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Sunday, April 06, 2008

College Rivalries

Yesterday I went to the Ohio State-Michigan dual meet, which the Buckeyes won 110-93. This was a pretty sharp reversal of the indoor meet, won by the Wolverines 90-71. How did they pull it off?

Ohio State's campus newspaper reported the athletes were ready to take the meet a bit more seriously. The Buckeyes did avoid major errors (unlike at the indoor meet) and their horizontal jumpers did much better. Other than that, the biggest differences were beyond the athletes' control. The addition of the long throws and the 4x100 helped Ohio State, and the absence of Lex Williams seriously hurt Michigan.

Ohio State took efforts to make this meet a good experience for the fans. Besides a good meet on a relatively tight timeframe, they brought out the cheerleaders, Brutus Buckeye, and the Best Damn Band in the Land.

All the publicity for this meet refers to Ohio State-Michigan as the greatest rivalry in college sports. But it's only a big rivalry for football, as it's not a particularly big deal when the basketball, baseball or hockey teams meet (and if track were a big rivalry, the meet wouldn't have disappeared for 15 years). You'd have to say that college rivalries are sport-specific; Duke-North Carolina is bloodsport in men's basketball but gets no attention for anything else.

So what are the big rivalries in college track? At the D-I level, probably USC-UCLA and that's it. For years it was the only dual meet between major-conference schools. There's also Stanford-Cal, Arizona-Arizona State, and Washington-Washington State, but none of those get headlines. We need more rivalries.

What do rivalries do? They elevate the profile of both teams involved. I mean, would you otherwise care about a game between two usual bottom-dwellers (Army and Navy) or two schools that otherwise never even get national mention (Lehigh and Lafayette)? They give each program a championship of sorts to shoot for; Minnesota rarely has a shot at winning the Big Ten but always has a chance to win the Paul Bunyan Axe.

So what is necessary to build a rivalry? Geographical proximity is important, but that doesn't guarantee anything by itself. The teams need to either be among the best in their conference or have a long tradition of hating each other. But obviously college track rivalries need additional boosts.

It almost goes without saying that the two teams must be on similar competitive levels. Back when I ran at Bowling Green, we had a dual meet with Eastern Michigan every year, and we just hated them. But we were never going to beat them, so they didn't care about us any more than any other MAC team.

More importantly, the teams have to meet every year. This might be silly to point out, but stay with me. Of course any teams in the same conference run each other on an annual basis at the conference meet, but unless they're head a shoulders above the rest then no rivalry can develop, because each team's attention is diffused among the whole conference. I see a rivalry growing between the women's teams at Texas and Texas A&M, but unless they meet face-to-face it won't get anywhere. So a dual meet series is necessary.

Another thing about possible track rivalries is that they're gender-specific. That possible Texas-Texas A&M thing just wouldn't work on the men's side unless A&M got a whole lot better. The opposite would hold true for a logical SEC pairing of Arkansas and LSU; both of their men's programs are very good but on the women's side LSU would dominate in an uninteresting fashion. You may notice that the OSU-UM series is men-only; the same matchup between women's teams would be a joke.

Besides the two matchups I've already mentioned, I think the best candidate is Florida-Florida State. There's proximity, history, and both teams are very good. It wouldn't be hard for them to schedule an early-season dual meet, maybe even as a warmup to the Florida Relays.


Scott Bush said...

It's great to have rivalries, but if no one is hyping these rivalries outside of the schools then who will care? Few people actually knew about the OSU-Michigan match up this weekend. It's funny because many of us sit around and complain that there is minimal coverage of the sport and our athletes need more coverage, but yet our main media outlets do little to create rivalries and characters of our athletes. The UNC-Duke matchups in basketball got national exposure once TV realized they could build a lot of business around the game. Same goes in our sport, but what entity can do something to actually transform how the sport is viewed? Sorry for the rant. I am going to post something like this on Runnerville this week. Good post!

Lee said...

Yes! I have been sending e-mails to the Texas coaches for years asking them to set up a UT vs. A&M dual meet, and have never gotten a response. Now that Pat Henry is at A&M and building them into a national power, the time is right.