Ghosts of Thanksgivings Past

With MU’s gridiron success this season and the prospect of an SEC division-deciding game against A&M on Thanksgiving weekend, there understandably hasn't been much chatter about the big rivalry game that was Thanksgiving tradition for many decades. Allow me to share something I recently ran across, an entertaining reminder of how truly unique the MU-KU football rivalry has been over the years.

The following is an excerpt from a conversation with former MU Coach Bill Hollenback, written up in the Philadelphia Public Ledger and reprinted in the November 1921 issue of the Missouri Alumnus.


Yep, I (sport editor Cullen Cain) warmed up to Big "Bill" Hollenback. You see, he had once upon a time coached the Missouri University team and sent it against Kansas in the annual game. I asked him about those old days out West, and his eye lighted and his words came fast. They had been happy days for the former Penn star. [1]

"Talk about football rivalries here in the East," said Hollenback, "they are the mere strivings of children for the pinkest ribbons or the prettiest doll. Those Missouri-Kansas followers did not know the Civil War was over. For them the annual Thanksgiving game was a continuance of the struggle between the sections. It was the Bushwhacker versus the Jayhawker when those State universities clashed on the field.

"I remember one year when I took the Missouri team over to Pertle Springs, a little watering place close to Kansas City,[2] to rest over-night for the next day’s game in the Missouri town with the Kansas name. My team was outweighed by the Kansas team twenty-nine pounds to the man, and on the season’s dope to that date I had about as much chance against the Jayhawkers as Delaware had against Penn recently.

"Well, I moped around the hotel lobby that evening and I was pretty low in mind. And then I saw a slender old gentleman with a most striking face strolling about the lobby. He had a beak for a nose and his eye was keen and cold, and he had a slit for a mouth and chunk of granite for a jay. Every one bowed low to this shred of a man and seemed anxious to win a word from him. I asked about him and they said he was ‘Bill’ Stone, Missouri born and bred, and twice Governor and now United States Senator.[3]

"Watching him there, rocking forward from his heels to his toes and looking like some fierce old bird of prey, I suddenly became possessed with an idea. If I could get him to talk to the team just before the game, maybe he could stir State pride in my kids so deeply that it would overwhelm the beef of a better football team.

"Well, I went up to him, introduced myself and told him what I was up against, and asked him if he would talk to the team. Would he? Say, he stiffened all over and his eye shot flame, and he said he would be right there.

"I have heard ‘em talk to a team; heard Mike Murphy whiplash ‘em when he was in his prime,[4] but never anything like Senator ‘Bill’ Stone rousing his Missouri bushwhackers that date to violence, incendiarism and death. ‘I have known these Jayhawkers all my life,’ he concluded, ‘and I knew their daddies before them. We licked them during the war and you’ve got to lick them today. I never took my hat off to a Jayhawker in my life. I am an old man, but my heavens above! If a boy of you from ol’ Missouri gives up ground out there today I will myself go out there and drag him off the field.’[5]

"You can imagine what he did to that team of Missouri boys when he had me, and old hand from Pennsylvania, all worked up so that I sent a hundred out to bet at even money on my team when the prevailing odds were three to one against us. The game? My men played like demons. We had ‘em beaten, 5 to 0, up the last few minutes of play, when they tied the score.

"There is a pretty keen rivalry between Haverford and Swarthmore,[6] and between Penn and Cornell. Penn State and Pitt look forward to their game with considerable interest as do Harvard and Yale. But I tell you, it is only rivalry. The State Universities of Kansas and Missouri, those border states of Civil War days, had a feud, and that Thanksgiving Day game was the one remaining chance each year to readjust the dispute of the sixties.

And the townspeople of Columbia, the State University town, were worse than the players, especially the old fellows. One day, just before we left for the Kansas game, an old-timer with a wisp of a mustache like a black smear across his lip asked me if I were the Missouri coach. I told him I was. And then he said, speaking from the depths of him: ‘If you beat them Jayhawkers on Thanksgivin’ you can come back here and cut my ear off.’"


Anyone willing to offer an ear for a victory over Johnny Football on the 30th? For a win over Alabama in Atlanta? I didn’t think so. These new SEC rivalries will be fun (they already are). But I still hear those ghosts of Thanksgivings past, and I just don't think their voices will ever be silenced.

Keith Piontek

[1] For more on Bill Hollenback (click bold text).

[2] For more on Pertle Springs.

[3] I can’t attest to the accuracy of Hollenback’s entire remarks, but his description of Bill Stone’s countenance was on target.

[4]Comparison to Murphy’s motivational skills was quite the complement.

[5]Stone apparently had extensive prior experience railing on the Border War marauders from Kansas.

[6]If you are like I was, you’re not really up to speed on that Haverford-Swarthmore rivalry.

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