1910: The lost year of the Sunflower Showdown

The Kansas State Aggies football team in 1910 — the lost year of the Sunflower Showdown with rival Kansas.

Kansas State and Kansas met for the 104th consecutive time last Saturday at Bill Snyder Family Stadium — the Wildcats winning easy, 51-13.

This is the sixth-longest active streak in NCAA history, and it stretches back to the pre-modern era of football — a time of leather helmets and wool jerseys, when a team had only three downs to gain 10 yards and a touchdown was worth just five points.

The two schools began playing football against each other in 1902, but after only eight years of play, the 1910 contest was canceled, and the streak temporarily ended. 

It resumed the following year, and as the decades of football passed, the reasons for the cancellation in 1910 faded from memory. 

When Charlie Weis was hired as KU’s head football coach in 2012, he expressed curiosity about why the two rivals hadn’t played in 1910, but nobody had the necessary historical records compiled to give an answer.  In fact, the story — a tale of two stubborn, successful football coaches caught up in a dispute over eligibility rules — has never been completely conveyed. 

Now, after original research on documents from the era, the century-old saga can be told again.

By 1910, both K-State and Kansas were playing football at a high level, and each was led by one of its greatest coaches in school history entering their final coaching seasons.

KU was coached by Bert Kennedy, who would post a 52-9-4 overall record at the school, before being forced to resign after the 1910 season.  Kennedy is still the winningest football coach in KU history. 

K-State, meanwhile, was coached by Mike Ahearn — the school’s most successful coach until Bill Snyder arrived in 1989. 

Ahearn had actually announced his retirement from coaching following the 1909 season, but student pleas convinced him to return for one more season.  He wound up posting a 10-1 record during his triumphant final season in 1910 — the most wins in a season for the program until Snyder’s 1995 team matched the record.

In 1910, KU was a member of the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association (which would evolve into the Big Eight), while K-State was part of the old Kansas Intercollegiate Athletic Association. 

Because the two teams were in different conferences, there was no requirement that they had to play each other.  Yet after KU won a hard-fought 5-3 victory over K-State in the 1909 game, schedules published in newspapers in 1909 showed the two budding rivals slated to meet again on Oct. 22, 1910. 

Meanwhile, at the same time, K-State was weighing a move to join KU in the Missouri Valley conference, because the college had outgrown its small-school competition in the Kansas conference. 

But a conference change wasn’t in the cards for 1910, for the same reason that the 1910 game with KU was ultimately canceled: K-State simply didn’t want to comply with stricter Missouri Valley rules on player eligibility.

In the earliest years of college sports, there were no specific eligibility rules. At K-State, since the formation of its first football team in 1893, the school had allowed men with up to six years of college experience to play.  Indeed, many of Kansas State’s earliest “head coaches” played with the team after graduating from other colleges, and several of these early coaches were seemingly selected based mainly on their playing ability.

For example, Fay Moulton, the coach of the 1900 K-State team, was a KU graduate who had played football for KU in 1898 and 1899.  In 1900, Moulton took the field with his K-State players.

Not coincidentally, Moulton was an incredible athlete, who would win medals for the U.S. as a sprinter at the 1904 and 1906 Olympics.  Likewise, the K-State coach in 1902, Cyrus E. Deitz, was a talented football player, and he too played for K-State during his one season as “coach.” 

Deitz came to the job not only with a law degree from Northwestern, but also having served as captain of the Northwestern football team in 1900 and 1901. Deitz proved quite a skilled lawyer too, and later became a justice on the Illinois Supreme Court.

As for Coach Ahearn, he was 31 years old in 1910 and wasn’t playing for the team, but he still appreciated K-State’s historically lenient rules.

At Kansas, on the other hand, a series of cheating scandals found the 1910 football team needing to impose and enforce the strictest possible rules. Most recently, after the 1909 season ended, KU had found that its boosters improperly paid football players, leading five of the school’s 18 regents to vote to completely abolish the football program on Jan. 28, 1910. 

This crisis at KU led to a meeting of all Missouri Valley schools in Kansas City on April 19, 1910, at which stricter rules were adopted for all conference teams, including tightened eligibility standards. 

With the program playing under a cloud of suspicion, to save the KU football program, Coach Kennedy was left with no room whatsoever to bend these rules at any of KU’s 1910 games.

The concept of eligibility rules for college players was still a relatively new idea in 1910.  And because the NCAA was still in its infancy — it had been established in 1906 as a voluntary group of 32 eastern schools — there was no national organization to create standardized rules. 

As a result, individual schools and conferences were left to devise their own rules, and K-State and KU were far from the only schools debating them in 1910. In January the Harvard Crimson newspaper suggested that Harvard, Yale and Princeton allow their graduate students to continue playing football. 

On March 23, 1910, the University of California-Berkeley passed a resolution stating that it would no longer face its rival Stanford in any athletic contest unless Stanford adopted a 5-year eligibility rule. 

Most dramatically, on Nov. 4, 1910, the University of Michigan abruptly canceled its football game against Notre Dame scheduled for the following day, because of a disagreement over Notre Dame’s notoriously loose eligibility standards.

The 1910 football schedules of KU and K-State had to be finalized by July 1910, but by late spring of that year it was still unclear whether coach Ahearn would change K-State’s longtime practices to allow his team to face KU in his final season. 

KU’s Coach Kennedy clearly hoped to play K-State, and worked hard to convince K-State to agree to comply with the new Missouri Valley rules. 

In late May 1910, Kennedy openly chided K-State athletics, stating in the Lawrence newspaper:

“It’s a pity that a game with the Aggies can’t be arranged.  We want to play them, and play them as our equals, for they are our equals in every sense of the word,” he wrote. “It looks to me like something is wrong somewhere, and I believe that the student body down there does not really know what cutting off relations with us means. It means a whole lot to us to play the school down there, and why games between two sister institutions should be cut off just for some one or more persons’ individual grudge I can’t see.  Relations between KU and Manhattan ought to be the very best at all times.

“I believe that this matter ought to be given a little publicity so that the students at Manhattan will have a chance to get things straight.  It looks like there is spite work somewhere. 

“Understand me, I am not making any accusations, but in view of the fact that this is Mike Ahearn’s last year as coach of the Aggies, it would be the natural thing for him to want to make the best showing possible.  Well he ought to make it, for they won’t play any school of consequence and their team should be an ever-victorious one.  Mike wants to get all his old men together for next season and clean up all the small schools they can get games with.  He ought to be able to get quite a bunch of old timers since the state conference rules allow a man to play six years.”

Days later, The Manhattan Mercury responded to Coach Kennedy by writing:

“The University people have made a wrong diagnosis of the trouble. It is the students at the University who do not understand. If they did … KU would have a manager of athletics who had a few of the instincts of a gentleman and fewer of the ethics of an itinerant ‘horse’ trader.”

Ultimately, Kennedy’s public disparagement of Ahearn did not work.  Ahearn had already compiled a 29-11 record at K-State using familiar eligibility rules, and he wasn’t going to change them in his final season as coach. 

The Aug. 13, 1910, Students’ Herald welcomed K-State students back to campus with a “Football Prospective for 1910” that sadly showed no game against KU on the schedule. 

The article’s author noted, “We would like to have been granted a chance at some of the Missouri Valley schools, but … they prefer to take the loop-hole of eligibility.” 

That season, K-State would go on to post a 10-1 record and win a Kansas Conference title, blowing out small colleges such as Drury (75-5) and William Jewell (57-0) along the way, but also giving powerful Arkansas its only defeat in two full seasons.

In a somewhat ironic postscript to the story, the stricter Missouri Valley rules would also end up costing Kennedy his position at KU after the 1910 season ended and the conference instituted a new requirement that football coaches must be full-time faculty members.

Although the dispute cost the rival schools the opportunity to play the 1910 game, the matter quickly blew over once Ahearn and Kennedy departed as coaches. 

In 1911, K-State created an Athletic Committee — the first step toward the modern Athletic Department — which decided the school should comply with Missouri Valley rules as a precursor to joining the conference. 

With the rules dispute resolved, K-State and KU returned to the football field on Oct. 21, 1911, the first game in an unbroken series that shows no sign of ending.

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