LAWRENCE, Kan. — Don Fambrough’s voice is rising, each word from his wrinkled lips dripping with fire.
The former Kansas football coach and face of disdain for all things Missouri is on a roll, so don’t try to stop him now.
Q: The Tigers are the only team in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) to score more than 30 points in every game this season. Kansas has given up more than 30 points only once this year. What’s the highest number of points MU has scored against Kansas? A: 69 points in 1969. The Tigers won 69-21 in Lawrence 38 years ago, clinching a share of the Big Eight Conference title.
There’s anger and showmanship and a combination of the two blazing from those brown eyes as he grabs political correctness by the throat and slams it into submission.
Best to just listen.
“You read about how they’re calling this the Missouri-Kansas Showdown,” he says. “Showdown my ass! It’s (expletive) war!
“They started the war! They sent that (expletive) (William) Quantrill over here! That (expletive) killed all the men, raped all the women, burned the town down!”
Meet the soul of the Missouri-Kansas football rivalry. He lives here in an unassuming neighborhood down the road from a cul-de-sac carpeted with orange and yellow leaves near the University of Kansas campus.
That’s where the pleasantries end.
To Fambrough, 85, Kansas’ rivalry with MU is beyond serious. It’s a way of life, as much a part of his crimson-and-blue blood as coarse language — “I don’t like ‘showdown.’ It’s a damn war, that’s what it is!” — and chanting Rock … Chalk … Jayhawk … KU. He’s as rough as a scouring pad, but no one ever said this was a rivalry fit for image consultants.
He breathes for this week. He has become somewhat of its unofficial ambassador. Each year, he speaks to the KU team before kickoff. During pep rallies, he makes blue-clad crowds go bonkers. His kitchen table is littered with Hallmark cards from endearing fans.
He’s seemingly always in demand.
In a town where anything black and gold is as welcome as an IRS audit, Fambrough is the king of zing.
“He says everything we’d like to say,” says Marge Hazlett, a receptionist inside the KU football office, laughing.
The embers of Fambrough’s dislike for MU began to glow when he arrived at Kansas in 1946. Previously, he spent two years at Texas before a brief stint in the Air Force. He played guard at KU under former coaches Henry A. Shenk and George H. Sauer before a rule change cut short his playing career.
During World War II, freshmen were allowed to play varsity football but didn’t lose a year of eligibility if they did. Fambrough had seen action as a freshman at Texas and, as the rule stood, was eligible at KU through 1948.
In 1947, KU enjoyed one of its most successful seasons in program history, earning an 8-1-2 record, a co-Big Eight Conference championship and an Orange Bowl bid. As spring practice began the following year, KU had five players, including Fambrough, who were about to play their final season.
However, former MU coach Don Faurot wanted the exemption rule changed. Two weeks after spring practice, he called an emergency session. Conference officials eventually sided with Faurot and made the exemption retroactive, meaning Fambrough’s career was over.
Kansas lost its top two quarterbacks and the entire left side of its offensive line.
KU officials were furious, an extra sting added because they thought their bitter rival had pulled a fast one. Before cooler heads prevailed, they threatened to leave the conference.
“It pissed off our chancellor so much that he resigned from the conference,” Fambrough says. “His statement was, ‘When these people came here, they were told by me, they were told by the athletic director, they were told by the head football coach that they would have three years of varsity eligibility left.’
“We didn’t want to see our school drop out of the conference, so we went to go see the chancellor. I happened to be the captain of the team and told our chancellor we didn’t want to see our school do that.”
Fambrough’s legend has only grown since. He has been involved with KU football for 59 years now, including a career as an assistant coach from 1948-53 and 1958-70. From 1971-74, he succeeded Pepper Rodgers and began his first of two stints as head coach — the second term from 1979-82.
He’s a gifted storyteller, and anyone who knows him will tell you he won’t let the truth get in the way of spinning a golden tale.
Like the time when he gave one of his famous pre-Missouri speeches to his team and a gullible freshman took the message too far.
“It’s war!,” Fambrough screamed in the locker room before taking the field. “They started the damn war, and Quantrill was a Missouri alum!”
The following Monday the player had a history exam and one of the questions read, “Who was William Quantrill?”
He scribbled in, “A Missouri alum,” and when the history professor, a friend of Fambrough’s, saw this, he picked up the phone.
“Don, I’m going to make a deal with you,” the professor told Fambrough. “I’m going to let you coach football, and you let me teach history.”
Or the time in 1950 when the Kansas team checked into a hotel room in Moberly on a mild Friday night before playing MU in Columbia.
The next morning snow blanketed the ground after a flash storm, and KU players came ill-prepared.
“All the stores were closed,” Fambrough says. “We couldn’t buy long johns. We couldn’t buy gloves.”
Before kickoff, KU coach Jules V. Sikes told Fambrough, a young assistant at the time, to walk across the frozen Memorial Stadium grass and ask the MU equipment manager if the Tigers could spare old jerseys to help keep the KU players warm.
Fambrough was greeted with a cold reception.
“Hell no,” the equipment manager said. “We hope you freeze your asses off!”
Fambrough told Sikes about the encounter, and Sikes brought over Kansas’ bus driver to suggest an alternative course of action.
“Can you drive that bus down here and park it behind the bench?” Sikes asked the bus driver.
“But the gate’s locked,” the bus driver said.
“Will that bus go through the gate?”
“Oh, it sure as hell will.”
Fambrough says rekindled memories — sprinkled with hyperbole here and there — make the Kansas-Missouri rivalry special these many years later. If you can’t revisit the past, he says, what good is the present?
“It adds to the game,” he says. “When the game’s coming around, it gives (people) something to talk about. They relive the days when they were in school.”
His contributions haven’t been lost on those close to Kansas football. He’s like a grandfather to the program. In a back room where Fambrough tucks away KU keepsakes there’s a helmet signed, “To Coach Fam: The most loyal Jayhawk ever. — Mark Mangino”
On Oct. 13, the day of Kansas’ 58-10 victory against Baylor, former players dedicated a marble bench on the hill beyond Memorial Stadium’s south end zone. The bench bears Fambrough’s likeness in profile and its inscription reads, “Coach Fambrough has shown a love and commitment to the University of Kansas and KU football team unequaled by anyone in the history of the university.”
“He’s a true-blue Jayhawk,” says Pat Henderson, who played linebacker under Fambrough from 1970-74. “That’s just what he is.”
It’s that time of year again. A time when a flame burns deep inside the soul of KU football’s caretaker. It’s Missouri week. And he lives for this.
“It’s no showdown. It’s total war,” says Fambrough, a sly smirk creeping across his face. “When you play other teams, it might be an affair. It might be a showdown. But when you play Missouri, it’s war.”