Bragging Rights

Louisiana's Top College Football Rivalries

In 1932, the football teams of two Louisiana HBCUs (historically black colleges/universities) came together in Monroe, one from Baton Rouge, the other from Grambling. It wasn’t exactly the era of political correctness – the squad from the state capital, Southern University, was nicknamed the Bushmen, and their opponents’ school was formally titled the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute.

Little did anyone know what that first contest would become.

 Now, 80 years later, the Grambling Tigers and the Southern Jaguars clash annually in he Bayou Classic, the biggest game on the HBCU schedule each fall. Instead of Monroe’s former Casino Park, the contest is now played in New Orleans’ Superdome and broadcast nationally every year, making it the only NCAA Football Championship Subdivision game so displayed.

Grambling-Southern might be the most famous in-state rivalry in Louisiana, at least in 2012 anyway. Decades ago, of course, Louisiana State and Tulane battled every year for Bayou State bragging rights, but the Green Wave has since de-emphasized athletics, and the rivalry has gone kaput with LSU clobbering the Greenies pretty much every time they do play.

But for many Louisianians, the demise of the LSU-Tulane rivalry is just fine with them. That’s because several other in-state college football enmities exist, not the least of which is the Bayou Classic.

There’s the University Louisiana at Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns taking on the UL-Monroe Warhawks in the heated Battle on the Bayou, a fierce Football Bowl Subdivision clash between Sun Belt Conference foes. Then you have the McNeese State Cowboys colliding with the Northwestern State Demons every year, alternating between the ’Pokes home in Lake Charles and NLU’s stomping grounds in Natchitoches in an in-state and in-league (both are in the FCS Southland Conference) feud.

And don’t forget the often-epic battles for the River Bell between the Southeastern Louisiana Lions from Hammond and the Thibodaux-based Nicholls State Colonels, a contest which, like McNeese-NSU, pits two Southland conference foes.

In addition, while several of Louisiana’s institutions of higher learning no longer really have in-state rivals, they do hold grudges against antagonists from other states. Even small, NCAA Division III schools like Pineville’s Louisiana College and Shreveport-located Centenary College have pigskin feuds that burn in players from both schools.

In a different twist, Tulane and Louisiana Tech share a rival, Southern Mississippi. The Bulldogs battle the Golden Eagles in the Rivalry in Dixie, while the Green Wave faces off against USM in the Battle for the Bell.

And LSU, the hegemonic, high-profile Tigers hailing from Baton Rouge? They’ve had rivals come and go, depending on the year and the quality of the teams. Currently, it appears that LSU’s most intense enmity is with the university of Alabama. The two squads played each other twice last year, the second game for the Bowl Championship Series national championship, an honor claimed by the Crimson Tide in a 21-0 victory over the offensively-challenged Tigers.

 

THE BIG GAMES

So where do you start when discussing the Bayou State’s football feuds?

Let’s begin on the day after Saturday after Thanksgiving in the Superdome – excuse me, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome – the annual, anointed day and place for the Grambling-Southern game. The Bayou Classic – excuse me again, the State Farm Bayou Classic – was first played under that moniker in 1974, when it moved to the Big Easy. Since then, the Tigers hold a 20-18 advantage after a 36-12 victory in 2011.

But the rivalry goes back decades earlier, and in the beginning, Southern completely dominated Grambling, which didn’t post a win in the series until 1947.

Since then, though, with legendary coach Eddie Robinson – and his successor, former NFL star and Tiger alum Doug Williams – Grambling has caught up with the Jags, including a current four-game win streak, despite losing to Southern eight times in a row from 1993-2000. The all-time series stands at 32-30, with the Jags holding the edge.

The Bayou Classic is so monumental, in fact, that it’s now not just about football. The two school’s famous marching bands compete in the two-part Battle of the Bands, and other Classic activities include a Greek show, a Thanksgiving Day parade, a golf tournament, a beauty pageant and a job fair.

That’s not to mention the financial bottom line – last year, the two schools split more than $1.3 million in weekend proceeds that went to their athletic programs and scholarship funds.

But perhaps what makes the Southern-Grambling rivalry so special is that instead of so-called hatred, the two universities have a mutual respect and kinship born from their shared histories as two of the finest and oldest HBCUs in the country.

“The enmity is intense, in its way, but I wouldn’t really call it enmity,” says author Tom Aiello, who penned a history of the game. “Unlike some rivalries, there is no outright hatred.” Aiello quotes the late Coach Robinson, who coached his final Bayou Classic in 1997: “To appreciate the rivalry, you have to realize Grambling and Southern fans are close friends, as well as relatives.”

So where to now? How about Lafayette and Monroe, where two University of Louisiana squads – the Ragin’ Cajuns and the Warhawks, respectively – come together, alternating annually between locations in the Battle on the Bayou? It’s a fierce rivalry, and it’s practically an even one – after a nail-biting, 36-35 Cajun triumph in 2011, ULL leads the all-time series by a sliver, 24-23.

The intensity of the Warhawk-Ragin’ Cajun enmity sprouts from many sources, including the fact that many of the players on the two squads are Louisiana natives who played each other in high school and who grew up savoring the rivalry from the beginning, says ULL senior quarterback Blaine Gautier. He adds that for those players who come from outside the state, the intensity of the Battle on the Bayou is instilled as soon as they set foot on campus.

“It’s one of the first stories we’re told,” Gautier says. “It’s the battle for bragging rights. It’s always a good game, won by a field goal or a last-minute comeback.”

Up in Monroe, the Warhawks carry an especially weighty chip on their collective shoulders, says ULM head coach Todd Berry, thanks to the powers-that-be in Louisiana. Berry asserts that because state politicians originally denoted Lafayette as the “main campus” of the University of Louisiana system, Monroe has always felt overlooked and disrespected, fanning the flames of Warhawk hatred.

“There’s more to it (than just football),” Berry says of the annual clash. “It’s been something stirred up by the State Legislature. It didn’t sit well with a lot of people (in Monroe). That’s central to our frustrations, and it gives the rivalry a little more animosity.”

Now let’s head into the Football Championship Subdivision for some cross-state pigskin pugilists. The Northwestern State-McNeese series was launched in 1951, when McNeese upgraded from the junior-college level, and the enemies have met every year since then – 61 seasons in a row, not counting this fall’s coming clash.

However, unlike the Bayou Classic and the Battle on the Bayou, the all-time record between the Demons and Cowboys hasn’t been that close – McNeese leads 40-20-1, including victories in 16 of the last 19 contests and the last seven in a row, most recently a 20-18 W in 2011.

But that doesn’t mean the games themselves have been boring blowouts. Ten of the last 14 clashes between the two schools have been decided by a touchdown or less, including five of the last seven. All in all, the Cowboy-Demon rivalry amounts to high drama for the folks in Lake Charles and Natchitoches.

“We’re just two hours away,” says NSU Sports Information Director Doug Ireland. “We’re state rivals. That’s what makes in a rivalry for many people.”

Plus, he adds, “we’ve had a stretch the last 14 years of “a ton of remarkable games. The fact that we lost just 20-18 last year only adds to (the enmity).”

McNeese SID Matthew Bonnette agrees.

“We’ve won the last seven meetings, but it’s still a good rivalry,” he says. “Our games have almost always been tight games.”

Games, mind you, that have attracted throngs every year.

“Our fans travel well, and that trip (to Natchitoches) is only two hours, so they bring crowds here,” Bonnette says.

Throughout the decades, one game that stands out to Bonnette is the one in 1971, when McNeese was unbeaten and ranked second nationally in what was then NCAA Division I-AA behind Delaware State. When Delaware lost a game, the Cowboys leapfrogged to No. 1 in the standings. However, just a week later, NSU tagged a 3-3 tie on McNeese, and Delaware returned to No. 1, where it would stay for the rest of the season.
But the link between the McNeese and NSU football programs runs even deeper though, because the two squads have traded coaching staff members several times over the last several years.

Staying in the state and in the FCS’ Southland Conference, over the last few decades a rivalry has burgeoned between Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond and Nicholls State in Thibodaux – two institutions separated by just 94 miles – over the River Bell trophy. The annual fracas began in 1972, when, according to the SLU football media guide, an alumni chapter of SLU’s Sigma Tau Gamma fraternity initiated the idea.

However, the series took a two-decade hiatus after SLU dropped football after the 1985 campaign. At that time, the all-time series was even at seven wins apiece.

The Lions revived their pigskin efforts in 2003, and the River Bell rivalry resumed two years later. The Colonels won the two ensuing conflagrations, but SLU captured its first victory in the series in 2007, and it also claimed the trophy last year, bringing the series to 12-9 all-time, with Nicholls holding the edge.

Don’t make the mistake of underestimating the importance of the River Bell rivalry just because it’s not broadcast on national TV every year. For those involved in the feud, as well as a growing number of outside observers, the series represents the best of college football.

Wrote Louisiana Football Magazine’s Mike Miller a few years ago: “This is what college football is all about! A heated rivalry for local bragging rights, and a trophy to display to the alumni and potential recruits.” And this past May, blogger Dave Gladow called the rivalry “today’s reason college football is good.”

“One of the very best things about college football is all the obscure trophies teams win for topping their rivals,” Gladow wrote. “The trophy handed out to the winner of the Southeastern Louisiana-Nicholls State game isn’t especially special in its own right (it’s a bell strapped to a plank of wood), but its significance for these two schools cannot be understated.”

 

TEN POINTS OR LESS

Now that we’ve mined the Louisiana football rivalries that exist in the top tiers of college pigskin, let’s delve a little further and take a look at a Division III school, Louisiana College, a religious-based school with a long football tradition.

Although LC really has no in-state rival, the institution does hold interstate grudges against members of its conference. Louisiana College, a Pineville-based Baptist school founded in 1906 and currently boasting an enrollment of just about 1,000 students, sits as a member of the American Southwest Conference, in which it annually battles one of its fiercest rivals, East Texas Baptist University, for the Border Claw trophy.

Much like the Nicholls-SLU series, the Louisiana College and East Texas Baptist University enmity was put on hold for 31 years when Louisiana dropped football in 1968. But the program returned in 2000, and since then the Wildcats have played East Texas Baptist 12 times, with the series standing at 6-6 after LC’s come-from-behind victory in 2011.

Louisiana College Sports Information Director Will Tubbs acknowledges that the national media spotlight rarely shines on his school’s football program – “We’re the smallest of the small,” he says – but LC still takes its football very seriously, especially when it comes to the Border Claw.
“I don’t think we have any earthquake game like LSU-Alabama or LSU-Auburn,” he says, “but every year, with very few exceptions, the game is decided by 10 points or less. It’s just a hard-fought, close game.”

However, LC and ETBU are similar to Grambling-Southern because, like the state’s HCBUs, they share common roots – both were founded by Baptist groups. “It’s a rivalry, but a friendly rivalry,” Tubbs says. “There’s no ill will, because we have a brotherhood.”

So what about the state’s two large-school-level teams that have no in-state antagonists anymore, Tulane and Louisiana Tech? Although the two Bayou State universities are in different FBS conferences – the Green Wave is in Conference USA, LTU in the Western Athletic Conference – they do share a common enemy: the University of Southern Mississippi.

Tech confronts Southern Miss in the Rivalry in Dixie, in which the Golden Eagles hold a 31-13 edge, while USM also dominates the Battle for the Bell with the Greenies, 23-7. In that way, the Bulldogs and Green Wave are linked, if not actually pitted against each other.

That’s a rundown of some current Louisiana college football rivalries, but, of course, there are many others that have come and gone throughout history. That list begins with the long-ago enmity between Tulane and LSU, but it also includes a handful that ended when one part of each respective rivalry decided to change its level of play or to shift conferences.

Northwestern State and Louisiana Tech, for example, nurtured a fierce feud for many years before the Bulldogs decided to move up to NCAA Division I-A (now the Football Bowl Subdivision). The same goes for NSU and the University of Louisiana at Monroe.

But there’s one more Louisiana football rivalry that must be mentioned. Of course, it’s a fictional one, but in the Adam Sandler movie, The Waterboy, the University of Louisiana Cougars annually stomp on South Central Louisiana State University until former UL waterboy Bobby Boucher becomes an SCLSU linebacker and guides the squad to a huge upset win in the Bourbon Bowl.

OK, granted, the Bourbon Bowl is make-believe. But the intense enmity between the fictional colleges does symbolize several of the real-life, in-state pigskin antagonisms.

Louisianians don’t mess around when it comes to college football, no matter what the level of play. And certainly when it comes to rivalry games, where the players leave everything on the field, and the fans go bonkers in the stands. Whether the game is in Monroe or Natchitoches or Lake Charles or Thibodaux or Pineville or New Orleans, the intensity is as real as it gets.
 

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