They would step off the bus, and the hate was already there. A burning, stuffed Jayhawk, hung in effigy, smoking in the Missouri air. It was a winter day in the mid 1990s, and Scot Pollard and his Kansas teammates had arrived at the Hearnes Center for their annual war against Mizzou in Columbia.
“That was a different level of intimidation,” Pollard, a former KU center, says now, before pausing. “And we loved it … as long as we were safe in the building.”
Those old days of disgust were supposed to have ended on the day Missouri left the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. The Border War was over. The conference was reconstructed. And while the new Big 12 held a bit of mystery, there was at least one prevailing sentiment.
This new Big 12 would be a little more cordial. The hate quotient was receding.
Or so it seemed.
Something has happened on the way to this tranquil dream of a league. And Kansas, a program gunning for its ninth straight league title, got tangled up in one of the most emotional conference seasons in recent memory. There were in-state feuds, overtime escapes, a no-call heard ’round the league, an opposing fan cursing out Kansas coach Bill Self, and court-stormings in three road arenas.
In some ways, not much has changed. Back in Pollard’s days, the Jayhawks were Final Four contenders and that meant villain status in every building in which they played.
“You just have that target on your back,” Pollard says.
Life on the road means more intense insults, louder boos and the ability to sense when an arena tilts from excited to outright hostile. Pollard jokes that he waited for the batteries and coins to start flying.
The same special quality is needed to play at Kansas in the current era: To embrace the hate.
“We love it,” Kansas senior Kevin Young says. “We say, ‘We just gotta have a party in the other team’s locker room.’ ”
This week, on the heels of a shared title with K-State, the Jayhawks will roll into town as the pre-eminent favorite at the Big 12 tournament. They will play 40 miles from campus. (If Iowa State or Oklahoma State fans need another reason to despise KU, well there you go.) And the rest of the league will take its shot at Big 12 basketball’s equivalent of the “Evil Empire.”
It was once said by Italian thinker Machiavelli that it was better for royalty to be feared than loved. Well, when it comes to Big 12 basketball, the Jayhawks are simply hated.
“We,” Self says, on an early winter day in Lawrence, “get everyone’s best shot.”
First comes the anger. Then comes the conspiracy.
On Feb. 25, Kansas visited Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa, and left with a 108-96 overtime victory over Iowa State. KU senior Elijah Johnson finished with 39 points, finishing the game with a controversial dunk. A prominent Iowa State booster attempted to confront Self after the horn sounded. And controversy swelled around a no-call on a Johnson drive in the final seconds of regulation.
The next day, the Big 12 issued a vague statement saying that officials had erred in the final minutes. The statement irked Self, who wondered whether the conference set a unwise precedent by letting the situation play out in public.
More than two weeks later, the emotions have calmed — but only slightly. A popular Iowa State website has created an online petition to restore Iowa State’s home-court winning streak, calling the game a “travesty” and Big 12 “conspiracy.”
“There’s just a lot of resentment,” said Gabe Hibben, 28, who contributes to the blog. “I think that’s one of those games that a fan base will remember 15 years from now.”
For his part, Hibben said he’s not among the hardcore Big 12 truthers, but the bitterness toward Kansas has festered as the conference streak has reached new heights.
“It just comes with the territory,” he said.
It’s also rekindled old fights. Likes those between in-state rivals.
“You look back at it, it ultimately cost K-State the outright title,” says Craig Rose, a K-State fan from Manhattan. “I think there is a little something to it.”
On game days, Rose dons a mask and takes on the persona of the “K-State Mask,” a cultish figure among fellow Wildcats. But he isn’t necessarily talking about deep-rooted conspiracies. Just an opinion that Kansas does tend to get most of the calls at Allen Fieldhouse — like most home teams do.
“I don’t think it’s KU’s fault,” Rose said. “I don’t think they advocate it. When you’re so well-coached and so good, sometimes it gets in the refs mind that it wasn’t (KU’s) mistake.”
The stories are legend by now, but Pollard says they are mostly true. He saw live chickens near the sideline at Bramlage Coliseum, and teammates used to hit the deck at Oklahoma State’s Gallagher-Iba Arena when the Cowboys’ Pistol Pete mascot snuck behind the team huddle and fired off a couple of blanks.
“Scared the crap out of us,” he says.
Most Kansas players have these stories. Earlier this season, Travis Releford said he couldn’t repeat some of the stuff he heard at Bramlage Coliseum. And on that night at Hilton, Self winked at the Iowa State student section after he picked up an early technical.
“The road games have been fun,” Young says, “They have been hostile.”
For years, Self has told his team the same message: Games at Allen Fieldhouse are special, but nothing can compare to going on the road and getting a win.
“The best feeling in the world,” Johnson says.
And this year, Self says, the road has been more unforgiving than usual. Maybe the league was better than outside observers expected. Perhaps the resurgence of Oklahoma State and Iowa State re-charged two old Big 12 deathtraps. Or maybe after eight years of league titles, the target on KU just got a little wider.
“I don’t know that we were ever comfortable (on the road),” Self says.
These days, Pollard is retired after a long NBA career. He watches most of KU’s games from his home, or from a sideline post on one of the local television broadcasts. He’s come to see the hate differently now. Missouri is gone, and the conference is different, and when KU takes the floor at 2 p.m. Thursday at the Sprint Center, the Jayhawks will be playing either Texas Tech or West Virginia, two schools Pollard cared little about when he was in school.
But competition can do funny things. Take West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who has a $25,000 bonus clause for victories over Kansas. To the rest of the Big 12 hoops programs, the “Evil Empire” is alive an well. And the day the hate stops, Pollard says, is the day he’ll start worrying about his school.
“When somebody does beat Kansas, they storm the floor,” Pollard says. “That is a great thing.”