This is the season for rivalry games. It seems that every college has one. Many, like ours with Knox College, date back more than a century to the origins of intercollegiate football and sometimes even to the origins of the college.
Press releases make bold claims about the oldest rivalry west of the Allegheny Mountains or the third oldest rivalry in the country or the longest continuous game. Unique objects, like an old oaken bucket or Paul Bunyan’s ax or a little brown jug or a train’s bell or a bronze turkey are won and then subsequently stolen by the losing teams. Winless teams get a chance to “make their season” and playoff- or bowl-bound squads debate whether it is just another tune-up or really the game of the year. Alumni return and tell stories of gridiron glory or campus hijinks that grow in grandeur with each passing decade. Coaches and even college presidents realize that, ultimately, their tenure will be remembered by the football record in these rivalry games.
This past weekend was my 40th college rivalry game, not counting the numerous IU-Purdue games that I followed as a child. Despite the string of victories over Knox in my seven years at Monmouth, I fear that there have been more losses than wins in those four decades. It will take a lot of victories to make up for those many November Saturdays cheering for Duke over UNC or Holy Cross over Boston College.
My rivalry games have been about evenly split between NCAA Division I and Division III schools. Last week I had the opportunity to spend several hours talking to a national sportswriter about the differences between DI and DIII athletic programs. We discussed a wide range of topics; I wish that I had thought about the special way that athletic rivalries can impact Division III colleges. The unique nature of these rivalry games illustrates the important role athletics play on our campuses.
At a typical DIII college, 20 percent of the students participate, at some time, in intercollegiate athletics. Since both Monmouth and Knox are smaller than the average DIII college (the numbers are skewed by a handful of large state institutions) and since both offer more than the typical 17 sports, it is safe to say that the participation at colleges like ours is closer to 40 percent. Add to that the students who are involved in events directly associated with athletics (marching band, cheerleading, dance squad and broadcasting) and it is safe to say that half of our students participate directly or indirectly with our athletic programs.
Athletic programs–and, by extension, rivalry games–are a participatory activity for students at Monmouth and Knox and so many other fine DIII liberal arts colleges. Saturday evening after watching the 123rd Monmouth – Knox game (a.k.a. the Turkey Bowl), I turned on national television and watched what was billed as “the game of the century” between LSU and Alabama (doesn’t it seem like the game of the century comes along every couple of years?). While the nationally televised game was enjoyable and the pageantry was spectacular, I was left to wonder how many of the tens of thousands of fans were in study groups with the players or had done community service projects with the linebackers. Perhaps the football coaches for LSU know the sociology or accounting faculty members and meet to talk about students and curricula. Maybe the fans in the stands exercise and play pick-up basketball with the players on the field and maybe they work together on class projects. Maybe they do and maybe they don’t, but at Monmouth or Knox I am sure they do.
At Alabama the head coaches were escorted in and out of the game of the century by a squadron of state police officers. An hour before the Monmouth – Knox game on Saturday, our football coach was sitting alone on the sidelines talking to me. I wanted to hear his thoughts on the upcoming game, but Coach Bell was more interested in exploring ideas on how we might increase the probability that our student-athletes graduate. What could he do, he wondered, to ensure that our football players are fully integrated into all aspects of campus life.
The rivalry game at Monmouth has at least as much significance as any of the games of the century that will be played this month on national television. In fact, they may be even more important. That is because for us they are far more than simply athletic events. Our approach calls on us to broadly integrate major events into the life of campus. DIII colleges surround their big games with competitive blood drives, food collections, debate tournaments and the like. When we are at our best, wise student leaders, faculty and administrators use hard-fought contests to demonstrate how to compete and then live in harmony with the competition.
Saturday afternoon I watched a team playing for its first win against a team that had already clinched the conference championship. Both teams played with enthusiasm and energy from the opening kickoff to the last tackle. I walked the field after the game as friends and family mingled with both teams, separated by only a few yards of artificial turf and a single, relaxed security guard. A few minutes earlier I had listened to appreciative cheers from the visiting fans for a good play that had no impact on the game’s outcome at the end of a difficult season. I looked around the stadium and appreciated the noticeable absence of insulting or off-color banners and knew that this was the result of a call from student leadership rather than policing by event staff.
For me, the color and pageantry of a college football game is breathtaking. The sidelines are filled with students who have promising careers in front of them. Marching bands represent thousands of hours of music lessons and drills coming together. The stands are filled with proud parents and appreciative alumni. In Division III, everyone seems to know everyone else and by the end of the season and especially the last game of a senior year, there is a wonderful mix of nostalgia, sadness and excitement about next steps. In many ways that last game of the season–particularly when it is rivalry game–is a final exam for our students and our colleges.
Monmouth and Knox, from players through fans and entire communities, scored well on our final exam. Emotion and energy was high as it should have been. Even with very different records, the players brought energy and enthusiasm to each play. Rivals competed with respect and with remarkably few penalties. Civility was maintained throughout the stands and tailgate areas. Students at two great institutions enjoyed competition and differences and demonstrated that rivalries can be characterized by civility and respect. If we can make that happen first at colleges, then we can expect our graduates to make it happen around the world.