Rivalry Week Defines College Football
Rivalry Week Defines College Football
In the Colonial Athletic Association, Rivalry Saturday is a holiday of its own sort. It’s on this weekend that history has been made for generations.
The passion millions from every corner of the U.S. share for college football stems from the traditions that make up the sport.
At the end of each season is perhaps the one tradition most central to the soul of the game.
As Maine coach Nick Charlton put it: “College football is defined by your rivalry games.”
Rivalry Week is as much a part of the cultural fabric of the season as turkey and stuffing. The assortment of unique trophies reflective of each rivalry’s identity would make beautiful centerpieces at the dinner table, after all.
And the FCS ushers in the week-long celebration of another football campaign reaching its climax.
In the Colonial Athletic Association, Rivalry Saturday is a holiday of its own sort. It’s on this weekend that history has been made for generations, dating all the way back to 1897 and the first meeting of Richmond and William & Mary.
It’s both The South’s Oldest Rivalry, and the most even rivalry in the sport—and that’s not editorializing, but a statement of fact. The Spiders and Tribe are 63-63-5, dead-even in the long history of the series.
“That’s what makes a rivalry,” said Richmond coach Russ Huesman. “It goes back-and-forth.”
Huesman knows the series well, having been on both sides of it. He was an assistant to William & Mary legend Jimmye Laycock in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and a defensive coordinator at Richmond in the 2000s.
His experiences coaching for the Capital Cup include the 2008 national championship-winning Spiders sealing their place in the Playoffs with a 23-20, overtime defeat of the Tribe. Current William & Mary head coach Mike London headed Richmond then.
The game Huesman said he most remembers, however, occurred two decades earlier—and he was on the losing end at William & Mary.
“We were beating ‘em up pretty good,” Huesman said of the 1988 contest. “[Richmond] couldn’t move the ball at all.”
Then, a wide receiver who had been a Spiders scout-team quarterback moved behind center in a schematic change.
It’s been 33 years, but Huesman still remembers Curts Jefferson running roughshod to the tune of 189 yards.
“They waited ‘til halftime and...I believe they were in the Wishbone with him at quarterback. I know they ran option and he ran the ball,” Huesman continued “And they just whooped us so bad in that second half.”
London confirmed Huesman’s recollection.
“[Jefferson] was the quarterback, and we ran the option with him,” he said.
The Spiders won a 24-19 comeback in a game that the Richmond Times-Dispatch nominated as the Capital Cup’s greatest-ever installment.
Richmond finished just 4-7 in 1988, a record that would render most seasons forgettable. But because of the rivalry game, memories of ‘88 endure decades later.
Such is the power of a rivalry game.
“This rivalry supersedes anything going on in the season,” is how New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell summarized the importance of these games.
McDonnell has been part of 34 of the 110 editions of the Battle for the Brice-Cowell Musket, either as a player, assistant or head coach. His imprint on the series is profound, and his return to it is welcome.
Saturday is McDonnell’s first since 2018 after missing the 2019 season for health reasons, and COVID-19 resulting in the cancelation of the scheduled spring edition.
More than three decades’ worth of involvement in a rivalry is sure to produce more memories than one can list without several hours at his disposal, but McDonnell offered up 2006. The Wildcats went up to Orono and, on a Chad Kackert touchdown run in overtime, clinched a playoff bid.
In addition to boasting arguably the most unique trophy of any college football rivalry, the Battle for the Brice-Cowell Musket became special in part because of the program legends who helmed the Wildcats and Black Bears.
Jack Cosgrove played a role in 36 Battles, first as Maine quarterback, then as a graduate assistant; positions coach; coordinator; and, for more than 20 years, as Black Bears head coach.
McDonnell credited those connections as alumni both he and Cosgrove had for helping build the rivalry. The future Hall of Fame New Hampshire coach also praised current Black Bears coach Charlton for keeping that spirit going.
In just about every way, the Battle for the Brice-Cowell Musket checks every box for the ideal college football rivalry. Playing at the end of the regular season is one of them.
“It’s the border war. It’s been the last game of the year for most of the years we played them,” McDonnell said. In 2017 and 2018, it opened the year, and in 2010 and 2012 fell in October. “I can’t stand it at the start of the season. I don’t think it’s where you want to have a rivalry game played. It’s good to have it at the end...for a lot of different reasons [including] to make the winner know you got a reward for winning the game.
“You’re going into the offseason with a big jump in having that Musket in your locker room,” he added.
A rivalry trophy’s significance as a physical reflection of a team’s sacrifices, as described by McDonnell, should not be downplayed. UAlbany went into the offseason after 2018 in possession of the Golden Apple, the CAA’s newest rivalry trophy, in a way that Great Danes coach Greg Gattuso said set the tone for their journey to the Playoffs the next season.
“When we first decided to do the Apple rivalry game, I wasn’t all sold on what it was going to be,” Gattuso said. The trophy was introduced in 2015, making this season’s edition the seventh for the Golden Apple in a series dating back to 1995. “But I remember the first game when we won it, the joy and reaction of our kids running for that trophy.”
Gattuso estimated the same is true for Chuck Priore’s team at Stony Brook, which claimed the most recent installment last spring.
Like Gattuso, Priore said he was initially unsure about the need of a rivalry trophy. His questions have been answered.
“When it first came about, I was not sure either about how it would go. But the kids have really, in all the years we’ve played for it, really engaged in it,” he said, adding: “It’s important to build a rivalry.”
Simply adding a trophy to a series does not a rivalry make, but the two programs check enough of the qualifications to warrant such distinction. In addition to sharing the state, Priore noted the shared recruiting bases the two target.
What’s more, the Golden Apple was born of an especially high-stakes encounter.
Priore cited the Seawolves’ win over UAlbany in the 2011 FCS Playoffs, when Stony Brook made a goal-line stop to preserve the program’s first-ever Division I postseason win, as a standout moment in his memories of the rivalry.
Neither were yet members of the CAA, but that game laid the foundation for a true rivalry upon sharing a conference, even without decades of history.
But years of building up the series doesn’t hurt.
The Battle of the Blue between Delaware and Villanova is the oldest CAA rivalry in terms of when it was first played (the Capital Cup has the most games played).
Nineteenth-century football came without some of the extracurricular trappings of the modern sport. Rivalries today can have added fuel thanks to the proverbial shrinking of our world through advanced communications.
Delaware coach Danny Rocco said he preaches a message of rivalry being about respect, not hate or bitterness. And that can sometimes be termed a battle between player-and-phone.
“That’s where the focus should always be, and these games should be won on the field and not on social media on a Wednesday afternoon,” he said.
The Blue Hens come into the 55th Battle of the Blue seeking their first winning streak over Villanova since winning three straight from 2003 through 2005.
Even in a season that will not produce a playoff appearance, that’s motivation enough for the Blue Hens. And that’s a reflection of why Rivalry Week is so important to college football.
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