50 Years Ago – The 1961 MU-KU Game

The 1960 MU-KU game, in which the Jayhawks defeated No. 1 ranked MU with the aid of an ineligible player, is recognized by most MU and KU fans as one the classics in the football rivalry.  Fewer recognize the significance and drama of the game played the very next year, which is also a rivalry classic.  The following essay is in celebration of the huge upset pulled off by the 1961 Tigers, 50 years ago this week.

KU entered the 1961 season with most of the starters from its Top 10 1960 team returning, and amidst high expectations by the Jayhawk team, KU fans, and national prognosticators.  In the preseason predictions, KU was ranked No. 1 by Playboy, No. 2 by Street and Smith, and No. 8 by the AP.  Based on the way the 1960 season ended , a home-town sports journalist characterized the ’61 Jayhawk team as “…a gang with a mission.  That mission?  To win a clear-cut Big Eight Conference title that nobody, not even faculty representatives, can disputeMitchell and his KU squad would enjoy immensely a high national ranking long about the end of November.  But they’ll readily surrender national orchids to win the league championship that was snatched from their grasp at the conference meeting table in Kansas City last December.”[i] 

Early in the 1961 season, KU suffered two close losses and a tie, and dropped out of the national polls.  However, KU then ran off six consecutive wins against Iowa State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Kansas State, and California.  Going into the traditional season finale against MU, KU was back in the Top 10.  In the last contest before the MU-KU rivalry game, KU amassed a total of 489 yards in the process of pummeling California by a score of 53-7.  By contrast, earlier in the season, MU had to come from behind, including a 4th quarter TD and two-point conversion, to tie California in a 14-14 game. Additionally, in MU’s most recent game, a 27-9 victory over Kansas State, the Tigers lost four starters due to injury.   Tiger Conrad Hichtler, a standout right end, suffered a leg fracture.  Right end Don Wainwright and quarterback Ron Taylor were carried off the field with ankle injuries, and halfback Norm Beal was hospitalized with bruised ribs.[ii]

While the Tiger and Jayhawks entered the rivalry game with identical 6-2-1 records, KU was a two-touchdown favorite to win.[iii]  KU’s late season run also put them in line for an Orange Bowl bid.  KU had not been to the Orange Bowl since the 1947 season, but the pre-game buzz was that, "Word from the Orange Bowl has it that the Kansas Jayhawks will get the New Years Day bid if they knock off Missouri’s crippled Tigers in Lawrence.."[iv]

There was a lot of excitement heading into the game.  One prelude to the 1961 game was the “button controversy” on the MU and KU campuses.  KU students handed out “ATAP” buttons, said to stand for “All Tigers Are Pushovers.”  MU students produced buttons emblazoned with “AHAMF” which was described as meaning “All Hawks Are My Friends.”  However, authorities at both schools believed the acronyms on the buttons had more vulgar meanings, and moved to outlaw and collect the buttons with the objective of preventing unpleasantness between Missouri and Kansas fans.  In response to the KU Dean of Students’ role in opposing the ATAP button initiative, KU students hung him in effigy.[v]

On game day in Lawrence, a capacity crowd of 42,500 poured into the KU’s Memorial Stadium.  By noon, it took one hour to reach the stadium from the Kansas Turnpike.  The crowd expected a win.  KU decided the goal posts should be protected by Topeka policeman with police dogs on leash.”[vi]

The game was classic football, matching “an unstoppable force against an unmovable object”.  KU entered the game with one of the Big 8 Conference’s top offenses (309 yards per game), with its vaunted rushing attack (237 yards per game) leading the conference.  On the other side, the Tigers had the conference’s top defense (176 yards per game). 

The Jayhawks got on the scoreboard fist, with a 1st quarter touchdown that was almost a gift, achieved after MU fumbled the ball on their own 15 yard line.  It took seven plays and a KU conversion of 4th and goal-to-go from the one to get on the board for an early 7-0 lead.  KU fans expected this to be the first KU score in another big KU victory. 

MU opened the game with southpaw quarterback Jim Johnson starting in place of gimpy Ron Taylor.  Following the KU TD, the Tigers marched 49 yards, but MU fumbled again at the KU 34.  Despite a total of four MU fumbles, KU was unable to get on the scoreboard again.  “Time and again, Missouri’s rock-ribbed defense, led by Paul Henley, Bucky Wegener, Paul Garvis and ex-Jayhawk Gene Oliver broke through to throw Hadl and his backfield mates for sizable losses.”[vii]  It was said the Tigers charged through KU’s offensive line “like flies through an open screen door”.[viii] 

Beginning in the second quarter, Ron Taylor began to substitute for Johnson at quarterback.  “Entering the game early in the second period, the gritty little field general, still obviously bothered by a sprained ankle, revved up Missouri’s sputtering attack and directed the Tigers in near flawless fashion the rest of the way.”[ix]  Taylor led an MU drive to the KU nine.  Johnson re-entered the game and fired a pass into the end zone that was dropped by the MU receiver.  MU was forced to settle for a 27-yard field goal.  At half-time, the score stood at 7-3 in KU’s favor.

Late in the third quarter, MU’s Taylor engineered a 13-play, 80-yard drive highlighted by 16-yard and 20-yard passes.  From the three, Taylor faked to fullback Andy Russell up the middle  and pitched to Bill Toben on a sweep around end that resulted in a touchdown and a 10-7 lead for the Tigers. 

After MU forced a punt on the ensuing KU possession, the Tigers mounted another 50-yard drive and were poised for a two-score lead when the Tigers fumbled at the KU eight yard line. 

The fourth and final MU fumble gave KU their final scoring opportunity, this time at the MU 25 with just a little over two minutes remaining.  Two incompletions and a sack of Hadl left the Jayhawks facing 4th and 17.  KU’s last gasp was a play action screen pass to the left end, which ended one yard short of the first down.  MU ran out the clock for the big upset.    

Prior to the game, KU head coach Jack Mitchell offered an opinion that proved prophetic.  “I’m scared to death of their (MU’s) defense.   A field goal could win it, and I don’t think we’ll score but once.”[x]  Over the course of the entire 1960 season, MU allowed a total of only 57 points.

In the game, KU’s All-American John Hadl was limited to 12 yards on 10 rushes and completed only 2 of 8 passes for 28 yards.  “Undoubtedly the most frustrated young man in the KU locker room was quarterback John Hadl.  John had just played his third Varsity game against the Tigers and was broken up because not once has he been able to muster a great performance against the Tigers.  Normally stoic, Hadl was in tears and could hardly talk.”[xi]

One Kansas newspaper summed up the game as follows:  “Uniformed police officers chained to police dogs protected the goal posts, but that’s about all Kansas University saved here Saturday afternoon as the Missouri Tigers, a two-touchdown underdog, stunned the Jayhawkers, 10-7.  Lost was a sure second-place finish in the Big Eight Conference;  lost, a probable trip to the Liberty Bowl; lost, a ranking among the nation’s top ten football teams; lost, the prestige Kansas had accumulated with a six-game win streak.  Probably all of those things, Missouri gained.”[xii]

 It wasn’t so bad as this columnist penned.  MU declined their bowl bids, paving the way for a Jayhawk invitation to the Bluebonnet Bowl, in which the Jayhawks beat Rice 33-7 for their first bowl game victory.   MU’s decision to forego the bowl game was based in part on how physically beat up the team was.  However, the Tigers went into the off-season content after pulling off one of the biggest upsets in the history of the rivalry.

KU started the 1961 season believing they had been unfairly treated by the conference after the 1960 season.  The 1960 controversy arose when TCU claimed Bert Coan, an extremely gifted halfback, had been illegally recruited off the TCU team to KU.  The NCAA investigated and, in the middle of the 1961 season, concluded Coan had indeed been illegally recruited by Bud Adams, a KU booster, during a trip he and Coan had taken to an all-star football game in Chicago.  Big 8 conference rules clearly prohibited off-campus recruiting activities and declared that any player recruited via an off-campus activity was automatically ineligible for conference play.  Following the NCAA finding, conference members warned KU to take action on the Coan matter or it would be dealt with by the conference.  KU elected to go ahead and play Coan in its remaining games against CU and MU.  As warned, the conference took up the matter in their post-season meeting, formally declared Coan ineligible, and ordered KU to forfeit their wins against CU and MU as well as the conference championship. 

So, as previously described, KU had come into the 1961 season on a mission.  However, Coan was lost for season when he suffered a serious leg injury in pre-season workouts.  Despite that loss, the Jayhawks still came within 5 points of an undefeated season.  Who were the opponents that defeated KU in 1961 and prevented the Jayhawks’ from meeting their lofty pre-season expectations?  KU lost to the three other teams involved in the Coan controversy: to TCU by a point, CU by a point, and MU by three points. 

Sometimes, it seems, karma can be a real bitch.

Keith Piontek
November  2011

[i]This Fall’s Kansas Football Team Will be a Group With a Real Mission..”  Lawrence Journal World; Lawrence, Kansas.  September 11, 1961.  Page 8. 

[ii] “Missouri the Key to Jayhawk Hopes.”  Lawrence Journal World; Lawrence, Kansas.  November 20, 1961. 

[iii] “Tigers Hope it’s Their Turn to be Spoilers.  St. Joseph News-Press; St. Joseph, Missouri  November 24, 1961.

[iv] “Missouri the Key to Jayhawk Hopes.”  Lawrence Journal World; Lawrence, Kansas.  November 20, 1961. 

[v] “KU Dean “Hanged” in Button Action.”  The Lawrence Journal-World; Lawrence, Kansas.  November 18, 1961.  Page 1. 

[vi] Patrick, Skipper.  “Orange Bowl Punch Turns Sour; Missouri Line Play Too Much for KU: Hawks Lose.” 

[vii] Muse, Tom.  “Underdog Missouri Tigers Shock Kansas 10-7.”  The Sunday News and Tribune; Jefferson City, Missouri.  November 26, 1961.  Page 8.

[viii] Mendell, Fred. “Underdog Missouri Chills Kansas, .”  The Hutchinson News; Hutchinson, Kansas,  November 26, 1961,  Page 19.

[ix] Muse, Tom.  “Underdog Missouri Tigers Shock Kansas 10-7.”  The Sunday News and Tribune; Jefferson City, Missouri.  November 26, 1961.  Page 8.

[x] IBID. 

[xi]Sport Talk.”  Lawrence Journal World; Lawrence, Kansas.  November 27, 1961. 

[xii] Mendell, Fred. “Underdog Missouri Chills Kansas, .”  The Hutchinson News; Hutchinson, Kansas,  November 26, 1961,  Page 19.

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