Anatomy of a rivalry

Feb. 15, 2013 @ 08:33 AM

Sports are full of rivalries. From preps to the pros, they are everywhere. The most heated rivalries come from college sports, however, that not even the Yankees and Red Sox can top.

With ESPN in the midst of rivalry week, I thought it would be fitting to examine the three factors that make up a good college rivalry. Some rivalries may only have one of the following ingredients, others have them all.  The more they have, the better the rivalry.

1. Location Location Location

This is the most common factor in a rivalry. Put two schools in close proximity to one another and sparks are bound to fly. The most well know example of this principle is, of course, Duke and North Carolina.

The two campuses are separated by a mere eight miles, so they are always comparing themselves to one another. That comparison doesn’t stop with basketball. “The Battle of the Blues” extends to all sports.

When Duke defeated UNC this football season, for example, it set off a celebration not seen in Durham since Steve Spurrier stalked the sidelines. Former UNC basketball coach Matt Doherty went as far as to compare cheerleaders.

Duke and Carolina are far from the only rivalry that springs, at least in part, from the close proximity of the campuses. Belmont and Lipscomb are on the same street in Nashville less than two miles apart. This makes for a rivalry just as fierce as any that take the forefront on the national stage.

I got to witness “The Battle of the Boulevard” in person at the Atlantic Sun Tournament in 2005. Lipscomb students had a 10 p.m. curfew and since they were playing in the late game, it hit during halftime. In unison, the Belmont student section looked at their watches and started chanting, “It’s past curfew.” This is what sets college sports apart from other rivalries. You certainly won’t see that at a Celtics Lakers game.

2. Two Worlds Collide

Often times a rivalry can spring from differences, real or perceived, in the population of two schools. Duke is seen as the private school that caters to preppy rich kids while Carolina is viewed as a public institution that educates the masses. Students at each school love to feed into such stereotypes.

During the 1989 season, Duke students made a sign mocking UNC standout J.R. Reid that said “J.R. can’t Reid”. Reid responded that the sign didn’t bother him because N.C State, not Duke, was the Tarheels’ real rival.

Rivalries can develop around religious lines as well, like “The Holy War” between BYU and Utah. Fans view each other as arrogant, holier than thou do gooders, or beer swilling atheists, depending on which team they support.

Coaches from either side won’t even refer to the other school by name while players continually express their hatred toward one another. Former quarterback Utah Alex Smith described it best.

“I really hate them,” said Smith. “They are the most arrogant people . It’s the whole church vs. state thing. They want to make it out to be the good kids versus the bad kids.”

Now that’s a rivalry.

3. Familiarity Breeds Contempt

While some rivalries come from differences, still others are born out similarities. Gardner-Webb and Liberty fall into this category.

Both schools have strong Baptist ties and the schools’ overall mission is the same, to equip students to reach the world with the Gospel. It is almost as if the two schools are brothers and as any child knows, sibling rivalry is the most heated type.

The TV comedy Frasier is a good parallel. Frasier and Niles are two brothers constantly competing with one another to see who is the better psychiatrist. GWU and Liberty are constantly competing with each other to see who is the better Baptist. That competition stretches from the football field with the annual “Baptist Bowl” to quiz bowl.  

There is so much more I could write about this rivalry, which I consider to be the most unique in college sports. But I can’t describe it any better than former Liberty and current GWU women’s basketball coach Rick Reeves.

“What makes Gardner-Webb and Liberty so special is we are all brothers and sisters in Christ and there is no one in the world you would rather beat than your family. It’s almost like we are playing in the back yard. Those are the hardest and most physical games all year ,because both sides want to win so badly.”

Amen coach Reeves. Amen.