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Know Your KU History: Bert Coan

The University of Kansas has seen its fair share of controversy through the years, but perhaps none is as well known as the case of Bert Coan. We explore that situation today as Know Your KU History takes a turn away from pure athletic endeavor.

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By now, you already know that the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri can’t come to an agreement on the number of wins each side has in football. Missouri claims to have 57 wins while Kansas contends that MU only has 56. That one game, the controversy that has fueled so many conversations, can all be funneled down to one KU player: Bert Coan.

Let’s backtrack for a minute. According to statements Coan has made since the incident which saw KU forfeit a victory (but still claim the win in its own record books) against Missouri in the 1960 season, an argument could be made that at the onset of the future violation (the key word is onset), the player had no idea that violations were occurring. That simple statement can be made even today as athletes are nitpicked for small violations. In this case, it wasn’t a small violation, but rather one that was an initial surprise to Coan even as it began transpiring. His later actions made the trip an ordeal that Kansas and Missouri fans still debate to this day.

In 1958 Bert Coan was a player at TCU and had just completed his freshman season. In that offseason, he attended an All-Star game, and that trip was paid for by KU booster Bud Adams. Coan later transferred to Kansas with many people believing that trip to be the deciding factor. At the time and even some years later, Coan contends that at the onset of the trip, he had no idea that Adams was a Kansas man and that it was just an easy way to get to the All-Star game in Chicago.

Later, Coan admitted that once at the game, Adams couldn’t stop talking about Kansas and that it was basically a recruiting pitch. If Coan had never transferred to KU, all of this would have been moot, but he did, and he made a huge impact for the Jayhawks during the 1960 season. That is where the trouble started.

Interestingly, in those days, the NCAA did not have the all-encompassing power that it grew to have. The NCAA began investigating Kansas- at the behest of TCU head coach Dutch Meyer (can you blame him?)- in the early stages of the 1960 season and issued its statement in the middle of that season. Strangely, the NCAA ruling didn’t name Coan or Adams by name and its statement never ruled Coan ineligible, so Coan continued to suit up for the Jayhawks in the final two games of the season against Colorado and rival Missouri. The conference was the highest authority and it would come down to a vote as to whether Coan was to be considered eligible or ineligible.

Here’s the kicker, that vote didn’t happen until after the season, until after Coan and Kansas dominated then #1 Missouri and knocked the Tigers out of the national title picture. KU’s rivals argue that Coan should have abided by the NCAA edict even though he was not named because it was obvious he was the culprit. He played anyway.

Apparently, the post-season conference meeting was not even scheduled to address Coan or ineligibility until that changed quite close to the meeting and again, this point is controversial. Missouri contends that it was on the agenda since the time KU rejected the NCAA ruling on October 26 while Kansas claims that the inclusion of talk about Coan recently added by the Missouri Tigers as some sort of retro punishment for the games Coan played in.

And it just wouldn’t be Kansas-Missouri without even more controversy. At first, the vote was to be a three-fourths majority and people on the Kansas side were sure they could get the votes. But this was changed at the last minute to a simple 5-3 majority and KU lost the case. Coan was considered ineligible and Missouri technically went undefeated that season, although they have no championship to show for it.

As for the game itself, Coan was an absolute beast. He scored two touchdowns on the day in a 23-7 triumph that many say wasn’t even that close. Because of injury and the suspension brought forth by the league, Coan never played another game for KU.

Despite not playing his senior year, he was drafted into both the NFL (Round 7, Pick #85 to Washington) and AFL (Round 14, Pick #105 to Oakland) and he chose to go the AFL route. He never played a game with the Raiders, but instead played for two of their biggest rivals, spending one year in San Diego and six with the Chiefs in Kansas City. His best season came in 1966 when the Chiefs went on the play in the first Super Bowl. That year, Coan ran for 512 yards and averaged 5.4 yards per carry. He scored seven touchdowns that year for the Chiefs on the ground and caught another two through the air; he even completed one pass for a TD.

Despite never fulfilling his great potential at the pro level, and whether or not you believe in his innocence as he traveled with Bud Adams to Chicago for the game that ultimately cost KU a forfeited game (his culpability during and after that trip are not questioned), Bert Coan will forever be linked to Jayhawk lore and to the day he almost single handedly stopped the Missouri Tigers from winning the national title.

(Note: I used many of the same links for research as this article at SB Nation sister site Rock M Nation.  Their article has a decidedly anti-KU, pro-MU feel to the shock of no one.  Read it for a different perspective if you'd like.)

Editor's note:  This article was delayed from it's normal time slot due to no fault of the writer.