I've been thinking about rivalries lately, as I think they're among the most endearing features of college sports. It struck me that there are some similarities across rivalries - often rooted in the types of schools involved - that enable a rough classification into certain types of rivalries (and the feelings involved).
These aren't perfect or complete, of course, and I'm sure that I've mislabeled a couple of the rivalries here, but just for fun...
Rivalry Type #1: The one-game season
For some schools, a rivalry game is of such importance relative to the rest of the schedule that these season-defining games will be the one event that energizes each school’s fan base. However, the animosity between schools is relatively mild, probably because people attend these schools for reasons other than sports. The rivalry game affords students and alumni a fun annual foray into passionate intercollegiate athletics, but the rivalry is revered more than the rival is detested.
-- Army vs. Navy
-- Harvard vs. Yale
-- Lehigh vs. Lafayette
Rivalry Type #2: In-state “big brother” vs. “little brother”
If one rivalry type is inherently unhealthy for all involved, it’s that between two schools from the same state where one school seems almost objectively preferable to prospective students. This is where the dominant school is both academically superior and more relevant on the national sports scene. The dominant school’s attitude toward its rival, epitomized by Mike Hart’s “little brother” comments, is dismissive irritation, as the dominant school rolls its eyes at its rival’s obsession with the dominant school and delusion about the subordinate school’s national relevance. The subordinate school’s attitude toward its rival, epitomized by Rufus the Bobcat’s premeditated attack on Brutus, is visceral hatred. The structural danger in these rivalries is that the dominant school essentially holds a trump card – superior academics / higher admissions standards – so the subordinate school finds itself in an unwinnable battle for respect from its condescending in-state rival.
-- Michigan vs. Michigan State
-- Texas vs. Texas Tech
-- Oregon vs. Oregon State
Rivalry Type #3: In-state twin brothers
Similar to Rivalry Type #2 in that these rivalries often pit family members, friends, and neighbors against one another, these rivalries lack the clear hierarchy of the “big brother” – “little brother” rivalries. The schools have similar attitudes toward one another, and the driving motivation is bragging rights, since fans and alumni of one school find themselves in constant contact with fans and alumni of the rival school. Like Rivalry Type #2, these games tend to be much more relevant locally than nationally, but they’re true, fair battles that dominate headlines in that state as the rivalry game approaches.
-- Auburn vs. Alabama
-- Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State
-- Arizona vs. Arizona State
Rivalry Type #4: Neighboring state public schools
With a different dynamic from in-state rivalries, public schools from neighboring states can produce rivalries that are more unifying than divisive. Here, daily contact with rival fans is less inevitable, and local newspapers, stores, television stations, and public figures openly cheer for one side over the other. The competition is about athletics, not academics, since in-state tuition differences and preferences for in-state schools mean that students/alumni of each school commonly will not consider the other. School pride and state pride often become intertwined, and the best of Rivalry Type #4 comes from schools with comparably (and highly) powerful football programs.
-- Michigan vs. Ohio State
-- Texas vs. Oklahoma
-- Pitt vs. West Virginia
-- Florida vs. Georgia
Rivalry Type #5: Academically strong public vs. private
One notable class of rivalries involves geographically proximate stellar schools, where one is public and the other private. Many of our oldest universities are among our best universities, so these schools typically have long histories that include extended periods during which the competing schools had exceptional teams. Today, these rivalries are defined by a mutual respect for the other institution and distaste for the type of person who would attend it. Even when one school is arguably better academically than the other, the schools are different enough culturally – but each strong enough academically – that reasonable people could choose to attend each school. The distaste for the type of person in one’s rival school is most commonly voiced by the public school, which finds its private school rival stuffy, entitled, uppity, and sheltered.
-- UCLA vs. USC
-- Cal vs. Stanford
-- UNC vs. Duke (basketball)
-- Michigan vs. Notre Dame