Just got back from Kansas City on Saturday night, and frankly, I wish I was going back. If OSU had defeated Kansas State in the Big 12 semifinals, it appears the Cowboys would have gotten a No. 4 seed and been placed at the Sprint Center. Instead, K-State got that No. 4 seed, and I’m headed to San Jose, along with the Cowboys.
I never get enough of Kansas City, a great old city with tons of character and great restaurants and a sense of place. I’m ready to go back.
I traveled with my wife, Trish the Dish, plus colleagues Nancy Sue Kuzydym, our OU writer, and videographer Damon Fontenot. Here’s how the trip went during Big 12 week.
TEXAS STOP SIGN
We stopped for a quick bite at the Dairy Queen on I-35 north of Perry. Not my choice, but we’re a democracy on the road.
I’m no fan of DQ. There’s a reason they’ve all but disappeared from the Oklahoma landscape. Poor management. Dairy Queens remain popular in Texas, but they’re fading fast. You can tell the management problems have slipped into Texas’ DQs, too.
But the idea of Dairy Queen remains strong. The brand still packs a punch, even for people born after the moon landing.
This DQ, connected to a Phillips 66 station, was actually decent. Big, relatively clean. Solid service. I had no complaints, even though I didn’t order anything. The best thing about the DQ was a wall that included a variety of vintage photos of Dairy Queens from all over the country. It took you back in time, which is never a bad place to go.
I needed a Sonic drink, so we pulled off I-35 and drove a couple of miles into Tonkawa. I’d been to the Tonkawa Sonic before; it sits just off the campus of Northern Oklahoma Junior College, sort of hard to find. Which I find completely charming. How can something in a small town be hard to find? Then we toured around town for a few minutes.
Tonkawa, population 3,216, is a great example of how Oklahoma is a crossroads. Tonkawa is a classic small Midwestern town. Completely different feel from what you’d find in western Oklahoma or southeastern Oklahoma. You could place Tonkawa in Kansas and Nebraska, and nobody would know the difference. Quite a few buildings and homes made of stone, which is not something you see every day.
The college is sort of cool, because when we think of junior colleges here in the metro, we think of massive student bodies and contemporary campuses, like Rose State and Oklahoma City Community College. But Northern has a traditional campus look. If you took a stranger there and told them it was a four-year regional university like Southeastern State or USAO in Chickasha, no one would question it.
We drove the couple of blocks through town, and like any small town, Tonkawa commerce’s best days are behind it. But you got the feeling that Tonkawa is a town still holding on.
And I’ll always remember Tonkawa as the place where we got the news about the new Pope. While we drove around Tonkawa, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was announced as Pope Francis, the new leader of the Catholic Church. Everyone but me had their iPhones following the proceedings from the Vatican, another example of how up-to-date we want our information. The radio wasn’t good enough.
We even drove by the Catholic Church in Tonkawa, St. Joseph’s, a few minutes after the announcement. For a moment, we thought there might be a group of people assembled there to celebrate, but the truth is, the good folks of Tonkawa had things to do on a brisk Wednesday afternoon.
Nancy Sue is a big Notre Dame fan. She grew up just outside South Bend and has been around Notre Dame all her life.
So imagine her delight when we pulled into the McDonald’s travel plaza on the Kansas Turnpike, just past Cassoday, and discovered the Knute Rockne tribute. About three miles from the site of that McDonald’s, just outside Matfield Green, Kan., is where Rockne’s plane crashed in 1931 and he died at the age of 43.
In the vestibule connecting McDonald’s and the convenience store/gas station, a fairly elaborate Rockne memorial has been established, with all kinds of large photos and tributes, with some audio recordings of Rockne. You don’t think you’ll bump into college football history on the Flint Hills of Kansas, but you never know.
Alas, that McDonald’s is due to close in a couple of weeks. I searched around to figure out why but couldn’t find an answer. If someone knows, let me know.
MISSING THE MOUNTAINEER
We made a major strategic error. We skipped the Sprint Center on Wednesday night. We had no basketball business – neither the Sooners nor Cowboys played on Wednesday – and the games didn’t excite us. Texas Tech-West Virginia and Texas-TCU.
But I completely brain-locked on the fact that it might be our only chance to see Jonathan Kimble. You know Jonathan as West Virginia’s Mountaineer.
I’ve written before about the best mascot in college sports. I met Jonathan at the Big 12 football media days last July, then I called and wrote a column about him in November before the OU-West Virginia game. He offered to give us a tour when we got to Morgantown, so we took him up on it that Friday and we had a swell time.
I told him I’d see him in Kansas City, but I had no clue the Mountaineers would be as bad as they were in hoops. WVU stumbled to eighth place, and then was upset by Tech on Wednesday night in Kansas City.
Which meant no Mountaineer on Thursday. West Virginia was already gone when we darkened the door of the Sprint Center. Total bummer. We should have dropped by the arena, picked up our press credentials and said hello to Jonathan.
But great news. Jonathan has been selected to be the Mountaineer again next school year. That’s outstanding news and gives me the chance to make up for a major faux pas.
The race is always for second in Kansas City. That’s largely true concerning the basketball, which Kansas dominates, and it’s always true concerning our favorite part of the trip. The best part of any trip to KC is a visit to Garozzo’s.
I’ve written multiple times about my favorite restaurant in the world. A classic Italian joint set in KC’s Columbus Park, which once was Little Italy but is becoming more and more Little Saigon. Still, the neighborhood retains a great, old-school feel. And inside is scrumptious food with a phenomenal atmosphere.
We walked in, and there was the Cowboy basketball team. Garozzo’s is an OSU tradition. Travis Ford got up and chatted with us for awhile.
We had a reservation for eight – we were joined by OSU writer John Helsley, our intern A.C. Slater, OSU correspondent Kyle Fredrickson and photographer Sarah Phipps.
We had just ordered the three-way pasta – a massive heaping of ravioli, spaghetti and mostacioli, along with a sausage or meatball – as an appetizer, when owner Mike Garrozo stopped by.
Mike is an archetype Italian restaurant owner. Full of personality, loves his restaurant, proud of his restaurant, which he should be. I introduced myself a few years ago, told him how much I love the place, and he told me his daughter would be headed to OSU for its superb hotel/restaurant management program.
Over the years, Mike always has appreciated the things I’ve written about Garrozo’s, so he was his usual gregarious self.
He immediately told us he was sending over complimentary stuffed artichokes, toasted ravioli and calamari. We actually never got the ravioli, which was a blessing, because we had too much food anyway.
Mike Garrozo entertained us with a series of quotes:
“Welcome, home!” he said when he first saw me. “Many are called. Few are chosen.”
“Berry, you never show weakness,” when he saw the three-way pasta as an appetizer.
“You’re all-Big 12 with a fork and knife.”
The meal was superb. Johnny Damon, the Dish and Nancy Sue all shared their entrees – lasagna, steak modiga and chicken spiedini Gabriella. I had the steak modiga and was sharing with no one, let me promise you. Best steak in history, with a modiga sauce that could be a world-class soup if served by itself.
And then, as we’re trying to leave, we get the news that Travis Ford picked up our check. It didn’t please me – I don’t want coaches buying my dinner – but I certainly appreciated the gesture. Told him so the next day.
Here’s the naked truth. Kansas City does a great job with the Big 12 Tournament. I hope we get it back in Oklahoma City soon, but the bar is set high. Even without Missouri, the turnout was excellent.
On Wednesday night, I’m told the Sprint Center was about half full. Which is somewhere north of fantastic. Remember, Tech-West Virginia and Texas-TCU. That doubleheader wouldn’t draw flies in San Antonio or Dallas. But in Kansas City, good solid crowd.
And the next morning, with an 11:30 a.m. OU-Iowa State tipoff, the arena was buzzing.
The Iowa State fans were impressive. They hadn’t reached the Big 12 semifinals since 2005, but a victory over OU would end that drought.
Cyclone fans always have enjoyed Kansas City and done a great job of swarming the city. In the heyday of the Big Eight, a ticket at Kemper Arena was hard to find – KU, Missouri, Kansas State, Iowa State, OSU, OU, even Nebraska at times, had big crowd counts.
With the tournament expanded, and the schedule changed – it starts on Wednesdays now, as opposed to Fridays back in the old days – the market is a little soft.
But not this Thursday. OU’s fan turnout was incredibly low – I was stunned at how few Sooner supporters were there. But Iowa State more than made up for it. Iowa State seemed to have as many fans as K-State produced later on Thursday.
OSU’s fan turnout was impressive. Seemed to be back near the level of the Eddie Sutton days, which is a great sign.
The Sprint Center is a wonderful venue, of course – although I’m not crazy about the exterior architecture – but I still miss Kemper Arena. Old Kemper just screamed Big Eight/Big 12 basketball. Rex Walters, Derrick Chievous, Big Country, Mitch Richmond, Eduardo Najera, Eric Piatkowski. The memories those kinds of players produced in that great old building? Priceless.
With OU playing at 11:30 a.m. and OSU playing at 8:30 p.m., we had a chance to break for dinner. We ran over to Jackstack barbeque, which is my favorite of Kansas City’s many BBQ haunts.
I like the burnt ends. You can get burnt ends pork, beef, sausage, maybe even chicken, too. But the beef is the best. It’s not all burned. Just the end, with great brisket connected.
My only gripe with Jackstack is its distribution system. Jackstack is upscale for barbeque. Nice place. More reminiscent of a steak or Italian place. Not BBQ. So Jackstack tries to set a tone.
But bringing its barbeque sauce in saucer bowls with spoons, well, that’s just not acceptable. Barbeque sauce needs to come in squirt bottles.
A.C., Kyle and Johnny Damon didn’t go. They eventually made it to Oklahoma Joe’s, which is one of the few Kansas City barbeque joints I haven’t made. I need to go sometime.
STATE LINE ADVENTURE
For lunch Friday, we drove into south Kansas City to Tasso’s, a Greek restaurant I like awfully well. After steak modiga and burnt ends, I needed a salad, and nothing better than Greek.
So me, the Dish, Sarah and Nancy Sue took out. And I made Nancy Sue’s day. I drove down State Line Road.
Nancy Sue likes to experience different states – when we were in El Paso for the OU-UTEP game, we drove 15 miles or so over to New Mexico, so she could get her picture made.
Nancy Sue has been to Kansas plenty, of course, but still, she was thrilled at the concept of State Line Road, which separates Kansas and Missouri. We didn’t know which state we were in. I couldn’t have given her a better auto tour if I had driven her up the Pacific Coast Highway.
Anyway, I looked it up, and Wikipedia says that in the northern portions of State Line Road, the state line is right down the middle of the street. In the southern portions, the road is all in Missouri.
It’s a great drive, through a section of Kansas City featuring a bunch of stately homes. Not the Pacific Ocean, but it was fine for Nancy Sue.
OSU played Kansas State in the Big 12 semifinals, with a 9 p.m. Friday tipoff. That’s a little late. Then K-State played Kansas at 5 p.m. Saturday, which is not a horrible turnaround but isn’t ideal.
Here’s the truth. This tournament misses the old schedule. Finishing on Saturday is a drag.
I know, the coaches don’t want to play on Sunday, because it cuts into their recovery time for the NCAAs.
But OU made the Final Four in 1988 and 2002 after winning Sunday conference title games. OSU made the Final Four in 1995 and 2004 after winning Sunday conference title games.
Playing on Sunday, then having to possibly turn around and open the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, is not a brutal schedule.
Let’s go back to the old schedule. Start the Big 12 Tournament with two games on Thursday night. Quarterfinals on Friday. Semifinals on Saturday afternoon. Title game on Sunday afternoon.
Another of my favorite Kansas City places is Stroud’s, a legendary chicken joint. The original Stroud’s is gone – an old house with a sloping floor, sitting hard under an overpass – but the Stroud’s in north Kansas City was just as good.
We had a late night Friday, so we planned to leave at noon Saturday to drive back home. Turns out there’s another Stroud’s, which I didn’t know about, in Fairway, Kan., an enclave of Overland Park, that would be on our way out of town.
So we stopped in for a big lunch that would get us all the way home.
Stroud’s is family-style chicken. Great fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, salad and cinnamon rolls.
Alas, this Stroud’s was not up to par. The chicken was not all that good. Neither were the potatoes. The service was just OK.
Massive disappointment. Later, Johnny Damon said he had eaten at that Stroud’s and found it to be lacking. Wish he had shared the information earlier.
I’ll be back at Stroud’s. Just not this one.
I needed a cherry root beer by the time we reached Emporia, so we got off and drove through the classic Kansas town.
Emporia had a circulation of 24,916 at the 1990 census, which means it’s about the size of Ardmore.
Emporia is home to Emporia State University and the National Teachers Hall of Fame.
But Emporia is mostly known for William Allen White, who published the Emporia Gazette, which was considered the ideal small-town newspaper in the early part of the 20th century.
Emporia has a charming downtown. Like most downtowns, it’s not as vibrant as it once was, no doubt, but Emporia is far away from KC and Wichita to keep its commercial identity,
Emporia strikes me as a great place, piece of Americana. I’ll get off I-35 again and drive through Emporia.