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Money Ends College Sport's Oldest Rivalries

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The Kansas Jayhawks staged a dramatic comeback Saturday to defeat the Missouri Tigers 87 to 86. Never mind the exciting finish, this may the last time these two teams will ever meet.

And it's not only feud ending this season. College sports has now bid farewell to three of its very oldest rivalries.

The pairs West Virginia and Pittsburgh, Texas and Texas A&M, and Kansas and Missouri have all played each other over 100 times in football and way more than that in men's basketball. The three rivalries are so passionate that it was impossible to see their breakups coming just five years ago.

The "Border War," as it's called, between Kansas and Missouri, has its roots in what was quite literally a border war in the 1850s. The two schools started playing each other in 1891.

Texas and Texas A&M have faced off 118 times in football — over half those matches an iconic Thanksgiving Day showdown.

And take the feud between the universities of West Virginia and Pittsburgh – dubbed the "Backyard Brawl." The two teams — who both wear shades of blue and gold — have played each other since 1895. West Virginia alum Jason Keal isn't happy it's ending.

"I dread the day when we aren't looking across the way and seeing those players and fans dressed in the other gold and blue," Keal says. "I dread that day."

When asked if there was anybody in the Big 12 that might become a new rival for West Virginia, Keal's answer is firm: "No ... there's only one [Pittsburgh]."

College Sports And TV

Why are these rivalries ending? Because greener pastures — aka, dollar signs — lured one or both schools away.

"We're at a crossroads in college athletics, where the almighty dollar rules the day," says Fran Fraschilla, a college basketball analyst for ESPN. He says that TV networks are one of the biggest factors behind the most recent conference realignments.

Here's how it works: Some conferences, like the Southeastern Conference, are really good at football, so they command more lucrative TV contracts, which in turn means more money for their schools. Others, like the Big 10, have their own TV network that brings in an extra few million for its members every year. Fraschilla says that looks pretty good to a school looking for some extra cash.

"You want to be able to have a good seat in a good conference, and because some conferences generate so much revenue, schools are making decisions based primarily on financial implications," he says.

In the case of these three rivalries, those schools are Texas A&M, Missouri and both West Virginia and Pittsburgh. And though that might mean a few million more bucks for those athletic departments, Fraschilla says the moves have done permanent damage to the culture of college sports.

"[I'm] still going to enjoy my job as a college basketball analyst and wherever ESPN sends me I'm certainly going to do the best job I can," he says, "but there's going to be a certain flavor missing because we're not going to see some of these storied rivalries anymore."

Look at it this way: Next season, instead of the traditional Turkey Day football game between Texas and Texas A&M, the University of Texas Longhorns will meet the Horned Frogs of Texas Christian University. It's safe to say that matchup won't have the same luster.

And who's going to be Missouri's SEC rival? South Carolina? Georgia? Pittsburgh is heading to the Atlantic Coast Conference, and it's tough to see too many compelling rivalries there for it, either.

A Bitter Ending

Though it's easy to see why the universities are leaving each other — money — it's still very disappointing to see the rivalry let go, says Keal, the West Virginia alum.

"You just want to say, 'We deserve to play you. We deserve to say who's better than you? I want the bragging rights, you want the bragging rights, let's play the game.'"

For the Backyard Brawl between West Virginia and Pittsburgh, at least, that actually seems likely. Both schools' coaches and athletic directors seem receptive to the idea of the two rivals playing again in the future. But for Kansas and Missouri, let's just say the bad blood runs a little too deep.

Kansas' basketball coach Bill Self didn't mince words after the teams' first matchup this season.

"I don't feel bad. Missouri wanted this," he said. "So why should I feel bad? I don't feel bad for anybody."

And on Saturday afternoon, the final buzzer sounded on the Border War. With the conference title on the line, they saved the best for last.

There's a chance the two will face each other in post-season tournaments to come, but never again as conference rivals, never again on their home courts, never again like this.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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