I retreated to the safety of Mike’s workshop. The menagerie of power tools, wood glue and sawdust lured me.

With some mid-1990s “hey dude” enthusiasm, I asked Mike, “What are you working on?”

Bunkered behind his bench, his hand tightening a vise on a piece of wood that he was filing, Mike looked up. Over the top of his oversized glasses perched at the tip of his nose, he said, “Why don’t you go back inside?”

I got the message. For years, I tiptoed around him, until we established a tender and public truce during the weekend I married Polly. Still, I worried about bringing him big news, even after decades of being family.

Eight years ago, I had some news for him.

My wife’s family adores the University of Missouri and its sports teams. Black-and-gold diplomas decorate offices of so many family members. We have rearranged birthday parties to avoid distracting from Tiger basketball games. Cousins, uncles and parents tailgated in bitter cold and absurd heat in Columbia. My wife and I had season tickets for Mizzou basketball while we lived in Kansas City, zombie-driving west on Interstate 70 at midnight from Wednesday night home games against Texas to make it to work the next day.

Yet, eight years ago, I accepted a job at the University of Kansas. I was going to be a Jayhawk. I was, impossibly, trading black and gold for crimson and blue.

When I told Mike about the new job in Lawrence, he lounged on the couch in his favorite Missouri polo. He didn’t blink.

“When are you leaving the family?” he said.

I laughed, but he didn’t.

This kind of rivalry — with this hellbent allegiance — is the fuel of college sports. Or, it was.

This week’s announcement that USC and UCLA would join the Big 10 conference in 2024 was Step #247 in the 458-step plan to disassemble college sports and its quirky yet searing regional rivalries.

That news was preceded by step #246, which was the recruitment of Brigham Young University, the University of Houston, the University of Central Florida and University of Cincinnati to the Big 12 to join KU, Kansas State and others. Texas and Oklahoma had signaled their exits from the Big 12 last summer. Only six of the original Big 12 will remain in a conference stretching from Florida to Utah.

Fans who have clustered for decades around the Jayhawks, Tigers and Wildcats have experienced the disintegration earlier and more completely than any others.

Before I go further, I admit this: I forever begrudge my two-time alma mater, the University of Missouri, and its choice to leave the Big 12 in 2012. That early yet deliberate domino nudge invited the chaos and perpetual realignment we are living through.

MU and Texas A&M leaving the Big 12 (plus Colorado and Nebraska leaving for other conferences) provided a roadmap to others. Meet secretly. Leak the possible move to the press. Sprinkle in some dubious talk about academic benefits for the student-athletes. Ignore that the conference names make no sense (the Big 10 has 14 teams and two affiliates?). Collect the oversized check at the end.

It seemed simple. The SEC conference’s media deals ballooned, and many fans quickly accepted the additional schools as the new status quo.

However, I hungered for the “old Big 12.” The regionally compact version of the conference offered up weekly games that mattered because you knew the opponent school, their colors and their history.

Fans who have clustered for decades around the Jayhawks, Tigers and Wildcats have experienced the disintegration earlier and more completely than any others.

There was familiarity. At your office, three people in neighboring cubicles wore K-State shirts. A few years ago, you visited Ames on a road trip. You and your uncle had a standing bet anytime you played Nebraska. There was weekly, if not daily, significance to games against schools in neighboring states.

The evidence of how much these games mattered could be heard on talk radio and seen on the “House Divided” license plates. I have a video, taken with my cellphone, from the seats at the 2012 Big 12 men’s basketball championship in Kansas City. Celebrating my Tigers winning the tournament, you can hear my voice breaking — in a way that I reserved for the birth of my children and family funerals. That win mattered.

In winning the tournament, the Tigers beat Oklahoma State, Texas and Baylor.

The Tigers’ rivalries now? My enthusiasm for a Missouri vs. South Carolina game is zilch. I don’t know a single person I can pester or bet or avoid after a game against the Gamecocks, Commodores, Bulldogs or … well, I don’t even know all the SEC mascots, to be honest.

During football seasons, my brother-in-law, a fervent Mizzou fan, still props his cellphone up on restaurant dinner tables to watch games. However, the games that “matter” are between Texas A&M and Alabama or Michigan and Nebraska. These blue-blood football teams would have seldom played one another before the scrambling of conferences.

As Josh Levin pointed out during this week’s “Hang Up and Listen” podcast, sports fans are becoming more impatient for anything that isn’t a “showcase” game with one historic program playing another. (I would note here that traveling youth sports is rapidly reorganizing itself in the same way to create marquee matchups … between “elite” 12-year-olds.)

Jayhawks, Wildcats and Tigers: How do we, fans of some of the earliest disbanded and realigned conferences, feel a decade later? I have yet to find a local college sports fan who is free of nostalgia for the era of playing nearby rival schools, rather than super leagues crisscrossing the country for potential games of the century each week.

Living in Kansas and Missouri, we had a preview. We resent realignment, and yet it rolls forward and becomes even larger.

If there is a silver lining, it is this: Realignment is surely not done. With conferences stretching from coast to coast and powerhouse conferences still containing weak schools (hi, Vanderbilt), the dominoes are still falling 11 years later.

Let’s hope when the university presidents, football coaches and athletic directors complete their master plan, regional rivalries return. After all, those grudge matches define college sports.

This commentary was originally published by the Kansas Reflector, a States Newsroom affiliate.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.

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