Adieu, sport

Valley Voice

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Color TV was the new thing when I was in college. Gasoline was 29 cents a gallon and football was grand, a sport knitted strong with community rivalries.
In my senior year, the Jayhawks finished 9-1 atop the Big Eight conference, ranked No. 7 nationally behind Arkansas and ahead of Georgia (Ohio State was No. 1). Our loss in 1968 was to Oklahoma (23-27) at Lawrence.
The Sooners finished 7-3, losses to No. 5 Notre Dame, No. 3 Texas, and Colorado, then lost the Bluebonnet Bowl to SMU in a squeaker 27-28. They finished 7-4, No. 11 in the AP poll.
Kansas had held a savage rivalry – a “border war” – with Missouri for decades. Hours before dawn on Nov.23, we piled into cars and headed east for the game at Columbia. Our seats were the great white rocks of the giant “M” at the north end of Faurot Field. We won, 21-19.
At a large December rally on campus we cheered as coach Pepper Rodgers announced the Jayhawks would play No. 2 Penn State in the Orange Bowl. At that time, four prestigious bowl games were televised on New Year’s Day, starting late morning with the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Then the Cotton Bowl (Dallas), Rose Bowl (Pasadena) and at night, the Orange Bowl in Miami. The final rankings depended on those games.
It was an era of college sports as a shared experience. Players, friends, families and fans were often well-acquainted. Bobby Douglass, the Jayhawks’ all-American quarterback, was a fraternity brother from El Dorado. We shared meals, study sessions, walks to class, gossip, even grief. Our freshman year, coach Jack Mitchell came to the fraternity house to tell Douglass that his father had died that day of a heart attack.
Many Jayhawk players were local, familiar. Among them, fullback John Riggins and brother Junior, a halfback, were from Centralia. John Zook (defensive end), was from Larned. John Mosier (tight end), another fraternity brother, was from Wichita. In high school I had played against Concordia’s Mike Reeves (halfback) and Keith Christensen (offensive tackle). Athletes were famous on Saturdays but not isolated, coddled. On campus they were at home away from home.
Big Eight rivalries were close among communities, home towns becoming home states in a conference that circled Kansas and Kansas State: Colorado, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, Missouri, Iowa State, Nebraska.
Football was a challenge among neighbors. This is why they came from Norman to Lawrence; why we drove to Boulder; why the red hordes swept in from Nebraska. As ever, our guys against your guys.
In Miami before the Orange Bowl, we came to know a group from Penn State and made a wager: loser buys pizza for the winner. In the game’s final moments, KU scored a touchdown and two-point conversion to win, 16-15 – or so we thought. There were flags: 12 Jayhawks on the field. A second conversion failed and Penn State won, 15-14. The unfortunate12th man was a journalism school classmate.
We Kansans passed the hat to collect for 15 pizzas. We traded stories about Penn State and Kansas players, how we knew them, why they were special.
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Today the Big Eight is gone, local rivalries consigned to memory. The Big Eight became the Big 12 in 1996, when Baylor, Texas Tech, Texas and Texas A&M joined. The conference lost four members between 2010 and 2013, replaced by two others (TCU and West Virginia).
Colorado has gone to the PAC-10, Nebraska to the Big 10, Missouri and Texas A&M to the Southeastern Conference. Texas and Oklahoma will leave in another year for the SEC. It’s hard to tell who’s who or where any more, and even harder to conjure a neighborly antagonism with mountaineers in West Virginia.
Today’s game, its players, the competition are about money. Athletic departments need big millions to lure talent, much of it from out of state, and to draw television audiences. Division I football is big business, a breeding ground for gambling dens and television contracts. The top tier SEC and Big 10 are the farm teams for professional football. Player-students are left to their transfer portals and advertising contracts.
We once held the notion that college sports had a moral and educational mission. The games, their regional rivalries, evoked a sense of discipline and citizenship. They held pride in collective endeavor and put community above selfish desires. Unrestrained commercialization has taken care of that. Schools jump helter-skelter from one conference to another, players transfer from one team and one advertising contract to the next.
The old rivalries and the old neighbors are gone. The familiar colors have disappeared. Interest in the sport is reduced to the numbers on a betting line.

SOURCEJohn Marshall
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John Marshall is the retired editor-owner of the Lindsborg (Kan.) News-Record (2001-2012), and for 27 years (1970-1997) was a reporter, editor and publisher for publications of the Hutchinson-based Harris Newspaper Group. He has been writing about Kansas people, government and culture for more than 40 years, and currently writes a column for the News-Record and The Rural Messenger. He lives in Lindsborg with his wife, Rebecca, and their 21 year-old African-Grey parrot, Themis.

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