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“The ethics of an itinerant ‘horse’ trader” — A history of the Kansas State-Kansas rivalry

For 118 years, bad blood, bad football and broken rules have dominated the Kansas-Kansas State rivalry. Most of the history is forgotten — maybe for good reason. But I wrote about it anyway.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday, Kansas State and Kansas will take the field for the 110th consecutive time, becoming the third-longest continuous rivalry in college football by season’s end. Meeting a total of 118 times counting this season, the rivalry has rarely been competitive, with the only real back-and-forth stretch in the series taking place between 1925 and 1945.

You might even say the rivalry’s only real consistent tradition is its almost complete lack of on-field intrigue.

The two teams have a strong history of futility in the modern era making for some truly putrid football throughout the series. No one has probably bothered to walk through the whole history with any sort of detail. You couldn’t probably care less to hear about it now.

That’s fine. I understand, truly. But I wrote this anyway.

The History Of The “Sunflower Showdown”

Kansas State and Kansas first played in 1902, meeting annually every year except 1910 (we’ll get to this in a bit), but K-State didn’t really start playing in the series until 1924. Kansas entered the first full year of the Calvin Coolidge administration with a 17-1-3 series advantage, but since then, the series is tied 47-47-2 with the Wildcats dominating the last three decades. The Wildcats are 24-6 in the series since 1990, outscoring the Jayhawks by an average of almost three touchdowns per game over that span.

Last year’s 38-10 victory in Lawrence extended the current K-State winning streak to 11, tying its own record for the longest winning streak in the series. A Wildcat win Saturday would mark the first time either team has won 12 in a row in the series’ 118-game history.

I told you it’s been pretty boring. In fact, the only part of the rivalry with any sort of real intrigue is the one year the game didn’t happen. So I dedicated half of this article to that part of the story.

The Lost Year

The series could be the longest continuous rivalry in all FBS if Mike Ahearn gave a crap that KU was making an effort not to cheat. But he didn’t.

After eight consecutive meetings, the Aggies of Kansas State Agricultural College and the Jayhawks of the University of Kansas were scheduled to meet for the ninth time on October 22, 1910 — just 11 days after Theodore Roosevelt became the first President of the United States to ride in an airplane.

According to a 2014 article in the Manhattan Mercury, a series of cheating scandals had left KU in bad standing with the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association. As a result, the MVIAA (which would later become the Big 8, then the Big 12) had imposed strict eligibility requirements on its member schools — something that was a rarity at the time.

K-State — at the time a member of the Kansas Intercollegiate Athletic Association — was under no obligation to abide by MVIAA rules, and often had players with up to six years of experience suiting up to play.

The two teams couldn’t come to an agreement on the rules, ending with cancellation of the 1910 game — but not before some jawing in the press.

KU coach A.R. “Bert” Kennedy tried to coax legendary K-State coach Mike Ahearn into playing the game by publishing a commentary in the Lawrence newspaper, which read in part:

“Understand me, I am not making any accusations, but in view of the fact that this is Mike Ahearn’s last year as coach of the Aggies, it would be the natural thing for him to want to make the best showing possible. Well he ought to make it, for they won’t play any school of consequence and their team should be an ever-victorious one. Mike wants to get all his old men together for next season and clean up all the small schools they can get games with. He ought to be able to get quite a bunch of old timers since the state conference rules allow a man to play six years.”

The Manhattan Mercury responded a few days later with a jab of its own:

“The University (of Kansas) people have made a wrong diagnosis of the trouble. It is the students at the University who do not understand. If they did … KU would have a manager of athletics who had a few of the instincts of a gentleman and fewer of the ethics of an itinerant ‘horse’ trader.”

I have no idea what is behind the malice against traveling horse traders, or what the writer meant by putting horse in quotes. But this made me laugh.

So the game was cancelled. At the end of the 1910 season Ahearn retired and Kennedy was forced out after the MVIAA instituted a rule requiring coaches to be full-time faculty members. K-State then created a precursor to its modern Athletic Department which began the process of complying to MVIAA rules ahead of joining the conference in 1913. Amidst these changes, the Aggies and Jayhawks resumed the series in 1911 and have played uninterrupted since.

The Governor’s Cup

The Governor’s Cup was first awarded in 1969 with a 26-22 Wildcat victory over a Jayhawk team led by future Pro Football Hall-of-Famer John Riggins in Lawrence. Since then, K-State has won the trophy an additional 31 times, while KU has claimed it 18 times. Fourteen of those 18 Jayhawk wins came between 1970 and 1990 — an historic period of futility for K-State football.

The 1980 game belonged to Kansas on the scoreboard, but the Big Eight Conference forced KU to forfeit three conference wins and a tie — including that year’s win over K-State — after KU running back Kerwin Bell was deemed ineligible.

No one won the trophy in the 1987 game between the 0-8 Wildcats and the 1-7 Jayhawks — since dubbed the “Toilet Bowl.” It ended in a 17-17 tie when Kansas strong safety Marvin Mattox blocked a Wildcat field goal as time expired.

K-State coach Stan Parrish somehow kept his job through 1988, but then the Wildcats hired Bill Snyder and, well, did I mention K-State is 24-6 since 1990?

Snyder is now retired, Chris Klieman replaced him and Les Miles now roams the sideline in Lawrence, but as KU flirts with the possibility of its second winless season since 2015, this rivalry shows no signs of developing any semblance of on-field intrigue anytime soon.

And that’s good. As far as fans are concerned, nothing is more important to college football than tradition.

Author’s Note: Turns out, I lied above. Someone did do a detailed look back at some specific years of the Sunflower Showdown — someone who writes for this website, in fact. And she did a damn fine job of it, too.

Please check out wildcat00’s great five-part series on the rivalry from 2014.