Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Ivy League's Greatest Rivalry

TigerBlog used to cover Rutgers football every now and then, back before Rutgers Stadium was built up to what it is now. The games then used to draw probably right around 20,000 fans either way, and that's about as close as TB has come to being at really big-time college football.

He's never seen a Big 10 game or an SEC game or anything like that. He's been to a bunch of BCS campuses and seen their football stadiums and wondered what it must be like on a game day.

TB has been to a ton of Ivy League football games, all of which have involved Princeton, Penn or both. He's never been to an Ivy game that didn't involve one of those two teams, which means he's never been to a Harvard-Yale game.

Given the choice between an average BCS game - say, Michigan State at Wisconsin or Oklahoma State at Nebraska - or a Harvard-Yale game, TB would take the BCS game, just for the experience.

At the same time, that's not a knock on Harvard-Yale. TB wouldn't mind going to one of the Harvard-Yale games once just to see what it's like and get a better feel for one of the only two rivalries across all sports that can make the claim of being the greatest in the history of Ivy League sports.

It's either Harvard-Yale football or Princeton-Penn men's basketball (which, by the way, will be played for the 223rd time this evening at 7 at Jadwin Gym). There is no possible way to debate this.

TigerBlog is not talking about 2011, by the way. He's talking about all-time, back to Day 1 of Ivy sports.

So yes, there are other rivalries now that in the last few years have been more significant than those two. If you had to ask TigerBlog about the last two or three years only, he'd say Princeton-Cornell men's lacrosse in a heartbeat.

But historically, it's not even close. The third-place rivalry, whatever it is, is far in the rear-view mirror that it would take decades of unforeseen circumstances to catch up.

When TigerBlog thinks of Harvard-Yale football, he thinks of large crowds of alums who are there for the tradition as much as the game. He imagines that it's as much a party as it is an athletic event.

Again, as he has never been to one, TB could certainly be wrong about this.

When TigerBlog thinks of Princeton-Penn men's basketball, the first word that comes to mind is "intensity." There is just a different feel in the building when it's Princeton-Penn.

Through the years, the teams have played epic games - and blowouts - in front of rabid crowds that have hurled some downright cruel insults back and forth at each other and the players.

The last three Ivy League men's basketball titles belonged to Cornell; of the 37 before that, 34 belonged to Princeton or Penn.

One thing that does push Princeton-Penn men's basketball, in TB's opinion, beyond Harvard-Yale is that the teams were often playing for an NCAA tournament berth, as well as as the Ivy League title. In fact, Princeton and Penn have met three times in playoff games solely to determine the NCAA tournament bid, after they had shared the league title.

Back when current Tiger head coach Sydney Johnson was a player, he played a huge role in Princeton's win over Penn in the 1996 Ivy playoff game and then in Princeton's 43-41 win over UCLA in the NCAA tournament. TB has heard Johnson and several of the other players on that team say many times that the playoff game meant as much or more to them than the NCAA win.

Princeton and Penn have played at least twice a year every year since they first met on Valentines' Day 1903.

The single greatest sporting event TB has ever seen was a Princeton-Penn men's basketball game, the one at the Palestra in 1999 when the Tigers fell behind 29-3, 33-9 at the half and then 40-13 at the first media timeout of the second half before coming back to win 50-49.

Tonight's game is big on a number of levels.

First, there is a side note, where Douglas Davis needs six points to reach 1,000 for his career. Should he do so, he'd be the first Princeton junior to get to 1,000 since Kit Mueller did so in 1990.

Then there's the real significance, the impact on the 2011 league race. Princeton is 4-0 in the league, while Penn is 3-1. Harvard is 5-1 after losing at Princeton Friday and beating Penn by one in double overtime Saturday.

Should Penn win tonight, then there'd be three teams with one loss each. Should Penn lose, then the Quakers would have two losses and would have an arduous task looking up at Princeton and Harvard. The Crimson, even with the loss, know that they host Princeton and Penn to end the regular season, so as long as they can stay within one (or get even), then they have to feel good about their chances.

As for Princeton, the Tigers had the weird position of playing their first five league games at home and then seven of the final nine on the road. The season ends with games at Harvard on a Saturday and Penn on a Tuesday.

But for TB, the big-picture meaning of tonight's game is that for the first time since 2004, Princeton and Penn are back playing a game when both have a reasonable, realistic chance to win the Ivy League championship.

Both teams fell on hard times and then turned to young coaches from their great teams of the 1990s, Johnson at Princeton and Jerome Allen at Penn.

Neither team is all the way back, and they won't be until they get back to the NCAA tournament.

Still, given where they were a few years ago, it's great to see them playing a game like so many other games from so many decades, games with league championship implications, games with intensity, games that have made this the Ivy League's greatest rivalry.

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