Conference Realignments Stop Some Longtime Rivalries
By John Ventola
Rivalries have always played a major role in establishing the popularity of collegiate football. Whether they involved service academies (Army versus Navy), in-state rivals (Washington against Washington State, Oklahoma versus Oklahoma State, etc.), conference adversaries, (Minnesota against Wisconsin), or cross country rivals (USC versus Notre Dame), the games played under the rivalry heading kept fan interest at a maximum level because those were the contests that would be discussed until the two teams met again one year later. The winning fan base could enjoy bragging rights, but the losing team’s loyal followers could shout out, ‘wait till next year’, and know a chance at redemption was just twelve months away. Collegiate football rivalries are a colorful part of American sports history, but sadly conference realignments by the NCAA during recent years are causing some key rivalries to stop.
One of the oldest rivalries, Missouri against Kansas, was played for 120 years, with a few interruptions, and came to a halt when Missouri left the old Big Eight conference and joined the Southeastern Conference (SEC)
for the 2012 season. Likewise, Texas and Texas A & M, had a 118 year history, playing their annual match-up for years on Thanksgiving Day. It seemed that the tradition in this writer’s home was always turkey with some Longhorn and Aggie action. The showdown stopped when Texas A & M moved with Missouri to the SEC to balance out the league, A & M going to the Western Division and Mizzou to the Eastern Division of the league.
A classic territorial rivalry, Pittsburgh and West Virginia, stopped after both universities were involved in conference realignments. The Panthers moved to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) while the Mountaineers joined the Big 12 conference. Pittsburgh and West Virginia had played their rivalry game for 104 years, so Pittsburgh and Morgantown will miss the annual pairing.
Thankfully, many of the more popular rivalries have not changed because those teams have stayed in their conferences or the game holds a major importance to a state (Clemson and South Carolina, Georgia and Georgia Tech, Florida and Florida State).
Rivalries not only generate fan interest and help keep the turnstiles moving, they are very instrumental in recruiting players . It is not uncommon for young high schoolers to make their college choice based on how well a school has played against a rival. When two rival schools are recruiting the same talented athlete, more times than not the youngster picks the school that is currently on the plus side of the win ledger.
Memories definitely are synonymous with rivalries. Say Texas and Texas A & M to an old timer and it conjurs up images of Darrel Royal, James Street, and Tommy Nobis, or Bear Bryant as a young coach and Heisman
Trophy winner John David Crow. A young Longhorn fan may remember Earl Campbell or Vince Young, while a recent Aggie might recall R.C. Slocum or the terrible bonfire accident that occurred as the student body prepared for the annual battle a few years ago. Every person carries their own memories, but college football and the rivalries that have helped lay the foundation for the sport’s success are, indeed, special.
Mention a rivalry, and let the memory bank go to work. O.J. Simpson’s cutback run against UCLA, Ohio State’s Woody Hayes on the sideline against Michigan, Georgia’s Hershel Walker running against Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh’s Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino beating West Virginia, Joe Kapp quarterbacking for California or John Elway calling signals for Stanford , the rivalry memories are vivid and the participants seem to be still in their prime.
Sadly, this writer will be attending the end of the oldest rivalry in the history of college football this weekend. The University of Michigan and the University of Notre Dame first played football in 1887. While it is the oldest rivalry, it will only be the forty first contest between the two schools. The Wolverines lead the series 23-16-1. There were, of course, lengthy time gaps in the rivalry, although once the two institutions began playing on a regular basis the annual game became a seasonal highlight. Notre Dame’s move to the ACC for sports other than football, where the Irish will maintain their independent status, caused the breakup. Already anchored down with annual games with Navy and USC, Notre Dame had to free up space to possibly fill out their schedules with some of their new conference brethren or other teams around the country to take advantage of their national name and reputation.
Saturday I will be watching the current Wolverine and Irish players, but I will be thinking of Ara Parseghian, Bo Schembechler, John Huarte, Charles Woodson, Tony Rice, Desmond Howard, Raghid Ismail, Brian Griese, Lou Holtz, Tim Brown, Tom Brady, and Brady Quinn. They made the rivalry special. Seems almost un-American to stop it.
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