Rivalries: The Lifeblood of Sports

Last night I watched Kentucky upset Louisville in the Sweet 16.  I have Louisville winning it all in my bracket so it was a crushing loss to my bracket.  My hopes of winning both money and bragging rights in my bracket pools are just about gone.  But I really was not that upset.  I am not a Louisville fan, not even close.  But I know that there were thousands of heartbroken Louisville fans last night dealing with a crushing loss to their in-state rival.  A loss to a rival is not just another a loss, it’s a swift kick to the groin in steel-toed boots.  Losing to your rival feels a lot like getting your heart ripped out by the high priest of an Indian cult while Indiana Jones looks on from the shadows. It hurts a lot.  

I do not feel sorry for Louisville fans but I do know the feeling well.  I am a huge University of Michigan fan.  The Wolverines have beaten the Buckeyes from “Ohio” just twice since 2003.  That is a lot of losses and a lot of kicks to the groin followed up by a ripping out of my heart.  I felt the awful pain of a loss to a rival in NFC Championship when my Niners lost to the She-hawks.  Oh how that hurt.  And it will continue to hurt until we beat them this season.    

But on the flip side the joy of beating your rival is so sweet.  It is pure joy.  When one of my teams beats their rival I feel like running down the street and shouting with joy like Jimmy Stewart on Christmas Eve in It’s A Wonderful Life after he gets his life back.  Nothing as a sports fan compares with the thrill of beating your rival.  

Rivalries are the lifeblood of sports.  Rivalries amplify the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.  But what makes a good rivalry?  The makings of a great rivalry are subjective.  There is not a set definition that cannot be argued or disagreed with but I think that most people would agree that a heated rivalry requires at least the following conditions:  

1.  Two teams that do not like each other.  The players and coaches use the word “respect” when referring to the other side, which really means the same thing as “hate”, they are just trying to be diplomatic about it.  

2.  Two fan bases that do not like each other even more than the teams dislike for each other.  The fan bases cut the b.s. and just use the word “hate” when referring to the other.  No diplomacy required when you are a fan.  

3.  The two teams and two fan bases share a common goal (almost always winning a championship).

4.  A loss to the rival team is considered more than a just another loss by both the team and its fans.  A loss to your rival can take a lot of luster off an otherwise great season.   

5. A win over the rival team is considered much more than just another win.  A bad season can be completely redeemed (mostly) by beating the rival team.  

So what are the best rivalries we have in sports today?  Below is my take on the five best current rivalries in college sports and the five best current rivalries in professional sports.  Sorry, no Celtics vs. Lakers or 49ers vs. Cowboys.  Those are rivalries of the past.  

College Sports Rivalries 

1.  Michigan vs. “Ohio” (College Football) – I am a Michigan fan so I follow the lead of Michigan coach Brady Hoke in referring to that team in scarlet and gray simply as “Ohio”.  If you want hatred between fan bases this is the rivalry for you.  This is not a good natured “yeah we like beating these guys” rivalry.  This is a hardcore rivalry.  

2. North Carolina vs. Duke (College Basketball) – This is the college basketball equivalent to Michigan vs. “Ohio”.  My sister is a die-hard North Carolina fan, my brother in-law to be is a a Duke fan.  If that marriage can last, any marriage can.  If my wife had disclosed to me when we were dating that she was an “Ohio” fan we would not be married today.  

3.  BYU vs. Utah (College Football) – This rivalry is not that well known across the country but living close to this rivalry most of my life I can unequivocally say that this is a nasty rivalry.  Any time claims that “god is on our side” are made by the opposing players and fans you know you have an intense rivalry.  When religion is brought into the equation the gloves are off and playing nice is out of the question.  

4. Auburn vs. Alabama (College Football) – When grown men are poisoning beloved oak trees on the campus of the rival team no further explanation is needed.  In a state that lives, eats, and breathes college football this in-state rivalry is right at the top.  

5. Louisville vs. Kentucky (College Basketball) – There haven’t been any tree poisonings in this rivalry (yet) but when Rick Pitino took the Louisville job after coaching Kentucky this already intense rivalry took it up a few notches.  

Pro Sport Rivalries 

1. 49ers vs. Seachickens (NFL) – my labeling of this rivalry displays my bias in full.  The front offices don’t like each other.  The coaches have hated each other since their days at Stanford and USC, the players don’t like each other and the fans despise one another.  Both teams are at top of the league with young quarterbacks that rely on great defense and the running game to win.  Their styles stand out in the pass-happy NFL.  The Seachickens are at the top right now.  The 49ers want to get there.  If you do not think this is a top rivalry in pro sports you are out of your minds.  

2. Red Sox vs. Yankees (MLB) – This rivalry got a lot better this last decade when the Red Sox became a real threat to the Yankees and their “evil empire.”  The only thing that hurts this rivalry is that they play each other close to twenty times in the regular season.  The frequency of their battles make each individual one a little less meaningful but it is hard to beat the complete disdain that these teams and their fans have for each other. 

3. Heat vs. Pacers/Bulls (NBA) – The Bulls (with Derrick Rose) and the Pacers in the meantime are the biggest threat (and really the only threat) to the Heat’s supremacy in the Eastern Conference.  Joakim Noah makes it very clear each time the Bulls and Heat play that they “hate” the Heat.  Lebron likes to pretend to be diplomatic about it all (it’s better for his “brand”) but we all know that the feeling is mutual.  

4. Giants vs. Dodgers (MLB) – This is the west coast equivalent of Red Sox vs. Yankees.  When fans are beating each other up in the stadium parking lots you know you have a rivalry, one that probably even needs to be reigned in a bit.  

5. Bears vs. Packers (NFL) – This is a classic rivalry that still has a lot of life to it.  The Aaron Rodgers State Farm commercials with the the “superfans” makes light of a rivalry that really is heavy on mutual disdain. 

Feel free to let me know what you think about the above lists.  I may agree or disagree with you but one thing that I know we can agree on is that rivalries are the lifeblood of sports.  


Posted by Hatch 





3 thoughts on “Rivalries: The Lifeblood of Sports

  1. Ken,

    I wish I knew. If I had the time I would go up to Logan to do some investigative reporting because it is very clear that no one at any of the SLC media outlets knows how to do that when it doesn’t involve BYU or Utah. I will see what I can come up with.

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