Football feuds – on the field and off

Ken Rappaport


Alight rain was falling as the 1965 Notre Dame-Southern California game began. A player for the visiting Trojans took the opening kickoff; he promptly slipped and sprawled heavily on the turf without a tackler in sight.

“My God,” said Southern California’s coach, John McKay. “They’ve shot him.”

McKay was only kidding, but the bon mot had a whiff of truth to it. Anyone who has witnessed one of these intense conflicts might not find the possibility so far-fetched. Collegiate football’s legendary rivalries can inflame lunatic fan emotions. As the former UCLA coach Henry R. “Red” Sanders once said of the Southern Cal-UCLA feud: “It’s not a matter of life and death– it’s more important than that.”

An Attention-getting Series

The hallowed Army-Navy confrontation has produced some of football history’s most memorable moments, on the field and off. West Point cadets and Annapolis plebes still talk about the heated argument between a brigadier general and a rear admiral during the game of ’93. Tempers rose so high that the two finally challenged each other to a duel. It’s uncertain whether the duel came off–but President Grover Cleveland’s top did. Enraged at such an incident between two high-ranking officers over a “mere” football game, the president stopped the series for five years.

When play resumed, extra-game activities were restricted to less lethal pursuits, such as the Army’s attempts to get the Navy’s goat (the Navy team mascot). After one goat-napping, an ad appeared in the New York Times: “Hey Navy! Do you know where your ‘kid’ is today?” Professing “deep regret,” Army finally sent the animal back to Annapolis with a diplomatic escort.

Freeway Free-for-All

Southern Cal and UCLA are in a one-of-a-kind situation because of their proximity–just ten miles apart in the same city. At game time, Los Angeles is a city torn in half by partisan passions. “It’s probably the only rivalry where you’ll find husbands and wives sitting on opposite ends of the field,” says Gary Beban, UCLA’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback of the 1960s. Beban calls the USC-UCLA game “the most special game you play as a Bruin, including the Rose Bowl.”

USC-UCLA pranks usually deal with revered school objects. USC’s snow-white horse, “Traveler,” has been painted blue by UCLA students. “Tommy Trojan,” a campus statue that symbolizes Southern Cal athletics, has at different times been painted and stripped of his sword. The stump was then welded on his back.

The Southern Cal-Notre Dame series, on the other hand, has been fought entirely on the playing field, not with campus pranks. Howard Jones, a Southern Cal coach, first invited Knute Rockne and his Notre Dame team to the West Coast in 1926. Since then, this series has usually meant something in the national rankings and has always left its mark on participants. Nick Pappas, a running back for Southern Cal in the 1930s, says of the rivalry: “Anyone who ever played in a Notre Dame game remembers every tackle, every block, every call in the huddle. It was a fantastic experience.”

The River Runs Red

Oklahoma, like Southern Cal, has two major rivals on its schedule each year–Texas and Nebraska.

The Oklahoma-Texas game, called, among other things, “The Battle of Red River” (for the artery that flows between the two states), is held at a “neutral” site–the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Feelings know no neutrality, however, in the biggest college football game in the Southwest each season. As Darrell Royal, a former Texas coach, says, “It is no place for the timid.”

The rivalry became most bitter during the 1950s, when Oklahoma’s Bud Wilkinson recruited many members of his undefeated teams from the state of Texas. Texans asserted that Wilkinson kept a squadron of planes at a hidden airfield north of the Red River on constant alert, ready to take off and corral any star high-school prospect in their state.

The Nebraska series may not be in quite the same ball park with the Texas rivalry, but Oklahomans are still psyched to madness each year for the Nebraska game. Since 1970, the Big Eight championship has usually hinged on the outcome of the Oklahoma-Nebraska set-to.

Big Ten or Big Two?

Michigan State has for years been a natural rival for the University of Michigan. Michigan students still wear sweatshirts–in State’s green and white colors–reading, “If you can’t go to college, go to MICHIGAN STATE.” And Michigan students still wake up the morning of a game to find their grounds liberally decorated in green and white, courtesy of nocturnal State infiltrators. But heated as that rivalry has been, Ohio State has gradually become Michigan’s No. 1 foe because of the continuing strength of these two teams in the Big Ten Conference.

Michigan-Ohio State games have decided the Big Ten title more than 20 times; a Rose Bowl bid and often a national championship are at stake. The rivalry reached flaming heights during the 1970s in the grudge battles between Michigan’s coach, Bo Schembechler, and Ohio State’s Woody Hayes.

Hayes, waging a year-round cold war with Michigan, refused to utter the name of his fiercest rival. He referred to Michigan simply as “that school up north” and to Schembechler, formerly an athlete and then assistant under Hayes, as “the coach from that school up north.” On one occasion, the story goes, Hayes pushed his car over the state line from Michigan to Ohio simply because he didn’t want to spend a cent, even for gas, in hated Michigan.

To the Victors . . .

Special trophies have added romance to several rivalries. “The Old Oaken Bucket,” said to have been used as a drinking vessel by Morgan’s Raiders of Civil War days, has been the prize of every Indiana-Purdue football game since 1925. To the victor goes both the privilege of affixing an “I” or a “P” to the chain of initials that dangles from the bucket and the honor of possessing the prize until the next game.

The “Little Brown Jug,” originally an old gray plaster crock the former Michigan coach Fielding Yost carried around (so his players could drink fresh Ann Arbor water), was at one time football’s best-known art object. The most famous contest for the “Jug” occurred in 1940, when No. 2 Minnesota beat No. 3 Michigan 7-6 in a hard rainstorm that turned the Minnesota stadium into a huge swimming pool.

Small Is Beautiful

Though the so-called “major colleges” get most of the fanfare, they certainly have no monopoly on fan fervor. Among the “small colleges” of divisions II and III, passion springs eternal each fall for Wabash and DePauw, Middlebury and Norwich, and North Dakota and North Dakota State, among others. The two North Dakota teams battle annually for the 75-pound “Nickel Trophy,” an exact replica of the old U.S. buffalo coin. This prize has been the object of intercampus raids since its beginnings in 1894.

Sometimes three teams are rivals, as in the century-old “Little Three” battles between Wesleyan, Williams, and Amherst. Amherst and Williams will play their 102nd game this November. Since college football’s first official contest in 1869, only five other rivalries have reached the century mark–Lehigh-Lafayette, with 123; Princeton-Yale, 110; Harvard-Yale, 103; Bowdoin-Colby, 101; and Albion-Kalamazoo, 101.

Age seemingly does little to mellow the spirit of competition, be the colleges large or small. The Middlebury-Norwich conflict in Vermont, for example, goes back to 1893. Traditionally, Norwich charters a train and brings along its entire cadet corps for the Middlebury game. Marching from the railroad station through the main streets of Middlebury to the playing field has been known to get out of hand: one year the overzealous cadets tore down every goal post in sight, on the main field as well as on adjacent fields. The Middlebury athletic director responded by sending Norwich a bill.

Destruction of enemy property has never come up to the high standards of kidnapping, however, be it the Navy goat, the Army mule, or something as defenseless as the Old Oaken Bucket.

The Bucket has its defenders, nonetheless, as an interloper from Purdue discovered one year when he attempted to liberate it from the Indiana University administration building. “Stop!” rang out in the hushed corridor. A coed came flying out of an office, tackled the would-be thief in mid-stride, and promptly bit him–in the stomach.

The Navy goat, the Army mule, the Old Oaken Bucket –kid stuff. But who would try to relieve the Coast Guard Academy of its mascot, a live bear, before the “Little Army-Navy Game” with Norwich? Norwich students, of course. And these brave lads actually pulled it off–until they were about ten miles out of town, at which point their cargo went berserk. And at which point the students went directly back to town and put the bear back where they had found it.

Oh, well, as they say in rivalries, you win some and you lose some.

Photo: Marcus Allen, now with the Los Angeles Raiders, exemplifies the great running backs of Southern Cal–whose No. 1 goal is to run over UCLA.

Photo: Michigan and Ohio State partisans hate each other to the point that Ohio State’s Woody Hayes chose to push his car across the state line rather than buy gas in Michigan.

Photo: In the nearly hundred-years football war between Army and Navy, off-the-field antics have ranged from goat-napping to the challenge of a duel between two high-ranking officers.

COPYRIGHT 1987 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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