Ah, the revelry of a rivalry
By Brian Murphy
Page 2 columnist

Ah, I love the smell of Rivalry Weekend.

It smells like ... yearning.

Drew Henson and Steve Bellisari
The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry might be the best in college football.
On the short list of things America still does well: Rivalry Weekend.

Amid a nation of loud louts and bad taste, Rivalry Weekend stands tall.

A Saturday in late November, TV filled with images from classic college football clashes, Thanksgiving 'round the corner, neighborhood Mud Bowl games dialed up ... man, it's enough to make a guy yearn for his past.

Let's own up: How phenomenal was college?

I'm 36 now, and not a day of paying bills or being hassled by The Man goes by that I don't think: Geez, how good does my Italian literature class from senior year look right now?

The scouting report:

College: Tuition, room and board paid by parents. Intellectual pursuit daily. Surrounded by babes. Fast food -- not only readily available, but eaten with abandon, unencumbered by the shame of thirtysomething portliness.

Woody Hayes
Wouldn't you have loved to see Woody Hayes take on Bo Schembechler in a cage match?
Real Life, age 36: Rent/mortgage, bills not paid by parents. "The Art of Getting-By" pursued daily. Surrounded by creditors. Fast food discouraged, as wife gives you shameful head-shake when she sees you shirtless.

This is why this weekend -- Rivalry Weekend -- is so alluring.

As a kid on the West Coast, it was the stuff of mythology. It started at 9:30 a.m., with Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler patrolling the sidelines on ABC. It would be cold in the Midwest, sometimes snowy, and Ohio State and Michigan -- names like Griffin, Leach, Schlichter and Carter -- played the game to decide the Big Ten's Rose Bowl participant. The Wolverines and Buckeyes, poetic images from the rough-and-tumble Midwest ... it was almost enough to make one overlook the fact that the average offensive play in an OSU-Michigan clash went for 2.3 yards.

The day only got better at around 12:30 p.m., when USC and UCLA battled in the L.A. Coliseum to decide the Pac-10's Rose Bowl entry. This was before the Bruins moved to the Rose Bowl, and before the NCAA, Taliban-like, decreed that one team must wear road white jerseys. Before that edict? 'SC and UCLA in cardinal and baby blue in the low autumn sunlight of L.A. ... I defy Van Gogh to paint more vibrant colors.

(Of course, Van Gogh is dead; and if he were alive, he'd likely have trouble hearing my mandate, what with that one ear gone and all.)

Anyway, Rivalry Weekend rules.

Joe Paterno
For all their tradition, Joe Paterno and Penn State don't have a good rival.
I feel sorry for those schools who don't have a natural rival for late November. They're like the kids at the eighth-grade graduation party who don't have anyone to dance with when Peaches and Herb's "Reunited" comes on the D.J.'s stereo system.

Look at the esteemed universities that have to take a powder during Rivalry Weekend:

Penn State? JoePa's boys should slate Pitt for the third or fourth Saturday in November, every year. I guarantee I'd watch. Instead? They've got Michigan State, which screams mid-October. Bummer.

Wisconsin? Surely, one of America's greatest good-time schools should have a rivalry to rivet us. Instead, they play Iowa, probably for one of those bogus Big Ten "rivalry" trophies, like The Old Sweaty Sock.

Tennessee? The Vols host Vanderbilt, which isn't so much a Rivalry Weekend game as it is a spring football exhibition.

Now, now, now. I'm not counting epic rivalries like Army-Navy and Texas-Oklahoma, simply because I'm talking only about Rivalry Saturday in November. And I'm sure there are plenty of local rivalries that fire up the natives, like UMass-Rhode Island (winner gets to hang Grady Little in effigy from the school clock tower) and Miami (Ohio)-Ohio -- where, if Ohio wins, they force Miami (Ohio), to drop (Ohio) from its letterhead for a year.

It's just that only a few games capture us nationwide.

Forthwith, then, a thumbnail sketch of what you need to know this Rivalry Weekend:

George W Bush
The Commander in Chief has a big rooting interest in The Game.
1. Harvard-Yale
Overview: Two of America's oldest universities tussle on the gridiron, the very names of their alums conjuring up memories of luminaries from our nation's past: Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Jennifer Beals.

What's at Stake: If Yale wins, Eli G.W. Bush gets to write Crimson Conan O'Brien's monologue for a day, rife with awkward jokes like, "Q: How many Iraqi Republican Guards does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A: I don't know. Karl Rove hasn't told me the punchline yet." If Harvard wins, the Crimson get to remind Yalies, every day, that G.W. Bush graduated from New Haven.

2. Alabama-Auburn
Overview: Anybody associated with the Iron Bowl claims it puts all other rivalries to shame; and in searching the Web for trivia on the 'Bama-Auburn clash, I found this entry from a fan defending the rivalry as the best in America. Wrote this enlightened lad of the two schools: "They hate each other with every fiber of their soul, and they always will until the end of time." I think we need to put Burt Bacharach in the Iron Bowl halftime show, to play on a riser piano, slowly and gently, What the world ... needs now ... is love ... sweet love ... it's the only thing ... that there's just ... too little of ...

Then watch 'Double B' get pelted with empty Southern Comfort bottles.

What's at Stake: Apparently, every fiber of every soul associated with Alabama or Auburn. Tough to argue there.

Craig Krenzel
Craig Krenzel's Buckeyes have beaten the Wolverines two years in a row.
3. Michigan-Ohio State
Overview: One of our nation's great, classic rivalries, with both teams combining for a million Big Ten titles. Alums from both schools beam with pride. And if Ohio State's Art Schlichter ever met Michigan hoopster Chris Webber, he might say: "Man, if I had the college payday you had, I could have made a killing with my bookie."

What's at Stake: In the Midwest, everything. Winner, at least back then, went to sunny California. Loser sat in snowbound misery, eating White Castle burgers and increasing the Midwest's obesity demographic.

Overview: The only time the blasé city of L.A. gets fired up for a sports event not attended by Dyan Cannon or Jack Nicholson. If the game is played at the Rose Bowl, wealthy Pasadena residents block off their streets and simmer over the intrusion of cars. If the game is played at the Coliseum, hard-core downtown residents let fans park on their lawns for 30 bucks, with the words "Park at Your Own Risk" conveniently nowhere to be found on the cardboard sign advertising the space.

What's at Stake: For 'SC fans, a win is a chance to strut, while ignoring past ills such as former Heisman winner Charles White using a garbage can lid as a shield in a drug-addled haze, or O.J. Simpson's status as a Trojan. For UCLA fans, a loss is a chance to chirp, "Basketball season is a week away!"

5. Utah-BYU
Overview: A religious war between the pious Cougars and the devil-may-care Utes.

What's at Stake: If BYU wins, Utah's near-beer is confiscated and replaced with apple juice. If Utah wins, a movement is set afoot to install ex-BYU QB Jim McMahon as chancellor of his alma mater, and he is given carte blanche to rewrite the code of conduct.

All that said, remember to enjoy Rivalry Weekend, whether you're in Lehigh (hating Lafayette), or Oregon (hating Oregon State), or Washington State (hating Washington).

Remember: What the world needs now, are rivalries, sweet rivalries.

Brian Murphy of the San Francisco Chronicle writes every Monday for Page 2. He can be reached at bmurphy@sfchronicle.com.



Brian Murphy Archive

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Murphy: Turn back the clock

Murphy: Why you should watch

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Murphy: Cub-conscious

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