One of the most astonishingly unknown statistics in sports has taken center-stage this week. Did anyone realize that the Packers and the Bears have not played a playoff game since…ONE WEEK AFTER THE ATTACK ON PEARL HARBOR?!? That is absolutely astonishing, especially considering that this is, in my opinion, the greatest single rivalry in the National Football League. So, with this game approaching, I figured it would be a good time to try and order the great rivalries that make sports so incredible. With the snow not allowing me to post this as a “Tuesday’s Top Twelve,” I kept my allegiance to alliteration and made it a “Friday Fourteen” please forgive me and my idiosyncracies.
As always, I want to set some parameters for the evaluation.
What makes a great rivalry? First of all, I think it has to span generations to really be considered one of the best in sports. So, you will not see any rivalries on the list involving the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Washington Nationals. There are some great rivalries going on right now that could become epic and worthy of this list in another ten years, but are not yet. If you talked to your grandfather about the great rivalries of the Steelers-Ravens or Patriots-Colts, he would probably look at you funny. The same holds true for college football with Florida-Florida State. These just have not been great for long enough to make this list. On the flip side, there are some phenomenal rivalries whose most bitter times have past. As great as the Steelers-Raiders rivalry was in the 1970’s, it no longer holds the same cache. The same is true for Sixers-Celtics, Yankees-Royals, or Phillies-Pirates.
The second component to a great rivalry is that it cannot be too one-sided. As great as the big brother-little brother rivalries can be to the fans (especially those of the “big brother”), to be an epic rivalry, one side cannot routinely dominate the other. So, no matter how fierce they may seem, you will not find the college football rivalries of Notre Dame-Navy or USC-UCLA on this list. You will also not find in-state college hoops rivalries like Kansas-Kansas St. or BC-Harvard on the list because the “little brothers” just do not win enough.
Third, a great rivalry cannot be overshadowed by another rivalry by that team. In other words, as great as a rivalry might be, if one (or both) of the teams involved have even bigger rivals elsewhere, then we cannot consider it one of the best. Rivalries that fall into this category, and therefore will not be on this list, include Duke-Maryland and UNC-N.C. State in basketball. Texas-Texas A&M, Penn State-Ohio State, and Tennessee-Florida in football, and the budding (and WAY too new and “novel”) baseball rivalries of Yankees-Mets and Cubs-White Sox.
Further, as much as I believe that rivalries are MADE for the “locals,” I had to draw the line on some of the rivalries that were just too provincial. I think as great as some rivalries may be to their specific areas, there has to be some aspect of national appeal. This is why the “Civil War” in Oregon (Oregon-Oregon State) and the “Egg Bowl” in Mississippi (Mississippi State-Ole Miss) did not make the cut. Also, many people do not realize how phenomenal some of these college hoops rivalries are. Xavier-Cincinnati means everything in that city. Memphis-Tennessee and Louisville-Kentucky are clearly more ferocious than anything you can image in their respective states. And, basketball fans in and around Nashville, Tennessee, will tell you that “The Battle of the Boulevard” between Lipscomb and Belmont may be the best rivalry in all of sports.
Because of the proviciality of evaluating rivalries, I have to recognize my own biases. Growing up in the Philadelphia area, I wanted to put Phillies-Mets on the list, but I had no justification. I also considered adding to the list the longest running high school football rivalry in the nation, Haverford versus Upper Darby, on the list, but other than my fellow Haverford alums, I am guessing that no one else cares all that much.
I am also leaving off “niche sports” and their rivalries, like the Los Angeles Sparks and Houston Comets in the WBNA, the NY/NJ Metrostars and DC United in MLS, and the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL…oops, is that another gratuitous slap at hockey? Sorry, puckheads.
Further, I am not even going to touch the intense emotions involved in sports between nations. In trying to keep this to sports on which I can effectively comment, I will respectfully recuse myself from weighing in on the passions of the great soccer rivalries of Argentina-Brazil, England-Germany, Italy-France, or Spain-Portugal.
(And, to be honest, if we were really establishing the most heated, most passionate rivalries in all of sports, there is one that would stand out above all the rest: Norway versus Sweden in cross-country skiing. But, for the sake of the blog’s credibility, I will leave this one off of the list. Trust me, though, there may be no rivalry on the planet more bitter, more intense, and more competitive than Scandinavian skiing.)
Finally, and this was the hardest decision I had to make, I have decided to leave off individual rivalries. It was easy to rule out individual rivalries in team sports. Chamberlain-Russell, Brady-Manning, and even Willie, Mickey, and The Duke are not on the list. With individual sports, though, it was more difficult. It is hard to even consider the best rivalries in sports without mentioning Federer-Nadal, Palmer-Nicklaus, Evert-Navritalova, or maybe the greatest rivalry we have ever seen in any arena – Ali-Frazier. But, in the end, I thought that individual rivalries are too fleeting. The greatest individual rivalries of all-time, because they involve individuals, are either just beginning or long-gone. As great as Palmer-Nicklaus or Ali-Frazier were, I never partook in the fun. And, as great as Federer-Nadal is now, my kids will never experience it.
Okay, now that we are 1,000 words in, let us get to the actual question here: What are the greatest sports rivalries of all-time?
- Real Madrid – Barcelona. The only reason this is not on the actual list because, well, I don’t really know anything about club soccer. But, if you take away the ethnocentricity of life in the U.S., this rivalry is probably not just on the list, but at the top. Unfortunately, as a red-blooded American, I have been brainwashed to believe that everything happening here has to be better than anything happening anywhere else.
- Pittsburgh – West Virginia. “The Backyard Brawl” is one of the best rivalries in the sport that lives and dies on its rivalries – college football. Unfortunately, this rivalry is just slightly too local to make a Top 12.
- Georgetown – Syracuse. A great rivalry in the Big East that has definitely passed the test of time. It did not quite make the cut of Top 12, but should be mentioned.
- Chiefs – Raiders. The AFC West is a really underrated division, when it comes to NFL rivalries, as you can throw the Denver Broncos in the mix with either of these teams as well. But, the Chiefs-Raiders is the ultimate rivalry in this division and deserves mention on this list.
The Top Fourteen Greatest Sports Rivalries
14). Penn – Princeton. This is a bit of a strange one to open the list with, but let me explain.
The Ivy League may be the longest running athletic association in the world that has not changed its membership from its establishment. These schools are obviously well-known as academic institutions. Not only were seven of the eight schools founded during the Colonial Period (the exception being Cornell, the baby, which was founded in 1865), but all eight are ranked in the Top 15 in the nation for academic excellence – six of the eight are in the Top 10. However, what people may not realize is that while these schools have lagged behind in the “big-money era,” this league was founded, in part, because of the schools’ elite athletic programs (as well as their elite academic programs and, well, elite elitism) and have fiercely competed in a wide range of different sports for the better part of a century now. And, the one sporting rivalry that transcends all the other rivalries that the Ivy League creates (various Presidential races between Harvard and Yale grads, notwithstanding) is the Penn-Princeton rivalry on the basketball court. The two dominant teams in the only conference without a conference tournament meet twice a year, with basically their entire seasons on the line. The Ivy League has crowned 57 champions since its inception in 1954; 49 of those have been either Penn (26) or Princeton (23). It really is “winner-take-all.”
13). Cubs – Cardinals. Once known as the “Route 66 Rivalry,” this is one of the best (and longest-running) rivalries of our national pastime.
It does not get the esteem of some of the other baseball rivalries (namely that one in the Northeast that appears a little later on this list), but if you live in the Midwest, this is the rivalry and has been for generations. While Missourians obviously tend to favor the Cardinals and Illinoisians prefer the Cubbies, there are a ton of baseball-crazed states in the middle of the country with no professional team, and the residents of those states are oftentimes directly split between allegiances to the Cubs and the Cards. Having played each other an astonishing 2,000+ times, the Cubs have a slight lead in the head-to-head matchups, but the Cardinals have the clear edge in overall team success, winning 17 pennants and 10 World Series, while, as we all know, the Cubs have not won a World Series in more than 100 years.
12). The Philadelphia Big Five. Okay, I may have broken the rules here with this one.
This rivalry is mostly a local one; it rarely has any impact whatsoever on the national scope of college basketball; the greatness of the rivalry(ies) were at least one generation ago, if not two; and, it probably is only even under consideration because of my Philly roots. HOWEVER, I will defend that it belongs on this list. There is no other place in America with this many D-I basketball teams in such a small locale. Back in 1955, the athletic departments of the five Philadelphia basketball teams (Temple, St. Joe’s, Villanova, LaSalle, and Penn) decided that they would have a round-robin competition every year to crown the best team in the city. It forged rivalries that are unmatched in their competitiveness, passion, and electricity anywhere in sports. And, to make it that much better, all games were played in double- and triple-headers in the greatest basketball arena on the planet – The Palestra. Again, I know that this rivalry may appear, on the surface, to be much like the aforementioned Kentucky-Louisville or Lipscomb-Belmont rivalries, in that they are great for the locals, but not really for the nation. But, you just have to trust me that the history and the passion that dominates every Big Five matchup is enough to put it on this list. In fact, my concern over provincialism may have forced me to drop it too far down the list.
11). Lehigh – Lafayette. What? Lehigh-Lafayette? Really? Yes, really.
I did not believe it myself, until I ran this post idea across a friend of mine and he said “any list of the greatest rivalries is incomplete without Lehigh-Lafayette.” And, he was right. Known simply as “The Rivalry,” these two schools are 11 miles apart and have met more times than any two football teams in the world (146 times since 1884). It is also the most longest uninterrupted rivalry, as they have played every year since 1897. The rivalry is so old that it predates trophies. The winning side gets to keep the game ball every year. But, while the football rivalry alone would be enough to put it on this list, The Rivalry extends to any sport contested between the two schools. ESPNU ranked this as one of the top 10 college football rivalries in the country, despite taking place in the low-major, no-scholarship conference, the Patriot League.
10). Lakers – Celtics. Now, because I was only alive for about 8 months of the 70’s and I did not watch more than a handful of NBA games in the 80’s, I might be underselling this rivalry.
But to those who might say that, just know that it is the only NBA rivalry that made the list, so I do have respect for what this rivalry has meant over the history of the Association. But, to be honest, if I had made this list prior to June 2008, I probably would not have even thought about this when considering rivalries. But, the 2008 NBA Finals (and then again in 2010) rekindled some old spirit in the generation above me that forced this rivalry back into the limelight, and though, there can be an argument that, like the aforementioned Steelers-Raiders or Yankees-Royals, it is more of the memory of a rivalry than a real, bitter rivalry. However, with the resurgence of the East vs. West wars in 2008 and 2010, the memories of West vs. Cousy, Russell vs. Chamberlain, and, of course, Magic vs. Bird are brought back to the forefront. This was, for several generations, everything in the NBA. Hearing stories of Larry Bird checking the Lakers boxscores every morning to see what Magic did the night before are epic. Just hearing Jerry West talk about the Celtics is telling. This rivalry is so good that it is spawned the “Beat L.A.” chants. So, despite the fact that these two teams only play twice each year, the history of this rivalry (and, now its seeming resurgence in the past couple years) is enough to catapult it into the best of the best.
9). Texas – Oklahoma. “The Red River Shootout” is clearly one of the best in college football and, therefore, one of the best in all of sports.
It has absolutely everything you would be look for in a sports rivalry. There is geographical proximity – Oklahoma and Texas are separated by the Red River, hence the name. This game is very often key in the national championship picture in college football, as both teams are perennial powerhouses (61 of the last 66 games has been played while at least one of the two teams was ranked in the Top 25, and 6 of the last 10 featured a team that played in the BCS title game). The rivalry has been going strong for generations, as the first game between these two was played in 1900, when the Oklahoma territory was not even a U.S. State yet. And, it is always competitive. Since WWII, Texas has a slight lead in the series 33-30 (with 3 ties). The passions that are evoked by this boundary war are electric and the whole country takes notice. While only ranked #9 on this list, this rivalry might be the epitome of what sports rivalries are all about.
8). Packers – Bears. The impetus of this post comes in at #8. As I said in the opening, it is, in my opinion, the single greatest rivalry in the NFL.
Basically, as long as people have been playing the game of football, the Packers and the Bears have been rivals. The 181-game rivalry began in 1921. The Bears lead the regular season series 92-83-6, and they lead the postseason series 1-0. Yes, 1-0. It is hard to believe that their only postseason meeting was in 1941, but we get to witness the second on Sunday. The greatness of this rivalry comes in part from the history of the clubs and, in a strange part, in the harshness of the weather conditions. Football, being mostly contested in the dead of winter, is especially authentic when the conditions are those that are so often present in blustering cold of Chicago and Green Bay. Further, a large proportion of the game’s greatest all-time players have worn one of these two uniforms. The Packers have 21 Hall of Famers, which is the second most of any team in the league. They are second to…yep, you guessed it, the Bears. There are 26 Bears in the Hall of Fame – the most of any team. The only reason it is not higher on this list is because, well, they have not really played for “all the marbles…” until now this year. This weekend’s NFC Championship Game is going to be great because it pits such bitter rivals.
7). Michigan – Ohio State. When a matchup comes to be known simply as “The Game,” you know that it has reached the pinnacle of rivalry games.
However, the fact that I have this listed as #7 makes me feel like I have to defend why it is so “low” on this list. In 2000, ESPN ranked it as the single greatest rivalry in North America in the 20th century. In 2007, HBO Sports made a documentary entitled simply, “The Rivalry,” and it was all about this game. Michigan recently fired coach Rich Rodriguez, presumably, simply because he could not beat Ohio State. The period of time when Woody Hayes coached Ohio State and Bo Schembechler coached Michigan had been dubbed the “Ten-Year War.” Hayes was famous for never actually saying the word “Michigan,” instead he would use phrases like “that team up north” or “that state up north.” In fact, there is an old legend at OSU that says Hayes once refused to add gas to an empty gas tank until he crossed out of Michigan and back into Ohio, allegedly saying “…I don’t buy one goddam drop of gas in this state. We’ll coast and the push this car across the Ohio line before I give this state a nickel of my money!” Needless to say, with the emotion, the national championship impacts, and the two 100,000+-seat stadiums, this is rivalry is off-the-charts. The only thing I can say to justify the #8 spot is that I believe, for reasons I am about to lay out, that as great and epic as this rivalry is, I think there are 6 rivalries in sports (including 2 college football) that are better. I think the best days of this rivalry may have already occurred.
6). Yankees – Red Sox. If you did not think I was crazy for putting Michigan-Ohio State down at #7 (and not #1 in college football), then you are going to absolutely lose it with the Yankees – Red Sox here at #6 (and not #1 in baseball).
But, give me a chance to explain. Yes, in the past decade (or, at least since the Red Sox finally beat the Yankees in 2004), this has been, maybe, the greatest rivalry in all of sports, let alone baseball. And, yes, there is a long stretch of history between these two bitter rivals. However, if we can (and I know it is hard) try to think back to the days before the Dave Roberts stolen base, we will see a bitter rivalry that was more like the bully and the nerd. The Yankees always won. Yes, they played each other a lot, and yes, the two fanbases hated each other, but the Red Sox did not win a World Series for 86 years. The Yankees, during those 86 years, won TWENTY-SIX titles. And, do the players really care? Johnny Damon went straight from the ’04 comeback to wearing pinstripes. Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs had no problem switching allegiances. Could you imagine what Woody Hayes would say if one of his players said he wanted to transfer to Michigan? I think, to be honest, that there can even be the argument made that this is too high for this rivalry, but I put it here because I have seen first-hand the vitriol with which the two fanbases treat each other. When the Patriots won their first ever Super Bowl, there were chants of “Yankees suck!” Also, on the field, there have been some thrilling moments. Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone taking center-stage for some absolute stomach-punching Red Sox defeats, and then the 2004 comeback was one of the greatest sporting events in history because of the unlikeliness of the comeback and, more so, because of the social implications of the turning-of-the-tables in the rivalry. I know this will not appease a large majority of fans who believe that this is the greatest rivalry in sports, but I am pretty comfortable with this right here in this spot.
5). The NFC East. Before you accuse me of being a homer with this selection, I want you to know that I am not delusional here, I know that the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry (not any of the Eagles rivalries) is the only one in this division that would be considered for this list, by itself, and even that one would fall below the Packers-Bears.
However, every different individual matchup in this division is such a great rivalry in and of itself, that I wanted to capture this as its own entity. And I believe that this is where it belongs. These three fanbases literally despise each other, and it is not like the cute, Midwestern, “I kind of hope your team loses” kind of hatred. It is the hardened, Northeast, F-you kind of hatred. I like to consider myself a pretty friendly, nice, personable guy. But, I know, as an Eagles fan, if I see some random guy on the street with something on demonstrating that he is a Giants fan or a Cowboys fan or a Redskins fan, I instantly get a feeling dislike…for HIM, like, as a person. When I see a car with a Giants license plate, I get some weird diabolical urge to slash the tires. I am not proud of it, and I wish it was not like that, but it is. And, the only thing that saves me from feeling like a total sociopath is that I am sure that, if he knew that I was an Eagles fan, he would have the exact same reaction. I even find myself rooting against teams like the Rangers and the Nationals for no reason other than I know that if they lose, many Cowboy or Redskin fans will be upset. I get some sick joy out of that. But, again, I expect that they feel the same about the Phillies or Sixers. If I’m messed up in a messed up world, then aren’t I just normal? And, what I just described is “normal” when you root for a team in the NFC East. That, my friends, is what “rivalry” is all about – and there are six different rivalries all wrapped into one here in this division, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Every game is a war and every war your team wins makes your life that much better.
4). Giants – Dodgers. Though you would never know it with the media attention shamelessly heaped upon the Yanks – Sox, the best baseball rivalry is almost undebatable.
Spanning well more than a century and broiling on both coasts, the Giants – Dodgers rivalry is baseball’s best. The rivalry started in New York City homes in the 19th century. The Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants were both in the city of New York and both in the National League. And…they were both great. Now, 125 years later, both teams are 3,000 miles away from their birthplaces and, while the rivalry may not penetrate households like it did in the Big Apple, it is still as heated as ever. Both teams look at the other as The Enemy and, usually, when one succeeds, it has to go through the other to do so. That is the icing on the cake of this rivalry. It has 125 years of history. It had infiltration of households and fanbases that despised each other. No, while that heat may not have completely traveled to the Left Coast, the quality of the teams keeps this rivalry alive and strong. No professional sports franchise has more wins than the Giants; the Dodgers are third. The Yankees have the highest winning percentage in the history of Major League Baseball; the Giants are second and the Dodgers are third. The Yankees have the most pennants in baseball history; the Dodgers are second and the Giants are third. Only one team has more Hall of Famers than the Dodgers, and it is not the Yankees. It is the Giants. And, head-to-head, it is almost incomprehensible how close it is. The two teams have played 2,337 times. The Giants have won 1,171, while the Dodgers have won 1,149 (with 17 ties), and astoundingly, the Giants 10-8 season series win in 2010 broke a 51-51 tie in season series (with 18 ties). The Giants have finished with a better record 62 times, while the Dodgers have finished with the better record 59 times. And, most amazingly, to me, is that of the 121 seasons of competition between the two teams, only SEVEN times did both teams finish below .500, as opposed to 46 times where both teams finished ABOVE .500. In a sport that is often criticized for its marathon-like regular season, every game between these two always matters. To sum it all up: Jackie Robinson – clearly one of the classiest men to ever live – was traded from the Dodgers to the Giants on December 13, 1956. That January, he retired from baseball. Jackie Robinson decided to never wear a uniform again rather than put one on that said “New York Giants.”
3). Alabama – Auburn. Better than Texas-Oklahoma? Better that Michigan-Ohio State? Yes, for one reason and one reason only:
“The Iron Bowl” carries all the cache, all the history, all the national title impacts, and all the fan hatred that these other two rivalries carry with one added “bonus.” This rivalry divides neighborhoods, streets, and even families. If you were raised in Michigan, you, most likely, love the Wolverines and hate the Buckeyes. If you were raised in Ohio, the opposite. If you were raised north of the Red River, you are a Sooner fan; south of it, a Longhorn fan. So, neighborhood and families all across Michigan fly maize and blue flags. There are clear dividing lines. There is “Sooner Country” and “Longhorn Country.” Obviously, there are opposing fans that have relocated or, for whatever reason, root for the other team, but there are clearly living in a hostile area. But, Auburn and Alabama are in the same state. They lay claim to the same turf. Sure, you are probably more likely to be a Tide fan with the closer you are to Tuscaloosa, but these boundaries are very gray. It is far too often that, in a family, one child goes to ‘Bama and the other to Auburn. Or an Auburn fan falls in love and marries and Alabama fan. This divides households. There are countless blocks in the state of Alabama where you will see Alabama flags next door to Auburn flags and so on down the block. This rivalry cuts are the soul of who are as an Alabaman. We do not even need to go into the 75-year history of the rivalry (with a close 40-34-1 Alabama lead) or how the teams have combined for 37 conference championships and 15 national championships, along with 117 All-Americans and 4 Heisman Trophy winners. This rivalry has all of that…but it also has the infiltration of the neighborhoods and even the families.
2). Duke – UNC. Only one rivalry in sports encapsulates all of the things we have discussed that makes up a great rivalry (with even more than that), and that is Duke-UNC.
First of all, these two schools are 8 miles apart in a basketball-crazed area of the country. Secondly, they could not be more different institutionally. While both schools are well-renowned for their academic excellence, Duke is a relatively small, private, elitist, incredibly expensive school that attracts a student body from all over the country and the world. UNC is a very large public university, where in-state tuition is relatively inexpensive and 80% of the student body is made up of native North Carolinians. So, despite these two schools being so close geographically, they often appeal to vastly differing fanbases. And, maybe the most important aspect of this rivalry is that these two teams are both just so incredibly dominant in their sport. Since its founding in 1953, the ACC has consistently considered as the strongest basketball conference from top to bottom. Yet, despite the elite programs that round out this conference, Duke or UNC has been crowned champion in 80% of the ACC regular seasons. One of the two has also won 61% of the conference tournaments, including 13 of the last 14. And, they haven’t just dominated their own conference. Only three programs have more D-I basketball wins than Duke, and one of them is UNC (#2 behind Kentucky all-time). UNC has made 18 Final Fours (the most all-time), and Duke has made 15 (3rd most all-time). And, both programs are in the top 5 in all-time championships (UNC-5, Duke-4). If you have ever seen a game between these two, you know the passion with which they treat this rivalry. There is no doubt that these games are the biggest games on either of their schedules. With the 8-mile geographical proximity, the immense history (they have played every year since 1920), the infiltration of neighborhoods, and the divergent student bodies and fanbases, this rivarly is second to none. Well, actually, in my opinion, it is second to one…
1). Army – Navy. While Duke-UNC has everything that I have deemed important in judging rivalries (and then some), it has to take a backseat to one rivalry and one rivarly only. Incidentally, this rivalry is lacking in many aspects of how I am judging these rivalries. However, when making this list, there was absolutely no doubt what would be #1, and I never wavered. The Army-Navy Game.
This all comes down to what sport really is all about? Why do we play? We play for the competition and for the love of the game. I would argue that this game embodies those two things more than anything else across all sports, in all the world. Very few of the players in this game ever play professional football. Never does this game have any national championship impacts (and oftentimes not even any Patriot League impacts). These men are soldiers. They play football for sport. For the seniors, this is usually the last competitive football game in which they will ever play. During wartime, it can be one of their final days before being deployed to battle. At the end of every game, the two teams stand, in uniform, alongside each other, facing the student bodies as both alma maters are played – and all of this has happened for 120 years. There is a cliche that I believe epitomizes a true “rivalry.” And that is “if we only win one game all year, it’ll be a good year if that win is against ____.” Well, that is not really true anywhere but here. Duke can lose three times to UNC, but if they win the national championship, they will have had a successful year. Michigan can lose to Ohio State, but if they go to the Rose Bowl and Ohio State is 5-5, Wolverine fans are happy. But, it is absolutely true that if Army goes 1-10 and Navy goes 10-1, with that one win for Army coming in this game, both sides will agree that Army had the better season. My friends, this is the ultimate rivalry. And, honestly, it’s not even close…
As always, these rankings are based on indisputable facts and have not been impacted in any way by opinion, bias, or perception. Feel free to debate the list as long as you understand that debate here is futile…