Commentary

Sun Devils' run adds spice to rivalry with Wildcats

Updated: April 15, 2008, 4:59 PM ET
By Ted Miller | ESPN.com

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- The grins extend ear-to-ear in the Valley of the Sun when the subject is Arizona State sports. How about that football team, which won 10 games in Dennis Erickson's first season? Or the transformation of a perennially woebegone basketball program? Oh, don't forget record-breaking fundraising and facility upgrades. Or ranking eighth in the U.S. Sports Academy Director's Cup athletic department standings.

And if you want to talk about how much of this success comes at the expense of struggling archrival Arizona, those grins stretch even wider across suntanned faces.

[+] EnlargeRudy Caprenter
Kevin Terrell/Getty ImagesRudy Carpenter thinks ASU is No. 1 in Arizona.

"When we're No. 1 in everything," Sun Devils quarterback Rudy Carpenter says through a sly smile, "I'd think it must feel better than being No. 2."

The divergent performances are big news in both towns.

An April 6 column in the East Valley Tribune that celebrated Arizona State athletic director Lisa Love noted that during the course of an interview she used a series of superlatives to describe Sun Devils sports: "Incredible. Awesome. Marvelous. Exciting."

What was she talking about? A third consecutive win over Arizona in football. Sweeps over Arizona in men's and women's basketball. A No. 1-ranked softball team that on April 9 won 8-1 at Arizona, the defending national champion. A baseball team that's spent much of the season ranked No. 1 (while preseason No. 1 Arizona has lost 10 of 18). A third consecutive women's track national championship.

Conversely, a week later, a Q&A in the Arizona Daily Star with Love's Arizona counterpart, Jim Livengood, began with this question: "Is this the toughest period you've ever faced at Arizona?"

The chronically genial and optimistic Livengood didn't say yes. But he didn't say no either.

It's not easy for an athletic director when the football coach he hired, Mike Stoops, is facing a win-or-else season while the esteemed basketball coach, Lute Olson, has suddenly become a divisive figure.

Of course, nearly every major college rivalry runs in cycles. Arizona will bounce back. But the present and unusual imbalance is turning up the already considerable heat in one of the nation's most underrated rivalries.

While Arizona-Arizona State doesn't receive the national attention of Auburn-Alabama or Ohio State-Michigan, make no mistake: This rivalry is as bitter as they come.

Bitter? The question makes Erickson whistle an amen.

[+] EnlargeDennis Erickson
Mike Moore/Icon SMIDennis Erickson's first season sparked renewed excitement around ASU football.

"Probably the worst I've been around," said a coach who's experienced Miami-Florida State and Oregon-Oregon State, among others.

"It's brutal with the fans. I don't know the background of all of it and I don't read the Internet, but, fanwise, you hear it -- it's a real bitter rivalry."

As for that background, it just so happens that this season will mark the 50th anniversary of the linchpin of that bitterness.

While the schools played their first football game in 1899, from 1885 until 1958 Arizona State played a decided second fiddle to Arizona as an educational institution. And by design. Arizona was the land-grant university; Arizona State was a teacher's college. Arizona liked that arrangement. Arizona State College did not.

When Arizona State started pushing for university status, Arizona and its powerful network of graduates aggressively opposed the effort, even though the Phoenix area was one of the fastest growing regions in the country. Making what today seems like an obvious promotion actually required an unprecedented statewide referendum -- proposition 200 -- which passed on Nov. 4, 1958.

That bitter conflict is still fresh among older fans. And even the younger ones who might not know the background embrace the inherited animosity.

"It's bigger than the schools," said ASU linebacker Mike Nixon, a Phoenix native who grew up a big Sun Devils fan. "It's the cities. People up here look down on Tucson and people down there don't like what Phoenix stands for."

If sports are a front porch of a university, football is the outdoor furniture that makes folks sit and stay awhile. It's obvious that Sun Devils supporters are presently a lot more comfortable sipping their cold drink than Wildcats fans are.

It's nearly impossible to find a Sun Devil who isn't optimistic about the trajectory of the football program under Erickson. The same can't be said of Wildcats boosters' feelings about Stoops -- see the generously estimated 4,000 on hand for the spring game on Saturday compared to approximately 9,500 a year ago.

While Stoops has rebuilt a respectable program after the disastrous tenure of John Mackovic, he hasn't been able to lead the Wildcats to their first bowl game since 1998, and they have been maddeningly inconsistent. They've beaten a top-10 team each of the past three years, but they also are 6-12 in games decided by a touchdown or less.

It's obvious that Arizona State supporters believe Erickson tips the rivalry in their favor.

"You look on the other sideline -- without mentioning any names -- and if your coach is 10 yards out on the field going ballistic, that's going to trickle down to your team," Nixon said.

Nixon -- without mentioning any names -- is obviously tweaking Stoops' sideline volatility. Last year at home against New Mexico, Stoops was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, a critical penalty that led to a touchdown in a 29-27 loss.

[+] EnlargeMike Stoops
Kevin Terrell/Getty ImagesThe Wildcats have gone 1-3 against the Sun Devils since Mike Stoops arrived in Tucson.

Stoops knows he needs to control his emotions. And win. He's not unwilling to be self-critical. He admits his first experience as a head coach after earning accolades as a defensive coordinator at Kansas State and Oklahoma hasn't always gone smoothly.

"I've felt that pain and frustration many times, trying to prove yourself and get somewhere," he said. "That's been the hardest thing for me, because I have won everywhere I've been. Learning how to deal with development and staying with your plan when so many people question you -- you have to be strong in your convictions and what you believe. It's made me a better and stronger person. It needs to make me a better coach."

Stoops didn't do himself any favors on national signing day when he took a poke at Arizona State's admission standards, calling the school a junior college. It sounded like sour grapes because the Sun Devils recruiting class was rated higher than the Wildcats in large part because Erickson dominated in-state recruiting and lured away a couple of elite players who originally committed to Arizona.

Stoops has repeatedly apologized, but the only Sun Devil who seems unperturbed is Erickson.

The irritation, however, doesn't overshadow the general giddiness around Arizona State that is starting to approach cockiness -- which hasn't, by the way, escaped noticed in Tucson.

"I sensed that last year, especially with Carpenter," Wildcats receiver Mike Thomas said. "He's got a little mouth on him. I sense the cockiness. But that's a part of it."

A part that Thomas and Wildcats adherents clearly don't believe is "Incredible. Awesome. Marvelous. Exciting."

Ted Miller is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ted at tedmillerespn@gmail.com.

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