When former Ohio State Coach Jim Tressell spoke at his opening news conference, he said, “You will be proud of our young people in the classroom, in the community and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan.” Setting aside an irony or two, Ohio State versus Michigan is a classic rivalry game. A new coach understands it will define his career.
Rivalries always loom large on the schedule. The stakes are high. Passions run deep. As Jimmy Connors once said about his battles with John McEnroe, “There are no hugs and kisses.”
With the fall sports schedules now set, everyone is looking to a date in November. For Groton, the battle against St Mark’s falls on November 11th and will, at some level, define the season. It will be the 127th time that the football teams have met, playing for the famous Raccoon Coat and overall pursuit of the Burnett-Peabody Bowl.
The durability of this rivalry that dates to 1889 begs a critical question, “What makes for a great rivalry?”
Rivalries that endure have three attributes.
History. History is the first criteria. The longer a rivalry has been around, the better it is. Michigan versus Ohio State started in 1897. Texas versus OU began in 1900. Williams versus Amherst commenced in 1884. These games have an amazing history that spans generations. Key moments are passed on and embellished. Traditions are established. Like Gladwell said in Outliers, greatness takes practice.
Parity. “There isn’t a rivalry between a hammer and a nail.” No one likes the runaway, lopsided outcome. There must be some modicum of parity. Is Norte Dame versus Navy a great rivalry game (or a scheduling exercise to keep the Fighting Irish in perennial contention for the national championship)? Fans have to feel that they have a chance to win in most years.
Controversy. We love the acts of sportsmanship like the stoic handshake of Roger Federer at Wimbledon. It is, however, controversy that is the fuel on which true rivalries thrive. The AP story on Florida versus LSU in 2007 tells the story:
“Quarterback Tim Tebow said Tuesday he received hundreds of threatening messages on his cell phone leading up to Florida’s game at top-ranked LSU. They were the reason Tebow pretended to dial a cell phone after his first touchdown pass. Tebow said [after the game that] many of the messages contained physical threats and most included foul language.” It was an SEC rivalry at its best (or, depending on your perspective, worse).
In recent years, the famed Auburn oak trees were poisoned by Alabama fan. We saw the fire alarm escapades when the U.S. and Mexico squared off –with the fire alarms going off at 3 a.m, then again at 6 a.m. And of course, everyone will recall the time when Harvard fans were inadvertently tricked into making a “We Suck” sign at the Yale-Harvard game.
Crisp autumn air. Smash-mouth football. Rivalry weekend. It should be enough to convince even the skeptic that football is “more than just a game in which boys push each other back in forth for no reason.” On November 11th, Groton will look to avenge a 22-19 loss to St. Mark’s in their storied 127th meeting. And just like like all football games, “It will start with a whistle, and end with a gun.”