Louisiana's Top College Football Rivalries
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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.”