MORGANTOWN — This is a tale of two cities.
The Dickens, you say.
Hardly. It’s a lower-case tale, although it is novel.
This is about two of the great college sports towns in America and how both won over one man’s heart — mine.
Columbia, Missouri, sits halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City and is home to the University of Missouri.
Morgantown, West Virginia sits south of Pittsburgh and is home to West Virginia University. The two cities are in the news this week because there will be a caravan of West Virginia fans heading across I-70 to Columbia for this week’s football game.
Football Saturday is important in both cities, as it is in college town across the United States, and I have been fortunate to have experienced both as my home. First, I lived in Columbia as a Missouri student back when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was President of the United States and over the past nearly quarter of a century as a journalist in Morgantown.
Columbia has grown into a bustling city of 121,717 people — three times what it was when I learned of the Kennedy assassination while working in the Dairy Queen on Highway 40 in Missouri — although the counties are quite similar in size. Morgantown, of course, has the Mon River and impressive hills, while Columbia has the less-impressive Hinkson Creek and a landscape so flat one can almost see both St. Louis and Kansas City from atop the highest building in town.
As with most college towns, the official drink is beer and each has developed its own reputation as a party school. Missouri was once cited by Playboy as being so much in a class of its own that it would not rank it on its Top 10 list, while WVU on top as recently as 2013. But the Top 10 ranking that’s currently the reason why people are attracted to Columbia this weekend is of the football variety, and what fans have here are two of history’s most frustrated
In many ways these programs are joined at the hip, even though they certainly were separated at birth. Fans look at Mizzou and WVU and see teams that scream out “WE DESERVE BETTER!”
The Mountaineers, of course, have won more games than any team in history without winning a National Championship. However, their all-time record of 663-438-41 is not far different than Missouri’s 629-530-50. Both are frustrated bowl teams, with Missouri at 15-18 and WVU at 15-22.
And both, within their conferences over the years, have been run over by traditional college football giants, Missouri by Oklahoma during its long Big 8 tay, owning a 22-66-5 record vs. the Sooners while WVU, which is stalled behind the Sooners in the Big 12, the only team it has not beaten since joining the conference, also found itself caught in the wave of great Miami teams in its Big East years.
There is, too, the idea that each is a team looking for a rivalry. Both teams were once engaged in two of college football’s greatest rivalries before realignment put an end to each.
For Missouri it was “The Border War” with Kansas. This traditional battle grew out of the Civil War unrest between the two states and was as closely contested as any rivalry, with Missouri leading 57-54-9, although that record is disputed. And WVU’s Backyard Brawl — which is just another way to say Border War — is as bitter a battle as ever been devised but not as close, as Pitt is living off its glory years advantage to lead 61-40-3.
Somehow, I wound up in the middle of perhaps the two most bitter defeats suffered in the rivalries, one on each side.
At West Virginia, of course, that would have been the bitter 2007 upset by Pitt, beating a WVU team favored by four touchdowns to go on and play for the National Championship it had never won.
As difficult as this was to watch Missouri had done its job as a university and prepared me for it in my first year as a student. The Tigers had ended a 14-game losing streak to Oklahoma and was undefeated and ranked No. 1 entering the Kansas game.
But just as Pitt would do to WVU almost four decades later, KU pulled off a stunning 23-7 upset in Columbia ... and somehow learning that Kansas had used an ineligible player in fullback Bert Coan and would forfeit that game later did little to ease the pain.
No one could argue with the decision considering that Coan scored two touchdowns and gained 67 yards on nine carries.
Missouri went on to play Navy in the Orange Bowl and hold the Midshipmen’s Heisman Trophy winning running back Joe Bellino to just 6 rushing yards while winning the game to complete one of those undefeated seasons that carry an asterisk.
Such is depth of the rivalry, however, that Kansas protested it to the conference, a protest that was ruled against. Still, Kansas — to this day — doesn’t recognize that decision, even though Coan admitted to the violation, and counts the game as a win in its records, as does the NCAA. However, Missouri and the Big Eight counted it as a Missouri win.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter at @bhertzel.