Commentary

Oldest small-school football rivalry in the south now 'goes across all sports'

Originally Published: July 8, 2008
By Chris Preston | Special to ESPN.com

In the raucous aftermath of the 100th game played in the oldest small-college football rivalry in the South, Hampden-Sydney College students honored the age-old tradition of tearing down their own goalposts, in this case celebrating a 24-10 victory over the hated Yellow Jackets from nearby Randolph-Macon College. Creatively, the HSC students sawed off a piece of one goalpost for the team to keep and after parading what remained of the aluminum structures along the hill surrounding Hundley Stadium, dumped it into Chalgrove Lake. The school erected a plaque at the foot of the lake to commemorate the Tigers' gridiron triumph on that 1994 fall day, and it was tradition for Hampden-Sydney players to touch the sawed-off piece of goalpost gifted to them by the students before every home game up through 2000, when it mysteriously disappeared.

[+] EnlargeRandolph-Macon Football
Skip Rowland Photography A rivalry that started on the gridiron more than a century ago has spread to other sports.

In other words, beating Randolph-Macon in that 100th game meant a lot to Hampden-Sydney. Likewise, RMC alums and administrators take great pride in 1993's victory, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first football game played between the two Virginia schools back in 1893 (though it was technically only the 99th game). In 1983 then-RMC president Ladell Payne declared the seven days leading up to the HSC football game "Beat Hampden-Sydney Week." With the 114th meeting between these two Division III schools coming in November, it's easy to see why the storied Hampden-Sydney-Randolph-Macon football rivalry is known simply as "The Game." But the animosity between the two schools, separated by just 78 miles, goes deeper than football.

"It goes across all sports," said HSC athletic director Joe Bush, who coached the football team to victory in that famous 100th game and has served as the school's AD since 1992. "It goes back to the fact that both schools are very similar to each other. We used to both be all-male [Hampden-Sydney still is; Randolph-Macon went co-ed in 1972]; academically we're similar [both are liberal arts schools with enrollments of just over 1,100 students]; and both are [close to] Richmond."

Within an hour's drive of both the Hampden-Sydney (located in Farmville, Va.) and Randolph-Macon (Ashland, Va.) campuses, the former Confederate capital is not only the epicenter of fierce recruiting battles between the two schools, but it is home to thousands of alums from both schools. Trash-talking among co-workers from each school is commonplace in Richmond's many business offices.

"Usually it's the Macon guy working for our guy," quipped HSC's ninth-year football coach Marty Favret, offering a prime example of the good-natured ribbing that goes on between the two schools. "[The rivalry is] 365 days a year because we recruit against them. Going 1-9 is a good year if we beat Macon. It's kind of our Army-Navy."

While the football portion of the rivalry features the most history, it is basketball in which the Hampden-Sydney and Randolph-Macon feud has garnered the most national attention over the past decade. Both were top-10 Division III programs as recently as 2004, the year when eighth-ranked Randolph-Macon famously knocked off a top-ranked and previously unbeaten Hampden-Sydney squad. Five years earlier, in 1999, the Tigers advanced all the way to the national title game, and returned to the Final Four in 2003.

[+] EnlargeRandolph-Macon
Skip Rowland Photography The rivalry between Randolph-Macon and Hampden-Sydney has received national attention because of the schools' success on the court.

"In basketball, both of us have been national players the last 10 to 12 years, both have been in the top 10," said ninth-year Macon head hoops coach Mike Rhoades, who has guided the Yellow Jackets to four NCAA tournaments and boasts a glossy .704 winning percentage since he arrived in Ashland. "In the 2003 game at our place, we were ranked No. 1 and Hampden-Sydney was ranked No. 3. The game was sold out two weeks prior. We had to put in what I call 'Gucci rows' for alums who wanted to sit in the first two rows. We won the game and earned the top seed in the [Old Dominion Athletic Conference] tournament, then beat them in the finals on a tip-in."

Top-10 rankings and NCAA tournament success have gained the Tigers-Yellow Jackets basketball rivalry national fame, but like any good rivalry, the teams' records don't seem to matter when Hampden-Sydney and Randolph-Macon get together. Just last season a 20-5 Randolph-Macon squad swept the two regular season matchups (by a combined 19 points) with an HSC team that finished below .500 in the ODAC, but the Tigers came back to bite the Jackets in the conference quarterfinals and unceremoniously end a promising Macon season.

"I never have to talk it up to my players. Before they even get here they know about the rivalry," Rhoades explains. "It's the type of game where you've got to take your jacket off -- there's always a lot sweat in there."

There is also the occasional fight -- at least when it comes to football. An hour before The Game's kickoff in 2003, the two sides went at it, resulting in a pregame ejection of players on both teams.

"They thought we were jumping on their logo," Favret said. "The refs ejected three players -- two of their starters, and our third-string offensive lineman. We ended up winning and he got the game ball."

While on-field scraps simply add to the rivalry's aura, fights in the stands take away from it. The '98 game featured an offensive shootout that produced the highest combined point total in the long history of the rivalry, with Macon claiming a 45-42 thriller. But what happened after the game tarnished what happened during it. The game ended after dark, and when the visiting RMC students motioned for the HSC goalposts, a large scale brawl broke out between hundreds of students from both sides. Pepper spray-toting police officers were brought in to quell the small riot. Game times have been shifted to the early afternoons, and police are often stationed at the goalposts regardless of where The Game takes place.

[+] EnlargeHampden-Sydney Fans
Hampden-Sydney AthleticsHampden-Sydney fans show their support for their top-10 basketball team.

"There used to be a lot of shenanigans," Bush said. "But the last six, seven years it's been more respectful."

Nowadays Sydney and Macon students engage in more peaceful battles leading up to The Game, competing in wholesome activities such as blood drives and coin drives. Another former game-week tradition was the "Running of the Football", in which the game ball was carried on foot from one campus to the other and handed off like a baton from one student body to the next at the midway point between the two schools. "It's like an olive branch," former Tigers football coach Phil Culicerto once said.

Bad blood still exists between the two schools, but in recent years the Hampden-Sydney-Randolph-Macon rivalry has taken on a more respectful tone.

"It's mostly really classy," said Rhoades. "But when the ball goes up? You talk about going at each other's throats. And it doesn't matter if it's in basketball, football, lacrosse or the debate teams."

"At the end of the day, each school has a significant amount of respect for one another," added former HSC lacrosse All-American Chris Schaaf. "But it is very easy to put that behind us as soon as the whistle blows."

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.