Rivalries: When It’s More Than Just a Game

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On the eve of the 102nd football contest between Michigan and Ohio State, I find myself pondering UVM’s big rivalries, or really, a lack thereof. Arguments can be made for rivalries between several schools and us in different sports, but as a university we really lack a true, hated rival.

Recently, in men’s basketball, UVM has found a rival in Boston University. For the past four years, the top of the America East standings has been dominated by BU and UVM. Nearly every game between the two schools has been extraordinarily competitive and equally as heated. The outcome of these games usually decided the America East championship in one-way or another. Luckily for us, we seemed to come out as the victors when it mattered most, securing three straight NCAA tournament berths.

But really, that’s just the problem. It’s only recently. There’s no real running history between the two schools. Until five years ago UVM was a conference doormat; we had never had 20 or more wins in season in over 100 years of basketball. The games were competitive but they also lacked the fanaticism of other notable rivalries such as UNC-Duke, or even Northeastern-BU.

Ok, let’s try hockey. During our tenure as a member of the ECACHL over the last few decades, UVM had developed a rivalry with traveling partner Dartmouth College. This had the potential for a great rivalry: two old and prestigious schools just over an hour apart playing several games a year.

However, until last year with UVM’s reemergence as a player in college hockey, the rivalry mired in mediocrity. The culmination of years of competition came last March during the ECAC playoffs, with the teams locked in a heated three-game battle for a place in the conference semifinals. Unfortunately, this was the last in-conference meeting between Dartmouth and UVM because of UVM’s move to the Hockey East conference. This season there is only one game scheduled between the two teams.

As a huge Michigan football and Boston Red Sox fan, it’s rather disheartening to attend a school that doesn’t have another school to hate. In the case of Michigan-Ohio State, for my money the best rivalry in America, you’re on one side or the other, there’s no middle ground. If you’re from Michigan you hate the Buckeyes, there’s no other option, and vice-versa for Ohio State. There’s absolutely no fraternizing with the enemy. Both sides’ hopes and dreams are either fulfilled or crushed on one Saturday in November. I am one of those people – one of the deciding factors on whether it’s been a good year is how my Wolverines faired in the big game.

For me, Red Sox-Yankees comes in a close second, but is still second. See, where I’m from in central Vermont, supposedly part of New England and “Red Sox Nation,” people’s allegiances are split. For every Red Sox fan I can easily name a Yankees fan, if not two. Even within the heart of the Red Sox’s fans base there is no clear majority. Even considering the incredibly competitive play between the two teams over the course of the last century, this lack of support even in the Red Sox’s own backyard puts it in second place.

An example of great rivalries on a smaller scale would be high schools of the area that I call home. My Alma mater, Fair Haven Union High School, has a rival born out of proximity, history, and heritage. When we play Poultney High School, it’s more than a game, its bragging rights for a year in nearly every aspect of everyday life. It’s unavoidable in the bars and diners, on the golf course, and in the barber shops. See, these two rural schools are separated by roughly seven miles and that’s it. These people work together and many are related. Both towns are blue-collar, not particularly well-off by any means. When games are played, it really means something.

The move to a new hockey conference is an awkward, albeit it being positive. UVM is looking for higher profile hockey program and Hockey East is a great place to make one. Yet, this move also presents other problems: 9 new teams and 9 new places to play, not to mention being thrust into the middle of 20 years of tradition with no real frame of reference. Our closest conference opponent, UNH, is roughly three hours away and already has heated rivalries with Maine and Boston College.

We found a way to reach the NCAAs in basketball. We climbed out of the basement in hockey. As the marquee sports they lead the way for other sports teams and the school as a whole. Games like those with BU on the hardwood, and games like last weekend’s against BC on the ice are stepping stones toward a great rivalry.

It’s hard to just come out and say, “Hey, you, you’re my rival.” The entire situation requires years of cultivation and hatred. A couple bad calls here, several close scores, some youthful debauchery on the parts of the fans, and you’ve got all the makings of a rivalry. Do it for decades and you’ve got yourself a great one.