Anchorage-Fairbanks rivalry heats up Alaska's frozen tundra

Having spent most of his life in Alabama, Steve Cobb knows a great sports rivalry when he sees one. Like every young man raised in the Yellowhammer State, Cobb grew up in the sweltering inferno of the Auburn-Alabama rivalry -- universally hailed as one of the most bitter in-state feuds in the country. So as he puts it, "It takes a pretty good [rivalry] to get my attention."

He had to go almost to the Arctic Circle, but Cobb has found a rivalry that matches the intensity of Auburn-Alabama: the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves versus the University of Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks. By far the two largest four-year institutions of higher learning in Alaska, the two schools capture the imagination of the entire state when they meet, the same way Auburn and Alabama do. As the Anchorage athletic director for the past eight years, Cobb bears witness to a grudge match that equals the rivalry of his childhood.

"It's similar because here, Fairbanks and UAA fans will sometimes ride home with each other after games," says Cobb, his thick Alabama drawl automatically lending credibility to his expertise on a good sports tussle. "After Ohio State and Michigan play, their fans go back to their separate states. Here, you have to live and work with [fans of the opposing school] every day."

The schools are 358 miles apart, which, by Alaskan standards, is the equivalent of being next-door neighbors. UAA and UAF teams typically travel 2,000-plus miles for road trips against schools from the Lower 48. In fact, the two schools work closely together on scheduling to control costs. "The most important thing to understand is that off the court, field or rink, the two schools need each other to survive," Fairbanks athletic director Forrest Karr says.

What spices up the Anchorage-Fairbanks rivalry are the major differences between the two schools and the two towns. UAA is not only the biggest school in the state with an enrollment hovering around 17,000, but Anchorage is by far the largest city in the state with just less than 300,000 citizens. UAF and Fairbanks rank second in Alaska in those categories: The university boasts an enrollment of about 10,000 students, and Fairbanks carries a far more modest population of about 35,000.

The size disparity is a source of contention not only between the schools, but also between the inhabitants of each town. "If you live in Anchorage, a lot of people refer to Fairbanks as 'Squarebanks,'" Cobb says. "If you live in Fairbanks, you refer to Anchorage as 'Los Anchorage,'" a negative connotation comparing the city to Los Angeles.

But despite its smaller enrollment and comparatively small-town surroundings, Alaska Fairbanks is the much older of the two schools, established in 1917 as the flagship campus of the University of Alaska system. UAA didn't exist until 1976, although technically, it was an extension of the Anchorage Community College, established in 1954.

In other words, the fundamental argument between the two schools centers on size versus history. "We think we are the flagship because we opened doors as a four-year institution in 1922 and Anchorage did in '76," Karr says. "They think they are the flagship because they have over 17,000 students."

Because it outdates UAA by more than half a century, Alaska Fairbanks has the larger statewide alumni base. But with a 7,000-student edge annually, the Alaska Anchorage alumni and fan base are gaining on the rival to the north.

Anytime these two schools get together, the volume gets turned way up all across the Last Frontier State. The Seawolves (a nickname Fairbanks fans mock relentlessly, chanting, "What's a Seawolf?" when Anchorage comes to town) and the Nanooks (derived from the Eskimo word for polar bears, "nanuq") play each other in eight varsity men's and women's sports, including Nordic skiing, cross-country and women's volleyball. But like football in the Auburn-Alabama power struggle, ice hockey and basketball take center stage in the Anchorage-Fairbanks rivalry. Men's hockey is the only sport in which both schools have Division I programs, and the attention the annual Seawolves-Nanooks ice clashes receive around Alaska is ratcheted up accordingly. What makes things even more interesting is that the winner of these hockey battles takes home the coveted Governor's Cup trophy.

"You're playing for a cup, and you're playing for bragging rights," UAA hockey coach Dave Shyiak says. "We receive a tremendous amount of attention. Alaska is very much a hockey-oriented state. There was a lot of talk when I was first hired [three years ago] that we had lost to Fairbanks four years in a row. Now, we've won it two years in a row."

"It's always a playoff atmosphere," Cobb says of the Governor's Cup game. "[Fairbanks] once scored three goals in the last 25 seconds to steal one from us. It's a pretty painful memory."

While the Anchorage-Fairbanks hockey series is a rivalry in every sense of the word -- the Nanooks hold a slim 8-7 lead in the 15 years since the Governor's Cup began -- UAA has dominated UAF in both men's and women's basketball. The Seawolves boast an impressive 62-21 advantage over Fairbanks in men's basketball, while Anchorage's women hold a 48-30 edge against UAF. The UAA men's team has been especially dominant of late, winning the past five meetings with Fairbanks and advancing to three straight Division II NCAA tournaments. Both Anchorage's men's and women's teams marched all the way to the Final Four this past season.

But the sometimes-lopsided nature of the hoops rivalry in no way diminishes the hype leading up to the biannual showdowns. "I think the basketball competition draws more attention statewide than the hockey," UAA men's basketball coach Rusty Osborne says. "I say this because Alaska really is a basketball state. Hockey is not played in the rural or 'bush' communities, as we call them. Although hockey is very popular in Anchorage and Fairbanks, statewide, people are more interested in the basketball stories."

Regardless of which sport is more popular, all of Alaska pays attention when the Seawolves and the Nanooks get together. "It's truly statewide -- there's nobody in the state not interested when we're playing each other," Cobb says. "Other than Auburn-Alabama, I haven't been around a rivalry that generates as much chatter. It's such a delight."

Chris Preston is a staff writer for the Shelburne News and a frequent contributor to Varsity Magazine. He can be reached at ChrisPreston@shelburnenews.com.