Aside from our looks and some mannerisms, most children inherit three main things from their parents: their religion, their politics, and their football team. This is especially true in the South where the distinction between the three is often times muddled at best and indistinguishable at worst. And although it is commonplace for free thinking adults to question the first two, very rarely is there an instance where one's football allegiance is ever divided.
Growing up 45 miles down the Hill from Fayetteville, son of two season ticket holding Arkansas Alums, I was never given a choice. Woo Pig Sooie. We never missed a game, Fayetteville or Little Rock. A November birthday called for a yearly celebration at the stadium and if we were lucky, our Christmas presents would include tickets to a New Years Day bowl game.
When it was time for me to pick a college, I knew two things: the school had to have a good journalism program and it couldn’t be in the SEC. The University of Missouri was a natural fit, a world-class journalism program and a Big XII football team that would only face my Hogs in the unlikely event they were paired up in a bowl game. And since they’d just met in the 2003 Independence Bowl, a 27-14 Razorback win, surely my team and the team I was adopting would avoid each other for the foreseeable future.
Then a funny thing started happening. Little parts of Arkansas started popping up everywhere I looked my first year in Columbia. The same retail giant billionaire family that built Bud Walton Arena at the University of Arkansas had just put the finishing touches on a state of the art basketball faculty at Mizzou. Then Mike Anderson, long time Razorback assistant under Nolan Richardson, was brought in to right a sinking ship of a basketball program at Missouri with his now politically correct “Fastest 40 Minutes” style, originally made famous by the 1994 National Championship team at Arkansas.
All of this was good and well, it was hoops, an off-season sport. Then in the fall of my junior year, an even stranger thing happened. Missouri’s football program was putting the finishing touches on their best season in 50 years thanks in large part to guys named Daniel, Maclin, and Coffman. A triple-overtime Arkansas upset of then top-ranked LSU the day after Thanksgiving put Missouri just a game away from the #1 rank in the country, a spot they hadn’t reached since 1960. All of my Mizzou friends thanked me as if I were Darren McFadden that weekend in Kansas City, and we all watched as our #4 Tigers beat arch-rival, and future Mountain West doormat, the then #2 Kansas Jayhawks, solidifying the top spot in the rankings.It was football Elysium.
The bliss was short lived however as Missouri dropped the Big XII Title game to Oklahoma, both the second loss of the season, and the second loss to the Sooners. Then the unthinkable happened, Missouri was left out of the BCS and had to settle for a spot in the Cotton Bowl. Their opponent? Arkansas.
Leading up to the game I was asked who I would root for, and I never gave a straight answer,
“We’ll see,” I’d say.
It had been such a magical season for Mizzou and the future of the program looked bright with nearly the entire team returning the next year. On the other hand, Arkansas was falling apart. Before skipping town, Houston Nutt had run off Gus Malzahn and prized recruit Mitch Mustain, then managed to lose 5 games that season with McFadden, Felix Jones, and Peyton Hillis all in the backfield.
But it was never really a question. Blood is thicker than water and I was born into a Razorback family. I watched as Mizzou lambasted Arkansas in Dallas, both ears full of trash talk and mother cursing from my Missouri friends. But at a point, we don’t get to choose the team we pull for, it is almost innate. The star of that game: Mizzou running back Tony Temple, who scored four touchdowns, besting all three of the horses in Arkansas’ stable. The final score was 38-7, and I was glad I’d never have to see my two teams play each other again.
By the time conference expansion talk started, I was living in Kansas City, three hours from Fayetteville, two hours from Columbia. Right as rumors of an SEC invitation for Missouri started to pick up steam, Mike Anderson left the Mizzou basketball program to go home to coach the Razorbacks. It was a move that left most Missouri fans with a bad taste in their mouths towards the coach and the University that stole him.
Missouri eventually landed as the fourteenth team in the new SEC and before any games had been scheduled, Missouri and Arkansas looked like natural rivals, both a little out of place, a little Midwest in the conference. Adding fuel to the fire, a 6’6” pro-ready wide receiver named Dorial Green-Beckham popped up in Springfield, Missouri, two and a half hours from Fayetteville, three hours from Columbia. Green-Beckham was billed as the number one high school player in the country and would have fit perfectly into both team’s pass happy offenses. DGB had offers from nearly ever school in the country but when the time came, it was between Missouri and Arkansas. Message boards and radio shows buzzed for weeks about inside sources and air traffic control reports. As National Signing Day approached, the attention and animosity neared hysteria. Green-Beckham picked Missouri and Arkansas fans had reason to start hating Mizzou.
A glutton for punishment, I took solace in the fact that the SEC offices in Birmingham apparently did not have a working knowledge of geography and had placed Missouri in the Eastern division. But alas, the league officials wised up and made Missouri and Arkansas permanent interdivision opponents starting next season. When I take my seat next fall, I know I will pull for the Hogs but a win won’t be as sweet, and I won’t be allowed to forget a loss.
Every year I’ll be called out when I refer to the Razorbacks as “We.” Put into place by friends quick to remind me which Alumni Association I belong to. It means more text messages, more phone calls, more trash talk, more anxiety, more worry, more tailgates, more memories, more laughs, more excitement, more football.
In seven years, two seemingly unrelated programs are now on the verge of becoming perennial rivals. It’s almost as if I planned it.