What Makes a Rivalry?

The folks over at Rivals are killing time during the summer by talking about college football rivalries. Army-Navy gets a mention, predictably, in their poll of what rivalry has “fallen” the farthest. The correct answer is Pitt-Penn State, which isn’t even listed on the poll. I mean, they don’t play anymore. Pretty hard to fall any farther than that.

Now, I understand what the poll is asking and why Army-Navy would be on there. Everyone knows that the game isn’t the epicenter of the national championship picture anymore, so I have no problem with that. I get annoyed, though, when I hear people talking about how not having BCS implications somehow diminishes the rivalry. Nothing could be further from the truth. While media talking heads and college football fans pay lip service to the history and tradition of Army-Navy, fewer and fewer of them rank the game among their “best” rivalries. Is a rivalry only as good as the teams who play in it? Or is there more to it?

When people talk Army-Navy, the same themes are repeated every year. Plenty of military pagentry and patriotic fervor to go around, pretty much to the point of cliché. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I actually get sick of hearing about that stuff. Yes, we know that there will be marching and fly-bys and cannons blasting. Yes, we know that these players will go on to serve in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. The problem is that these things are played up so much that the rivalry’s other merits are almost forgotten. There’s a whole lot more that makes Army-Navy stand out.

To begin with, Army-Navy isn’t just about football. There are a lot of “trendy” rivalries out there, where two teams happen to be good at the same time. Miami-Florida State fits this mold. There really isn’t much history between them, and they might not even be considered rivals in any other sport. But in football, both teams have been in the national championship picture for most of the recent past. Sprinkle in a few exciting games, and apparently that’s enough for most fans to make it a rivalry for the ages. I don’t buy that.

I don’t mean to harp on Florida State and Miami, because I really don’t have anything against that game or its fans. The point I’m trying to make is that it isn’t the rivalry that makes it good. It’s just a game with two powerhouse teams that people want to watch. Other than the fact that it’s an annual contest, is it any different than the Ohio State-Texas series that we had the last couple of years? Not really, from the perspective of the average fan. And that’s the problem. When blogs and message board motormouths and media types make these lists, they aren’t looking at the nature of the rivalry. They’re simply listing games that they’d like to watch because of their national impact. That’s fine, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the rivalry, the relationship between the schools. The best rivalries are games where the passion of the teams and their fans are the same whether they are undefeated or winless. When rivalry bragging rights are more important than a national championship, that’s what makes for a good rivalry.

There aren’t that many games out there that fit the bill. There are several games where it seems like schools are rivals simply because their campuses are close to each other, or because X vs. X State is “supposed” to be a rivalry. That’s all fun, but there are games where the rivalry means a little more. Games like Williams-Amherst, Wabash-DePauw, and Harvard-Yale, where it’s more than just football. The very nature of the schools themselves are what make them rivals. Winning the football game isn’t just a stepping stone on the way to a conference championship. It’s almost proof that your school’s way of life is superior. That, to me, is what makes for a rivalry.

Army-Navy is one of those games. From the indoctrination of incoming freshmen to the yell after the alma mater sung by the oldest grad, the importance of beating your rival is part of the fabric of academy life. Yet there’s something about Army-Navy that sets it apart from even those other storied contests– a national following. The most common misconception from fans and the media about the Army-Navy game is that it lacks national appeal. That’s hogwash. I think that some college football fans forget that there is a world outside of their own blog and ESPN-fueled consciousness. Maybe the hype-lovers looking for the next big matchup overlook Army-Navy, but the TV-watching public hasn’t. Army-Navy has been televised on national network TV every year for more than half a century. Think about that for a second. Both Army and Navy put some lousy football teams on the field for more than a few of those years, yet people still watched. If Michigan and Ohio State were both 2-9 going into their finale, do you think ABC would still be broadcasting it all over the country? If Alabama and Auburn had two wins between them, would anyone care about that game? Hell no. But Army and Navy have both had far too many seasons like those, and the game is still on the air. That doesn’t happen without national appeal. Fourteen cities from Seattle to Miami don’t place a bid to host a game without national appeal. Most people have a rooting interest whether or not they have anything individually to do with the schools themselves. Everyone has an uncle or grandfather that served in some branch of the military represented on the Army-Navy field. That makes people care about who wins, even if they aren’t really college football fans.

Army-Navy is the nation’s rivalry, not just the schools’. That makes the game unique in the world of college football.

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3 thoughts on “What Makes a Rivalry?

  1. Very good. As a Michigan fan myself, I do think that the Army-Navy game is certainly the best rivalry out there. The game is just………..different compared to others. I thought you did a great job of putting that into words.

  2. navy68

    Great article..

    In the early 70’s, when both Army’s & Navy’s teams were hitting bottom and the Vietnam war was high in the nation’s consciousness, Roone Arledge strongly considered pulling the plug on the A-N game on ABC. He was deluged with letters and calls demanding that he reconsider….. the letter that I wrote echoed the sentiments in this blog. Of course ABC did reconsider and the game remains on Network TV.

    Recently, I’ve heard similar rumblings that maybe the game doesn’t deserve to be on Network TV because of the level of play and the one-sidedness of the recent competition. Theese comments may also be fueled by the war in Iraq. …. Dejay vu all over again????? get your pens & paper ready….

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