• Tournament Central: Omaha.com's NCAA men's basketball tournament page
• Preview Section: 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball
• Creighton Section: Bluejays NCAA tournament preview
• Photo Showcase: NCAA Tournament in Omaha
* * *
The basketball team from the University of Detroit figures to have a small but passionate band of blue-and-red-clad fans on hand as it takes the floor in Omaha tonight against the University of Kansas.
But it's a pretty good bet Detroit will have lots of other backers in and around the CenturyLink Center today dressed in black and gold. In truth, they won't be true Detroit fans. They're just University of Missouri fans, dutifully carrying on a century-old tradition of loathing all things Kansas.
"My hatred for them is so intense," said Jim Alford of Chillicothe, Mo., a 1975 Mizzou grad. "I wish for every one of their opponents to drill them at every opportunity."
Though they won't meet on the basketball floor, Kansas and Missouri are bringing their heated Border War rivalry to Omaha during the regional NCAA tournament games this weekend. The mutual animosity is deeply rooted.
And while there are a lot of great rivalries on the American sports scene, Missouri vs. Kansas may be the only one born in actual warfare. In fact, there are folks in the states who would tell you the first shots of the Civil War were not fired at Fort Sumter, S.C., in 1861 — they were on the bloody Missouri-Kansas border years earlier, during skirmishes and raids aimed at influencing whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free state or a slave state.
"There are still pictures in Lawrence of when the Missouri militia came in and burned down a good part of the town," said Jim Marchiony, the associate athletic director at Kansas.
Bad feelings between the two universities were heightened last year by Missouri's decision to change conferences, essentially seceding from the Big 12 and the Kansas rivalry to join the Southeastern Conference beginning next fall.
And it just so happens that in this last year of the storied rivalry, both schools have really good basketball teams. Both are ranked in the top 10 and expected to win both of their games in Omaha this weekend, with dreams of playing in the Final Four in New Orleans.
The fan bases from the two schools can't help but bump into each other in Omaha — especially Sunday, when they could well play back-to-back games.
"I think it will be energetic and passionate — that's my politically correct response for 'ugly,' " said Julie Hammond of Lawrence, a former KU cheerleader.
Typically, fans of one school will root for other schools from their conference to win in the NCAA tournament, figuring any win by a conference team is good for the whole. But the consensus among KU and Mizzou fans interviewed Thursday is that there won't be much of that sentiment in Omaha this weekend.
"I can't ever imagine wanting KU to win anything," said Andrew Elmore, a Mizzou grad and now university employee. "My wife would be just as satisfied with KU losing as Missouri winning — and I know she's not the only one."
Said KU fan Scott Slupianek, an Omahan who grew up in Marysville, Kan.: "It's kind of bred into you. I don't want them ever to win."
Such a rivalry really has no equal around here. Nebraska and Oklahoma had heated gridiron battles for several decades, but it was really a mutual respect between football powerhouses.
A new rivalry may be brewing between Nebraska and Iowa, now that the Cornhuskers have joined the Big Ten. But for that rivalry to have the same kind of emotion and history as Kansas vs. Missouri, you would have to have gangs of Hawkeye fans at some point go on a murderous pillaging spree in Lincoln.
Kevin Butterfield, a University of Oklahoma history professor who grew up on the Missouri-Kansas line in Kansas City and attended Mizzou, offers up some history on the rift.
The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 gave settlers in the two new territories the right to decide whether slavery would be lawful. It was pretty much a given that Nebraska would be a free state. But folks in Missouri, where slavery was legal, decided to try to make sure the state sharing most of its western border would also authorize such bondage.
Militias and gangs from Missouri crossed the border to influence the vote, and abolitionists from Kansas took up arms. Violence soon erupted.
Parts of Lawrence, the center of the abolitionist movement, were destroyed in May 1856 when Missourians marched in with cannons. A week later, John Brown and other abolitionists hacked five pro-slavery Kansans to death with swords. Battles raged throughout the summer and fall in "Bloody Kansas.''
When the Civil War broke out five years later, violence was renewed. Militia forces from Kansas — one unit calling itself "the Jayhawkers," for reasons lost to history — went into Missouri in 1863 to plunder homes and liberate slaves. That's when Confederate guerrillas under William Quantrill retaliated with the most infamous act in the conflict, burning down much of Lawrence and killing 150 men and boys, many gunned down in front of their families.
After the war, the two states found less lethal ways to express their sentiments.
In 1891, the Universities of Missouri and Kansas staged their first football game, creating what would become the oldest college rivalry west of the Mississippi. It was surely not lost on the folks from Missouri that Kansas ultimately nicknamed its team the Jayhawks, in honor of the old abolitionist raiders. The two schools almost immediately became each other's biggest rival.
The schools' basketball rivalry started in 1907. In fact, the inventor of the game, James Naismith, was Kansas' first coach. Years later, after he had retired, Naismith was said to have been horrified to watch the brutality with which the two schools went at each other on the court. "Oh, my gracious," he said. "They are murdering my game!"
Thanks to such fierce battles, the rivalry between the two schools came to be formally called the Border War. With Missouri clearly on the wrong side of history on the subject of slavery, the two schools kept subsequent atrocities to a minimum. But the series would produce no shortage of slights and outrages to keep the fire burning.
Max Falkenstien, who broadcast KU basketball games from 1946 to 2006, recalled a game in 1952 when KU's star player stepped on the stomach of a Missouri player who was down on the floor, and kept right on walking. A decade later, a KU player chased a Tiger player out of the tunnel in Allen Fieldhouse after an on-court altercation.
Over time, the rivalry would turn more civil. In Kansas City, in particular, it's not at all uncommon for good friends to root for rival schools or for grads to come together in a "mixed marriage." But the passions continue to be special. Most KU fans wouldn't think of ever rooting for Missouri, no matter who or what sport they were playing. And vise versa.
"There have always been Kansas fans who would pull for Russia against Missouri," broadcaster Falkenstien said.
The two schools at one point actually tried to rebrand the rivalry as the "Border Showdown," part of a post-9/11 effort to be more politically correct. It didn't work. Fans continued to call it a war.
Butterfield recalls T-shirts depicting the sacking of Lawrence proudly worn by Mizzou students when he was an undergrad. Similarly, Kansas fans have worn shirts with images of John Brown, and reading: "Kansas: Keeping America Safe From Missouri Since 1854."
Missouri's pending move to the SEC appears to have brought an end to the war — though as a result, new hard feelings and animosities have surfaced. While Missouri has said it wants to continue the basketball rivalry on a nonconference basis, Kansas has made it clear it's not interested. Missouri made its choice when it decided to leave, KU officials say.
"We're going to schedule our games in the future to the benefit of Kansas, and only Kansas," said Marchiony of KU. "Right now there's zero appetite for continuing a rivalry that doesn't include conference standing."
Missouri fans say the decision was typical KU arrogance — a long-standing perception that has helped fuel the rivalry. "They've always had this uppity 'I'm-better-than-you' attitude," said David Maglich of Kansas City, Mo.
Many Kansas fans believe Tigers are just jealous of the Jayhawks' storied basketball tradition, which includes 13 Final Four appearances and three national championships. The final two Big 12 basketball meetings between the Tigers and Jayhawks this year were both classics, with each school pulling out a controversial last-second victory on its home floor.
Now, future tournaments such as the NCAA's appear to be the most likely place the two schools could meet again on the hardwood. The only way they could meet in this year's NCAA tournament would be if they both advance to the championship game — not beyond the realm of possibility.
History professor Butterfield said that, as a Mizzou grad, there's a part of him that would like to see both schools win out until the final game. Then the Tigers could beat the Jayhawks, once and for all, on the biggest of stages. But given his Mizzou DNA, he said, he'd probably be just as happy to see the Jayhawks lose in a really embarrassing fashion anywhere along the way.
"It's so ingrained that a Kansas loss, no matter who they're playing, is what you want to see."
Contact the writer: 402-444-1130, email@example.com