A Typology of College Rivalries

Submitted by turd ferguson on September 25th, 2011 at 5:37 PM

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




September 25th, 2011 at 5:58 PM ^

Great diary, let's not forget that in rivalry #2 that the game is the biggest rivalry for the little brother but considered merely a second tier rivalry game by the big brother.


September 25th, 2011 at 6:02 PM ^

One point that you touched on in category five but didn't with the neighboring public schools was the difference in culture between schools like Pitt/WVU and M/OSU. You're almost more likely to hear jokes about Morgantown or Ann Arbor than trash talking about the season just because things can be so different.


September 25th, 2011 at 9:01 PM ^

Texas and A&M are so different culturally that I'd imagine that most Aggies did not even apply to UT, and most UT students did not apply to A&M as a safety school. I'd imagine that both schools look down on each other. 

Some more big bro-lil bro: Washington-WSU, Iowa-Iowa St, UNC-NC St, probably Colorado-CSU. 


September 30th, 2011 at 8:22 PM ^

It's true, Iowa isn't consistently dominant in athletics and the core-academic missions are differentiated enough that parity is the case.

What about the "forced rival" situation that seems determined by higher level institutions, a'la Big Ten?  Purdue and Iowa comes to mind.  Shotgun wedding type stuff.

The Nicker

September 26th, 2011 at 1:03 AM ^

Sure there are cultural differences, but those are (somewhat) glossed over time. There is a ton of application overlap between these two schools; and the inferiority complex is vast and traditionally is present in all sports (MSU, for example, has traditionally been superior in basketball) as well as academics.

yossarians tree

September 26th, 2011 at 4:50 PM ^

Yes, I think Texas's little bro is Texas A&M. In the excellent Prevail and Ride MS Paint cartoons, the longhorns are repped by a studly steer in a polo shirt and sunglasses. The Aggie guy is a toothless hick in overalls who always carries a hoe.


September 25th, 2011 at 6:08 PM ^

Iowa v Iowa State (a #2?)
<br>indiana v Purdue (#3?)
<br>The numbers are debatable but the Indiana-Purdue one is real (so says this Bloomington native and IU grad). I think iowa State cares more about that rivalry while Iowa is more concerned with its nationwide cted, so I call it a 2.
<br>Harvard-Yale spot on; most years football is ignored except for this game, which is more about bragging rights than about whose football team is more talented


September 30th, 2011 at 12:32 PM ^

there aren't clearly better academics or athletics on either side; Purdue has a substantial lead in football (both for the Bucket and overall) and in men's basketball as well, but it's been almost 45 years since both teams were good at football at the same time, and Indiana's national success in basketball tends to overshadow Purdue's success in the series, as well as providing an additional amount of support from people with no connection to the school.

Flip the support or titles to Purdue, or the in-series success to Indiana, and it's a #2.

Michigan Arrogance

September 25th, 2011 at 6:23 PM ^

#3 needs better examples or it doesn't exist. I don't think Ole Miss considers MSU an equal and the same for ASU & Zona. Any " ____________ STATE U" is a little bro. and this includes TAMU and UT.



these are prototype #2s


only counter examples off the top are PSU and Penn and OSU, ohio

turd ferguson

September 25th, 2011 at 6:54 PM ^

Indiana-Purdue from "notYOURmom" is a good one, especially in basketball.

Florida State - Miami seems reasonable even if Miami is a little stronger academically.

TCU-SMU probably fits, though they're private schools.

Maybe Louisville and Kentucky have that going for basketball?

Pitt and Penn State haven't played in awhile, but they'd work here before Penn State joined the Big Ten.

I've also heard differently about Ole Miss - Miss State.  As one point of comparison, each school's 25th/75th percentile on the ACT is 20/26.

I'm sure there are others, but that's what comes to mind now.

I Blue Myself

September 25th, 2011 at 8:22 PM ^

I'd say Florida vs. Florida State is a better example of battle of equals than Florida State-Miami.  Probably also Clemson vs. South Carolina.

For a pure big brother-little brother rivalry, you need three characteristics you mention:

(1.) little brother to be inferior academically, (2.) athletically, and (3.) have the big brother not view the little brother as their primary rival.  So they're insulted on every level.  So Michigan vs. MSU, Oklahoma vs. OSU, and Texas vs. A&M are the best examples.  (You listed Texas vs. Texas Tech, but I think Tech is too minor of a rival to qualify.  It's like Illinois viewing Michigan as a rival.)  You could also throw in WVU vs. Marshall, possibly Colorado vs. Colorado State.

If you lose even one of those characteristics, it loses some of the big brother-little brother flavor.  So Oregon State may not be as good as Oregon in most ways, but there's no question they're each other's biggest rival.  It's the same dynamic as Alabama vs. Auburn, where Auburn definitely has an inferiority complex, but it's not nearly as degrading for Auburn as Michigan State's rivalry is with Michigan.

When there's roughly a competitive balance, as in the Mississippi or Arizona schools, I think that also ruins any big-little relationship.  Even more when the academically inferior school is historically better athletically, as with Clemson vs. South Carolina, where I think Clemson is technically the "little brother" land grant school.  Also, sadly, with Michigan and MSU in basketball over the past 15 years.

A couple of rivalries that don't quite fit your model:

UCLA vs. USC: You list this as public vs. private, but it has a very different feel than Northwestern vs. Illinois or Vandy vs. Tennessee.  This is partly because UCLA, the public school, is historically superior to USC (the "University of Second Choice"), though they've closed that gap recently.  If anything, I'd put this as a battle of equals.

Georgia vs. Georgia Tech: Even though Tech is a public school, this feels more like a public vs. private contest, where each school has its own strengths and they're not really competing with each other in most ways.  Georgia Tech doesn't care nearly as much about football, and Georgia really cares more about beating Florida, and just wants to avoid embarrassing themselves by losing to Tech.

The Nicker

September 26th, 2011 at 1:10 AM ^

First, specifically with Arizona. I'd say it's pretty even and if anything slight overall advantage to ASU on this one. Their school isn't better academically, but it is more popular with a slight edge in football and baseball (big chasm between basketball however).

Also, see Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, Lousiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and other states without a dominant flagship.


September 25th, 2011 at 7:32 PM ^

Since you DO post as Turd Furgeson, how about calling it a "Turdology?"  Maybe a series of "turdology" diaries could be in your future.  The possibilities are endless.

Harvest Wain

September 25th, 2011 at 10:46 PM ^

The only fault that I could find from experience is the Pitt-WVU rivalry is that there are many WVU fans in the Pittsburgh area. WVU sports are covered by local news and the local fox sports affiliate.  So the fand do come into contact more than once per year.


September 25th, 2011 at 11:53 PM ^

For the little brother rivalry. The issue with this one is that Va Tech typically pounds UVAs faces in on the field, but they still manage to maintain a major inferiority complex, no small thanks to UVA grads' egos


September 26th, 2011 at 11:34 AM ^

That one could go into any of three categories.  Little Brother, Twin Brothers, or public/private (even though UVA is a public flagship.)  Both UVA and Tech treat each other as the little brother.  Tech fans will tell you the only thing that ever matters is football and the last decade has been kind to Tech in that regard.**  UVA fans will continue to consider Tech the hillbilly yokel school way back there in the trailer park, and laugh at their empty trophy case and zero national championships in anything, ever.  It's a little bit of each.

**How soon people forget that it was a pretty even rivalry in the 90s and Tech was a total nobody prior to Beamer and both were basically nobodies before the 80s.


September 26th, 2011 at 3:20 PM ^

I suggest a sub-category that some of categories listed above fit into - Historical Rivalries

Some of these rivalries might not be as relevant as in the past, but they are based on historical significance and a long standing tradition.


Michigan vs. ND - Michigan taught ND to play football and helped them establish a team.

Michigan vs. Minn. - Battle for the jug, where Minn. stole(?) Michigan's water jug thus becoming the historical symbol of the rivalry that's been going on since 1903 (or 1909 when they met again after it was stolen).


September 26th, 2011 at 8:59 AM ^

Some schools believe they are in a rivalry with a regularly scheduled opponent who does not view the game as a rivalry. For one team winning the game means a successful season for the other embarrassment. These are usually conference foes where one team has been a national power and the other has not.
In the Big Ten, Michigan-Illinois and Ohio-Michigan State fall into this category.
In the SEC, both Ole Miss and Mississippi State believe they have rivalry games with Alabama. Alabama does not reciprocate, focusing instead on LSU, Tennessee, and of course Auburn. South Carolina - Tennessee may be another example.
In the Big 12, Texas and Texas Tech have this relationship, as do Oklahoma - Missouri.

Feat of Clay

September 26th, 2011 at 11:04 AM ^

Most frightened I have ever been in a crowd situation?  At a Lehigh-Lafayette game.  Yikes.  I thought a rivalry between those schools would be "yeah, whatever" but it's intense.


September 30th, 2011 at 1:32 PM ^

Not sure if it was mentioned but there has been a lot of talk as of late, in the sports media, about "trophy games". Minnesota/Michigan, obvioulsy being one of them, for the Little Brown Jug. Although it's a one-sided affair in that example, I like to think there are other more competetive, and it would be interesting to note how each one is structured (the story behind it), outside of the 5 rivalries you listed.