Border War Flashback

Emotions will be at a fever pitch on Saturday night at 8 as Kansas plays Missouri in Columbia at Mizzou Arena for the last time — at least in the foreseeable future — with the rivalry being discontinued as MU bolts to the SEC next season. While it's difficult to fathom KU and MU not playing anymore, this series actually almost ended 51 years ago.

Rewind to March 11, 1961 as Kansas and Missouri staged a bloody Border War battle at Brewer Fieldhouse in Columbia, Mo., on national television.

KU, which featured six black players on the roster (Ralph Heyward was a seventh black player on coach Dick Harp's team who was declared academically ineligible after the first semester; that was a relatively unheard of number of blacks during that era when the national average per integrated squad around the time was just 2.2), was the target of racial slurs from the outset from the unruly fans and players. The MU band even played "Dixie" when the "Negro-laden KU squad was on the floor," reported the Lawrence Journal-World's Bill Mayer at the time. (KU started four black players.)

Butch Ellison, a black guard on that KU team, said in an exclusive 2007 interview near his home in Kansas City that "nobody really knows" what happened that day.

"They were calling us niggers, spitting on us with (assistant coach) Norm Stewart right on the bench," Ellison said. "Norm Stewart was sitting on the side (with head coach) Sparky Stalcup yelling nigger and spitting on us."

Stewart's actions pained Ellison, who considered him an idol while growing up in Kansas City when Stewart played for Missouri.

"That was the most disappointing thing to me because we didn't have black role models," Ellison said. "If a kid was a good ballplayer, that was your model."

As the hostility mounted during the Border War (the tensions leading up to this always heated game escalated after KU's 23-7 victory over No. 1 Missouri in Columbia the previous November was later forfeited, as well as its Big Eight championship to MU, after it was ruled that Kansas' standout halfback Bert Coan was ineligible due to a recruiting violation) and after MU's Joe Scott was called for a flagrant foul against Nolen Ellison (Butch's brother) just before halftime, five minutes into the second half, KU's Wayne Hightower threw a punch at MU's Charlie Henke following his second straight hard foul at the Jayhawk star just by the Tigers' bench.

Henke retaliated with a swing at Hightower. Then it was mayhem.

Both benches cleared and fans — including about 15 MU football players — stormed the court in what was one of the ugliest brawls in basketball history.

"When it (brawl) it broke out, I had one person in mind, that knuckle right there (Butch Ellison pointed to his fist); I was going right for Norm Stewart," Ellison said.

The fight lasted nearly five minutes and the game (MU won, 79-76) was stopped for 10 minutes.

Afterwards, Mayer wrote in the Journal-World about his thoughts over the melee in Columbia:

"The MU folks stress they think Saturday's brawl was KU's fault and that the calling of names and spitting on KU players by MU players was OK. Yet no matter how how MU tries to don a ‘holy' mantle, the fact remains the Tigers basketball teams have a league-wide reputation as hatchet-men, have been in a number of jams involving physical violence in recent years; generally are among the nation's fouling leaders, have a home court which because of the crowd is considered by many the loop's top snake pit. It's hard to believe that just happens. And if it does, why isn't there some obvious effort to change it.

"More and more, MU appears to be to the Big Eight what bellicose Russia is to the U.N. If MU doesn't give evidence of good faith in an effort to clean its own house, maybe severance of the series would be a good idea. Good conduct like this has to be a two-way street."

The idealist Harp had deep regrets over what happened.

"This is a tragedy," Harp told the Journal-World after the game. "Competition as such is not the factor here. It is a matter of attitude. Let me emphasize. I'm not singling out Missouri. This condition has been prevalent on all levels, including high school, junior college and college. As yet I do not know the answer, but something must be done."

Like perhaps canceling the series as Mayer wrote might have to happen?

Then-KU athletic director Dutch Lonborg took on that issue with this statement to the Journal-World following the game:

"I feel that if this extreme bitterness continues between the two schools, we will have to discontinue playing each other, at least for a while."

Despite the brawl, the two teams continued playing each other every year — at least once in Columbia and once in Lawrence.

But now, over 50 years since that infamous game at Brewer Fieldhouse, the No. 8 and Big 12-leading Jayhawks (18-4, 8-1) will be making their last trip to Columbia to face No. 4 Missouri (20-2, 7-2), which is tied with Baylor for second place in the league. ESPN's College GameDay will be there for the first time in MU history.

All those factors make this a can't miss game. And there's no doubt Mizzou Arena will be rocking in what should be the most hostile environment in Columbia since the "full-blown riot" in 1961, as reported then by the Journal-World.

That particular game left lasting wounds for some former Jayhawks, including Butch Ellison. He said he ran into Stewart one time years later when Ellison was an administrator at Washington High School in Kansas City and Stewart visited as MU head coach to recruit one of the black athletes.

"I said, ‘Norm, what are you doing here?'" Ellison recalled. "'Before any of our black kids ever go to Missouri, I will shoot him first. He will not come to Missouri.' That was the last time I saw him (Stewart). He just turned and walked out. Turned red."

For Ellison, seeing Stewart indeed brought back painful memories of that dark day at Brewer Fieldhouse in 1961.

"We were almost killed down there," Ellison said. "I hadn't been to Columbia since. When I'm on I70, I don't even look that way." Top Stories