The R Word: Understanding the Seven Kinds of Rivalries in College Football

Today is the day that my University of Colorado Buffaloes head down to Mile High to take on the Rams of Colorado State in the Rocky Mountain Showdown. I’m sure several dozen CSU fans will be breaking out their green and gold overalls and doing some tailgating, although I’m not sure how that’s going to work since I’ve never seen a tailgate on a tractor. Whatever.

Anyway, most years the week leading up to this game is full of sports radio chatter about the big “rivalry.” Which has always struck me as a bit silly, frankly. I know a lot of marketing departments would like for us to think it’s a rivalry, but it really isn’t. Never has been. CU is a tier 1, BCS conference school (even when we suck, like we do this year) and the Rams are members of the second-tier Mountain West. No offense, but just because you’ve played a lot of times and are located fairly close to each other, that doesn’t make it a rivalry. CSU’s real rival is Wyoming (The Border War) and Colorado honestly doesn’t have a true rival. For years the big game was Nebraska, but we were never their big game. Now that they’ve departed for the Big 10 and we’re in the PAC-12 I imagine the marketers are hard at work on our new Big Game®, which will presumably involve the other new member of the PAC, Utah. (Oh, wait – it’s already happening.)

The point is that for a lot of us purists, the word “rivalry” has a specific meaning, and that meaning explicitly excludes any game where we need to be told that it’s a rivalry. However, in the interests of helping sports fans everywhere speak more concisely, I’ve pulled together a little guide on all the different kinds of “rivalries,” and I have included what I hope will be useful illustrations. (Note – some rivalries fit into more than one category, as I think will be clear.) So here we go.

THE Rivalry. Rivalry with a capital R. The pure rivalry. The blood match. The end of the world for the loser. This is when the game is the game for both teams. It’s the biggest game on the schedule every year, no matter whether both teams are in the hunt for the title or both teams suck or one sucks and the other one is on top and you can throw out the records, etc. You’d rather win this game and lose all the others than win all the others and lose this one. Examples: Army/Navy. Ohio State/Michigan. Oregon/Oregon State (The Civil War). UCLA/USC. Stanford/Cal. Texas/Oklahoma. Harvard/Yale. Indiana/Purdue. West Virginia/Pitt. Clemson/South Carolina. Ledford/East Davidson (the Eagles can go to hell – Go Panthers!) And so on.

The One-Legged Rivalry. This is when it’s the big game for one team but the other team doesn’t really care. Or they care a little bit, but not as much as the other team. Usually it’s a case where one team is a big dog and the other one is a relatively poorer sister. The aforementioned Colorado/Nebraska game is a great case. Former Buff coach Bill McCartney decided that CU needed a big game and that the Huskers were going to be it, so he decreed that Nebraska was our rival. Everything was aimed toward that game and the intensity did, in fact, ramp up once CU beat NU a time or two. Mainly it was one-sided, though. Nebraska was far more concerned about their huge game with Oklahoma. (Of course, as the importance of the Red River Rivalry grew, Nebraska became less important to OU, making them participants in two One-Leggers.)

The King of the Hill Rivalry. Growing up on Tobacco Road I knew all about this one. Everybody else hated Carolina. So UNC was the big game for the other members of the Big 4 (State, Duke and Wake Forest), and it was also a pretty big deal for UVa. The Heels really didn’t care about Wake, though (where I went), so we were always sky-high for any game where there was Carolina Blue on the other bench. This was actually a nice advantage – when one team has rivalry emotion and the other is struggling to stay awake, the weak sister can have an edge. Once upon a time The UNC/State game was an alpha rivalry, but over time that has shifted and now UNC/Duke functions pretty much as a Pure Rivalry.

The Derby. Pronounced “darby,” and also known as the Proximity Rivalry or the In-State Rivalry. Derby is the English term for a game involving close neighbors, like Chelsea/Fulham (who sit a couple miles apart in West London). Sometimes these are the games and other times they’re sort of big games but not really (trust me, Chelsea and Arsenal care a lot more about Man U than they do Fulham and Spurs). Colorado/Colorado State is a good example. So is Michigan/Michigan State (which is also a one-legger).

The Really Big Game. We might also call this one the Gray Area Rivalry, since supporters of the sides involved may disagree. There are games out there that many assume are the game, but that perhaps really aren’t. For instance, Alabama/Auburn is huge, but when you talk to die-hard Bammers they’ll tell you that no, the game is Tennessee. The same goes for Southern Cal/Notre Dame, which is regarded by many as the big game for both (and it probably is for ND). But many Trojan fans see UCLA as the most important game (UCLA certainly does). There aren’t a lot of examples of this one that I can think of (I imagine that when you start looking at that cocktail of SEC East games there are some in there, like maybe South Carolina/Georgia and Georgia/Florida). Also, as a result of two teams getting really good and fighting it out for the title over a period of a few years you’ll sometimes hear people using the R word. This happens in the pros a lot (Indy/New England and Pittsburgh/Baltimore aren’t rivalries at all if the teams aren’t good for an extended period).

The Trophy Game. All across the country there are traditional match-ups where two schools play annually for a trophy. We don’t normally think of, say, Michigan State and Penn State as being a huge deal, but the winner gets the Land Grant Trophy. Iowa State and Missouri play for the Telephone Trophy. And, as if Michigan isn’t busy enough with OSU and Sparty, the Little Brown Jug is on the line when they play Minnesota. Lots more of these here.

The We-Don’t-Know-a-Real-Rivalry-Is. I recall a few years back being told what a huge rivalry the Duke/Maryland game had become in hoops. Bitch, please.

There may be more, but you get the idea. So please, use the R word judiciously, and let me know if there’s a category I have missed.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to head over to the store and pick up some lamb chops….

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