TO CALL the Kansas City Chiefs an average NFL franchise when Carl Peterson was hired as president and general manager in December 1988 would have been kind. The Chiefs were coming off consecutive four-victory campaigns, and in the previous 15 seasons they had finished above .500 exactly twice. Peterson had a monumental task on his hands. So imagine his surprise when, during his first week on the job, iconic owner Lamar Hunt approached him to discuss his vision for a college football game.
"Lamar asked me, 'Carl, do you think we could ever host the oldest college football rivalry west of the Mississippi River?' " Peterson recalls. "I didn't want to embarrass myself, but man, I was going through the Rolodex in my brain trying to figure out which rivalry this was. Then I said, 'You mean MU-KU?' He said, 'Absolutely.' "
A native of the Lone Star State, Hunt had moved his beloved Dallas Texans of the AFL to Kansas City in 1963 (renaming them the Chiefs), and he brought his passion for the college game with him. He and his father, H.L., had served on the board of the Cotton Bowl Classic. Lamar knew how Dallas had persuaded administrators from Texas and Oklahoma to move their annual grudge match to a neutral site. He couldn't see any reason why Missouri and Kansas shouldn't be playing in Kansas City, Mo.
It made perfect sense, actually. Lawrence is a mere 50 miles west of Arrowhead. Columbia is 118 miles away, a straight shot across I-70. The Kansas City metropolitan area is a melting pot for students and alumni from the two schools. Peterson had already envisioned making Arrowhead the top tailgating destination in the NFL. Why couldn't that translate to the college game?
Persuading two programs to give up a home game every other year was a tough sell. Hunt, however, didn't want to hear about it, and Peterson was charged with brokering a deal. For the better part of 15 years he would make annual trips to Columbia and Lawrence, meeting with the athletic directors and football coaches and often with the university presidents and chancellors. Mike Alden was first approached by Peterson and Hunt in 1998, not long after Alden took the athletic director job at Mizzou.
"Carl would come for a game every year," Alden recalls. "Every time he'd say, 'Don't forget. We want to play that game. Whenever you're ready.' "
By 2002 the Chiefs had hosted the Big 12 championship game, and they had started to attract other Big 12 programs. "Finally Lamar said, 'How can we get this done?' " Peterson recalls. Research showed that when a Big 12 team hosted a conference foe, its payout was about $900,000. Because the visiting team netted nothing, he proposed to Hunt that the Chiefs guarantee Missouri and Kansas $1 million each. In a two-year deal each program would be guaranteed $2 million. "It got their attention," Peterson says.
The athletic director in Lawrence was Lew Perkins. "He immediately seized upon it and thought it was a great opportunity," says Peterson. Many administrators might have been reluctant to strike such a deal, fearful of the backlash from local businesses, the lifeblood of many college towns. Not Perkins. According to Peterson, Perkins convened a meeting with about 30 influential merchants and asked if they'd be willing to make a $1 million donation to the athletic department in those years when the Jayhawks played the Tigers in Columbia. Nobody raised a hand.
Alden wasn't opposed to the idea, but he had a tougher sell, especially because Mizzou was already committed to a neutral-site game against Illinois. "He had to walk through a little political minefield," Peterson says. There was also the issue of placating Columbia merchants, who contended that KU had to be one of the six opponents to visit Faurot Field because more revenue was generated when the Jayhawks came calling. Alden knew otherwise.
"We did all the data analysis that showed whether you played Arkansas State or KU, there's not much of an appreciable difference," he says.
As it turned out 2007 was the first year that Missouri could take on a second neutral-site game and still maintain the six dates at Faurot it needed for Alden's economic model to work. The two-year deal was announced in January 2007.
"The stars aligned perfectly," Peterson says.
That's not to say there weren't sleepless nights. Peterson knew the Chiefs' magic number to recoup their $2 million investment. "I'll be candid," he says. "Until we got 63,000 seats sold, this boy was real anxious."
By Nov. 17, a week before kickoff, the anxiety had given way to excitement. Kansas was 11--0 and ranked second in the country. Mizzou was 10--1 and ranked fourth. It would mark the first time in 116 meetings that both teams were ranked in the top 10.
BUSINESS AS usual," Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel says of the mood at practice the week before the game. "Our motto that whole year was that it's a big game because it's the next game. We didn't change anything.' "
There was also a quiet confidence among the Missouri coaches. The week after Thanksgiving marked the start of a recruiting period. A victory meant the coaches would be staying home and cramming for the Big 12 title game. If the Tigers lost, everybody would be hitting the road. "No one planned any travel to go recruiting that Sunday," says quarterbacks coach Dave Yost. "We were that confident. No one even talked about it."
In Lawrence, too, there was a sense of self-belief. "It was a positive anxiety," says quarterback Todd Reesing. "I wanted the week to end so we could get to the game. I had so much raw energy. Those days couldn't go by fast enough. It was a long week, the longest week I ever had before playing a game."
It was a long two weeks for KU sports information director Mike Strauss. Though the game was being played at a neutral site, the Jayhawks were the designated home team. So to Strauss and his staff fell the unenviable task of handling media credentials. So intense was the crush that two weeks before kickoff, Strauss assigned two staff members to do nothing but handle media requests in the quiet confines of an upstairs office. This being the first game at Arrowhead, the department was in foreign territory. A game involving a pair of 6--5 teams would have provided enough challenges. Now everybody who had anything to do with college football (and a few who didn't) wanted in.
"It was overwhelming," Strauss says. "I always laugh because I had been at Utah State for 10 years. Our press box seated something like 36. Those two weeks I may have been cussed out more than any other time in my life. People couldn't understand that I couldn't just give them a pass."
The game had gotten that big.
Kansas coach Mark Mangino was doing everything he could to treat the matchup as if it were being played at Memorial Stadium. The night before a home game the players typically ate dinner together, had meetings and watched a movie. The schedule for the Missouri game wasn't going to change. So on Friday the Jayhawks made the one-hour trek to Arrowhead, did their walkthrough, reboarded their buses and headed back to Lawrence.
The coach downplays the effect. "Those kids will drive over to Kansas City to buy a pair of jeans and come back," he says with a laugh.
The Tigers, who would be staying over, left Columbia early on Friday afternoon and headed directly to Arrowhead for their walkthrough. They were somewhere on I-70 when the Arkansas-LSU game kicked off in Baton Rouge. The Bayou Bengals were No. 1 in the country, but they got an unexpected fight. Led by Darren McFadden, who rushed for 206 yards and three touchdowns and passed for 34 yards and another score out of the Wild Hog formation, the Razorbacks (7--4) pulled off a 50--48 stunner in triple overtime.
As if the stakes weren't high enough, Missouri and Kansas would now be playing for the nation's top ranking.
ON A brisk Saturday morning ESPN's College GameDay cranked up its two-hour pregame show from Arrowhead. "You always knew it would be a cold day before Kansas and Missouri would collide with college football's top ranking on the line," host Chris Fowler said to open the show. He then gave the uninitiated a history lesson on the bitter rivalry: the 1863 burning of Lawrence, Jayhawkers storming across the border and terrorizing Missourians, and the inability of the schools to agree on the series record. (Mizzou had it 53-53-9; KU, 54-52-9.) "For many fans, the hatred is very real and it's very raw, and the players are just acting out the latest chapter in all that," Fowler said. After a pause, he added, "And you thought this was just about the Big 12 North."
As the college football world focused on the historic meeting, the teams encountered an unforeseen roadblock: traffic. Police escort and all, the Tigers' buses crawled to Arrowhead. The 16-mile trip took the better part of an hour, and when the motorcade inched into the parking lot, the players went silent.
"The greatest feeling was driving up," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel says, his voice rising. "It was unbelievable. Un-be-lievable. Fans were running up and hitting the buses. There were roars and cheers. You went by the Kansas people, and it was just the opposite. The environment was as good as it will ever get."
Adds kicker Jeff Wolfert, "It was surreal. We came in from the top of the hill. Cars, tents, flags blowing in the wind. It was really dark, but there was this glow coming from the stadium. You've got people yelling at your bus, you've got people cheering for your bus, you've got people flipping you off."
"You could feel the hostility in the air," says backup quarterback Chase Patton.
The Kansas contingent didn't fare any better with the bottleneck. For some, what should have been an uneventful one-hour drive turned into a three-hour ordeal. "I worked in L.A. for eight or nine years, so I dealt with traffic," says Tom Keegan, a columnist for the Lawrence Journal-World. "Never have I dealt with anything like this."
Oh, to be able to slip a blood-pressure cuff onto Mangino's arm as the KU buses idled. You want to talk about schedules? This was the guy who locked the USA Today college football writer out of a press conference because he was a couple of minutes late. Mangino insists the delay didn't faze him, but others aren't so sure. "When things didn't go exactly right," says Strauss, "that would affect him."
Reesing stepped off the bus, looked directly into an ABC camera and shouted, "Showtime, baby!" Yet he was aware of the Jayhawks' predicament. "We started to realize, Hey, we're really behind," he says. "That cuts into your normal routine. We had to speed everything up. It definitely adds extra anxiety to the game."
LAMAR HUNT did not live to see his vision become reality—he died of prostate cancer in December 2006 at age 74, a month before the contract was signed. Peterson roamed the jammed parking lots with Clark Hunt, Lamar's son and the Chiefs' chairman and CEO.
To reduce the possibility of scuffles, the Chiefs had split the lot. KU fans were encouraged to enter from the west side of Arrowhead, the Mizzou faithful from the east. "There was a lot of concern that it wouldn't be good for them to be in the parking lots at the same time," says Peterson. "I must tell you: People were absolutely terrific. We didn't have one incident."
As the day passed, Peterson couldn't help but think about Lamar Hunt. "One of my biggest regrets is that he didn't live long enough to see KU-MU at Arrowhead," Peterson says. My, how Hunt would have been impressed. Even 90 minutes before game time, Arrowhead was starting to fill up. The standing-room-only crowd of 80,537 would be the second largest in stadium history.
On the field moments before kickoff, Alden was taking in the scene. Arrowhead is among the loudest venues in the NFL, and already the place was rocking. Peterson happened to stroll by.
"Carl, can you believe this?" said Alden, gazing around in amazement.
"Never a doubt, Mike," Peterson replied. "Never a doubt."
Missouri would win 36--28 and move to No. 1 but lose the Big 12 title game to Oklahoma. The Tigers were fourth in the final AP poll; KU, seventh.
"You could feel the HOSTILITY in the air," says Mizzou backup QB Chase Patton.
Photograph by BILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
NOVEMBER 24, 2007 Of the 17 players drafted from this KU-MU game, Missouri receiver Jeremy Maclin (9) was one of four to go in the first round.
CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA
MIZZOU ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS (STADIUM)
NEUTRAL GROUND The standing-room-only crowd, second largest in Arrowhead's history, saw Daniel (10) at his best.
BILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (DANIEL)
[See caption above]