Behind the Stats: 1960 contest most debated in KU-MU rivalry

In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, there was an article about today’s Border War between Kansas and Missouri, and how today’s game is likely the last football game between the two. At least for the next several years. The WSJ article points out the most disputed game in the rivalry, the 1960 contest, when Missouri was going into the game with a shot at the national championship. With that in mind, and since this likely is the last football game between the two schools for the next several years, here is an updated reprint of an article I wrote about that game.

Kansas vs. Missouri, according to the KU media guide: 55-55-9

Missouri vs. Kansas, according to the MU media guide: 56-54-9

Oddly, that figures.

You wouldn’t really expect anything other than at least a mild discrepancy in the all-time football series record between the schools, would you?

Shoot, it’s impressive that they disagree on only one game. Of course, in the game that provides the difference in record, which happened 51 years ago, the implications were enormous. And the outcome heartbreaking. Or laughable. Depending on which side of the state line you’re pulling for.

Appropriately for this story, the player at the center of the controversy, Bert Coan, jokes that he “didn’t have much of a career” atKansas.

He’s right to an extent. Coan certainly had all the makings for a good career at running back with his size (6-foot-4,210 pounds) and 9.4 speed. But things didn’t pan out.

After playing his freshman season at Texas Christian, Coan enrolled at Kansas. He redshirted one season, played a season and then suffered a season-ending injury the next year after he broke his leg in spring practices. He entered the pro draft and eventually spent six seasons with the Chiefs. But the mark he left at Kansas has remained the biggest legend in the rivalry with Missouri, at least before Saturday’s contest.

Just how did Coan, a Texan by birth who started his career at TCU, end up at Kansas? The true facts are that Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans founder Bud Adams, a former KU football player, knew Coan and mentioned Kansas to him. It’s also true that Coan took a flight to Chicago with Adams before attending Kansas. Any other facts, for the most part, have been up in the air.

Missouri fans would have you believe that Coan was drugged and then forced to go to Kansas. Really, Tiger fans will tell you, that’s the only way anyone would go to school in Lawrence.

The colorful and late Don Fambrough, the long-time KU player and coach who used to rally his KU teams by insisting that William Quantrill was a Missouri alum, offered a different take on the Coan story.

“Bud didn’t have any idea he was breaking the rules,” Fambrough, who was an assistant coach for Jack Mitchell, said in Max Falkenstien’s book, “A Good Place to Stop.” “Bud was taking some people up to Chicago to the All-Star game and happened to have an empty seat on his plane. As I remember he just happened to run into Bert on the street and asked him if he wanted to go to Chicago to see the All-Star game. Naturally, Bert said yes.”

When that version was read to him, Coan just chuckled and then offered the right side of the story. After all, as with any story there are always at least two sides plus the factual side.

“I guess it’s safe to say it now, but I was illegally recruited off the TCU campus,” he says. “I was working, driving a concrete truck and (Adams) called me and asked if I wanted to go up (to Chicago). He was about to create a new (American Football League) team and all of the owners were meeting in Chicago at the Hilton, which was part of the reason for him being there. I thought he might want me to play with the Oilers, so I went with him. I had no idea he was going to talk about Kansas the entire time.

“When I first visited the KU campus, (head coach Jack) Mitchell was leery, and I don’t think he had any idea what was going on.”

Bert Coan, because of or in spite of his career at KU, is usually the player from the 1960 squad known as “that player” or the “ineligible player.”

Coan, who still lives in Texas, laughs today that if it hadn’t been for one of the Jayhawks’ seven wins that season, he wouldn’t be getting these phone calls every few years.

See, at that time in college football, the national champion was crowned before the bowl games. Basically, the team ranked No. 1 at the end of the regular season was picked as the national champ.

Heading into the season finale, the Tigers found themselves undefeated at 9-0 and ranked No.1 inthe country. The only obstacle between the Tigers and the national championship was a home game against the Jayhawks on Nov. 19.

Easier said than done.

Kansas wasn’t exactly minced meat. The Jayhawks were ranked No. 11. Their only losses were against No. 2 Syracuse and at No. 1 Iowa.

“Naturally you’re afraid of a 9-0 team,” says Coan, “but we felt like we matched up with Missouri pretty well.”

“Coach Dan Devine was a superb coach, but that week he did not let us think Kansas was going to be an easy game,” Andy Russell, who was a sophomore linebacker and fullback for the Tigers, said from his office in Pittsburgh. “We worked hard and scrimmaged during the week and some players thought he wore us out. That was the first mistake.”

Offensively, Missouri’s main play that season was a wide sweep with Norris Stevenson. The Tigers always ran it to the right side.

“The Kansas coaches, not being dunces, decided they weren’t going to let us run that play,” Russell said. “Six guys penetrated the right side of the field and there was no way to run that play. But that was our big play and we kept running it. So, possibly the second mistake was that Devine got stubborn.”

In the only time during this rivalry when one of the teams was ranked No. 1, the Jayhawks dominated the Tigers. Missouri didn’t get a first down until the clock showed 9:06 … left in the third quarter. They didn’t get another until the fourth quarter.

Coan led all rushers in the game with 67 yards. He also scored two touchdowns, one by air and one by ground. The Jayhawks went on to win 23-7.

As Ernie Mehl wrote in The Kansas City Times: “Not even the most partisan Missouri fan could deny that the better team on the field in this classic came away with the heavy end of the score. It was so completely convincing there was nothing to look back upon as a turning point.”

Missouri’s victory would come off the field as the Big Eight Conference looked closer at the season for KU, which already had been placed on one-year probation for the recruitment of Coan. In case you need more fuel for the rivalry, it’s always been widely speculated that Missouri A.D. and former coach Don Faurot led the Big Eight’s witch hunt against Coan and the Jayhawks.

About a month after the contest, the Big Eight ruled that Coan was ineligible and the Jayhawks needed to forfeit wins against Colorado and Missouri.

The damage was done already. The loss to Kansas dropped Missouri to No.5 in the polls, which meant the Tigers would have to wait a few more years before winning a national championship. (They’re still waiting.) That wasn’t necessarily a consolation for the Jayhawks.

“Sure it hurt,” Coan says of the forfeits. “I felt bad about it, like I had let everybody down. When you’re 18 years old, though, it’s hard to think down the line about things like that.”

Missouri quickly changed its record. Kansas hasn’t been so quick to do so. (Nor has the NCAA.)

So, which school has the all-time record correct? As you might expect from the players, it doesn’t really matter.

“If you look at the record, it shows they forfeited, but we didn’t win that game,” Russell says. “They beat us. That’s all there is to it.”

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