LAWRENCE, Kan. — The University of Kansas marching band plays at the Wagon Wheel bar on Friday nights before home games. Usually, some members stand in the corner of the Lawrence establishment bordering campus, belting out the school songs for the alumni and fraternity and sorority members sitting in booths or on stools. They call it the bar band.
But this past Friday night, the Wheel is nearly silent. It is KU’s fall break, and there is no home game the next day. A Styx song plays from the jukebox for Matt Lierz, Marcus Tetwiler and Sam Lawler, three sophomores who practically have the bar to themselves and sit below a certain drawing in the far corner.
In the drawing, a cartoon Jayhawk lies on its back crowd surfing over the other Big 12 mascots. The Iowa State mascot has a whirlwind for a head. A wagon stands above the shoulders of the Oklahoma mascot. The Missouri mascot looks something like a tiger.
There are Nebraska and Colorado mascots, too. But both of their faces have an X drawn across them.
Is the Missouri Tiger next?
After the UM System Board of Curators granted Chancellor Brady Deaton authority to pursue other conference options, it seems likely that Missouri will leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. Kansas, presumably, will not be able to follow.
While the two schools could maintain a non-conference rivalry, patrons here at the Wagon Wheel mostly shrug. It is not their problem — it’s Missouri’s.
“The reaction here is, they started this when they said they were going to go to the Big Ten,” Wheel owner Rob Farha said. “People are saying they have no loyalty — they come out of a meeting saying they’re with you, and 24 hours later they want to go to the SEC. People will be upset the rivalry is over, but they’re fed up with the wishy-washiness of Missouri. Get on board or get out.”
Tetwiler said he has attended Kansas basketball games “from birth,” and one of his first life lessons is that you cannot lose to Missouri. But this is another kind of battle being fought now.
“Missouri is saying financial benefit is more important than the cultural and historical traditions,” he said. “It’s sad … if Missouri is changing its brand, that’s going to resonate in Lawrence.”
“If they want to get stomped in the SEC, that’s fine with me,” Lawler added.
Such sentiments are not isolated to the Wheel. Over on Massachusetts Street, the main drag of Lawrence, Dynamite Saloon waitress Whitney Moore reacted to what basketball coach Bill Self said Tuesday: if Missouri leaves, Kansas will not go out of its way to preserve the Border War rivalry.
Moore, 34 and a 2005 graduate of KU, was a member of the marching band and remembers having bottles thrown at her in Columbia during a football game. She is aware of the long history between the two schools. At this point, though, she said she just wants Missouri to make up its mind.
“At this point a lot of us are wondering, ‘Will they or won’t they?’ ” Moore said. “We are a little desensitized because of all the rumor mongering. We don’t know how much is true and what’s just being said. I think we’d miss the rivalry, but if they do (leave), what can you do?”
Moore feared that losing the rivalry with Missouri was only the beginning for Kansas, and that conference realignment will not be finished. The Big 12 invited* Texas Christian University on Tuesday, but will new additions save it? Moore is not sure. She fears Kansas ending up in a non-BCS conference like the Mountain West and falling into obscurity.
“If that’s where we end up, Self is probably gone,” she said. “He likes us, he really does, but he’s going to want to compete and be up there. We’re more than likely not going to be able to compete anymore. He’ll say goodbye, and there goes our entire program and athletic department. Where do we go from there? The money’s going to keep going down and down.”
Farha disagrees. He believes the Big 12 has been, and continues to be, one of the strongest conferences in the country and points to the six schools that have football teams ranked in the Top 25.
“Nobody talks about that,” he said. “I think the Big 12 has been stable the whole time, and the media has perceived it as weak.”
At least at the Wheel, hope remains. Farha believes the Big 12 will survive regardless of Missouri, and Lierz said he thought the addition of TCU might entice Missouri to stay and would make the Big 12 as strong as before.
Plus, Lawler added, who will take Kansas’ place as Missouri’s rival? He did not think a relationship with Arkansas would ever become as poignant.
“The rivalry transcends conference bonds,” Lawler said. “I wouldn’t be upset — more disappointed. There’s a certain amount of tradition that would be lost.”
Will that tradition be enough to continue the rivalry if Missouri leaves the Big 12? Farha did not think so.
“If they go, yeah, we have the 100-year history of the rivalry, but it doesn’t mean we have to play them anymore,” he said. “It’s done.”