Print RSS Feeds Insider Magic Texts
Team News Header

Cohen: Essentials of a True Rivalry

By Josh Cohen
October 18, 2011

Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird is one of the most famous rivalries among individual players in sports history.

ORLANDO – Often there is nothing more exciting than a heated rivalry game. These contests tend to be the most anticipated and, if competitive, are inclined to be the most memorable.

There are prerequisites in my opinion, however, for two teams to be considered rivals of one another. Here they are:

Quality: The two teams should be among the elite clubs in their league. Both teams should feature enough star players (generally current, but occasionally past) to catch the eye of the casual fan.

Geography: The two teams should be located within reasonable proximity of one another. When the two clubs are close to each other, fans from both sides have more contact and interaction with supporters of the opposing team. As a result, there is more confrontation, and ultimately, greater bragging rights.

Drama: There should be enough storylines and theater to entertain fans from both sides. It should be somewhat like a soap opera, except instead of fairy-tales about Dylan, the evil thief, marrying his archrival’s sister, Sandra; it should focus on players’ past relationships and controversies.

Personalities: It’s imperative for players and coaches to be somewhat defiant. Rather than deem the rivalry as “just another game and opponent,” the two teams should treat their contest against their alleged rival as “more significant, more meaningful” than any other game. The players, moreover, should be vocal and animated about this confrontation.

Celebration: Following a triumph against their supposed rival, players and fans should rejoice more than normal. The victory should come with a sense of relief and satisfaction and should result in some kind of out-of-the-ordinary commemoration.

Recognition: To be classified rivals, there should be recognition from the outside community. Those not directly involved in the disagreement should be able to distinguish this quarrel as one greater than customary. In effect, the national media should accept the discrepancy between the two teams as noteworthy.

History: There generally should be some kind of remembrance of an event/s that transpired between the two teams. Although occasionally rivalries are born inadvertently, normally these battles are created through past confrontations. Perhaps the teams previously competed in classic games or for a championship.

Josh Cohen
To further emphasize what the prerequisites are to be a true rivalry, I decided to analyze a couple of the more famous rivalries from the college ranks to see if they each embrace my necessary categories.


Quality: The Blue Devils and Tar Heels are generally amongst the best teams in the country and certainly in the ACC. Together, Duke and UNC have captured 47 ACC regular season championships and 36 ACC tournament titles. They have also combined to reach 33 NCAA Finals Fours and have claimed nine NCAA championships.

However, the two schools have never played each other in the NCAA Tournament.

Geography: The campuses of Duke and UNC are about eight miles away from each other. The rivalry is often referred to as The Battle of Tobacco Road.

Drama: There have been several instances throughout the history of Carolina-Duke that helped bolster its dramatic component. For example, on Feb. 5, 1992, UNC’s Eric Montross took a couple of elbows to the face and had blood gushing from his eyebrows, while Duke’s Bobby Hurley broke his foot during the game but continued playing. Years earlier in the 1960’s, Duke’s Art Heyman got into a brawl with UNC’s Larry Brown which resulted in suspensions.

Personalities: There have been many examples throughout the rich history of Duke vs. UNC, but nothing perhaps was more unforgettable than when Duke’s Gene Banks wore a tuxedo onto the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium in 1981 and tossed roses into the crowd. In spite of being profound underdogs in Coach K’s first season as Duke’s Head Coach, Banks’ actions inspired the fans to get behind their team and miraculously the Blue Devils stunned the Tar Heels in overtime.

Celebration: Aside from being the most astonishing single shot in the rivalry’s history, it also created arguably the most euphoric reaction college basketball has ever seen. On Feb. 2 1995, Duke’s Jeff Capel connected on a running, 37-foot heave at the buzzer to send the game into OT. The merriment at Cameron Indoor Stadium was mind-blowing, and to this day, it may be the loudest a college arena has ever been.

Similarly, in what some suggest was the most remarkable game between the two schools, on Feb. 28, 1998, after Duke secured a two-point victory, the always-emotional Steve Wojciechowski ran over to Coach K and hugged him to commemorate his 500th career win.

Recognition: Every Duke-UNC matchup is aired on national television and fans generally analyze the two regular season contests between the two schools months in advance.

History: Duke and UNC have played each other 232 times (UNC leads series 131-101). As a result, there is so much tradition and folklore through the years.


Quality: Michigan and Ohio State have combined to win 76 conference titles and 18 national championships. The victor in their annual regular season matchup has often determined the Big Ten champ and, in effect, an invitation to the Rose Bowl.

Geography: While it’s about a three-hour drive from Ann Arbor to Columbus (or vice versa), the Big Ten is generally spread out throughout the Midwest. Aside from Michigan-Michigan State, Indiana-Purdue and Illinois-Northwestern, all of the schools in the conference are in different states.

Drama: There have been countless dramatic moments through the years between the Buckeyes and Wolverines, but perhaps nothing can compare to the showdown between the two schools in 2006. Both undefeated (11-0) heading into the contest and each ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, the winner would earn the right to play in the national championship game.

The day before the epic clash, legendary Michigan head coach and former Ohio State assistant coach Bo Schembechler died. The largest television audience for a regular season college football game viewed the game, won narrowly by Ohio State, since 1993.

Personalities: It’s very obvious when you watch a Michigan vs. Ohio State game that players involved want to win that game more than the others. And most recently, it seems very true of the coaches as well.

In 2001 after he replaced John Cooper as Buckeyes Head Coach, Jim Tressel stressed the importance of winning the rivalry game. During his introductory speech at halftime of a January college basketball game, Tressel said, “I can assure you that you will be proud of our young people, in the classroom, in the community and most especially in 310 days in Ann Arbor, Michigan on the football field."

Celebration: They say sometimes that we take more pleasure in our rivals losing than our own team winning. This may have been especially true in 2007 when Ohio State’s fans celebrated Appalachian State’s stunning upset of Michigan in the first week of the season. WATCH VIDEO

Recognition: No matter where you live, what college you attend or who you generally choose to root for, if you are a college football fan, you don’t miss the annual Michigan vs. Ohio State game. All across the country, people host watch parties to observe the greatest rivalry in college football.

History: The two schools have met 107 times since 1897. While Ohio State has won six straight against Michigan (the win in 2010 was vacated because of violations), the Wolverines do hold the better all-time series record, 57-44-6.
Which of the two do you think is an all-time better rivalry?
Which of the two do you think is an all-time better rivalry?
Latest Opinions