The death of some of the greatest college sports rivalries happened virtually overnight, with storied matchups that had lasted a century or more disappearing from the schedule the past few seasons. Nebraska, a founding member of the Big 12, rocked the college football world when the school jumped to the Big Ten effective in 2011. But the Cornhuskers are hardly alone, as heavy-hitters such as Texas A&M, Pitt, Syracuse, TCU, Missouri, West Virginia, Louisville and Notre Dame all switched conferences during the same time frame, all chasing lucrative television contract money. Lost in the scramble for TV revenue are some of the most storied rivalries in college sports history. The following five rivalries have fallen victim in an era in which the dollar trumps tradition in college athletics.
5. Pittsburgh vs. West Virginia
The name “Backyard Brawl” is fitting on two fronts; first, the schools are quite literally in each other’s backyards, separated by only about 70 miles. Second, the “brawl” part is owed largely to a rivalry considered to be one of the oldest in the country (dating to 1895) and one of the fiercest in the East. The close geography added so much to the unique nature and intensity of this rivalry, given in no small measure to the University of Pittsburgh and West Virginia University competing so frequently for the same recruits. Among the many memorable games in this series, Pitt fans can point to the 2007 football game, when Pitt, in the midst of a bad season, upset heavily favored West Virginia to ruin the Mountaineers hopes of a national championship. Conference realignment effectively split the teams, first with West Virginia going in one direction (the Big 12) and Pitt going in another (the ACC). The 2012 season would be the first time the teams didn’t lock horns since World War II. Schedules indicate the Backyard Brawl won’t be resurrected for at least another decade.
4. Texas vs. Texas A&M
A two-hour drive separates the Aggies of College Station and the Longhorns of Austin. These Lone Star State powerhouses first met on the football field in 1894 and played for 96 consecutive years between 1915 and 2011, in a much-anticipated Thanksgiving matchup. The grudge runs so deep that each school mentions the opposing team in its fight song. Rewriting may be in order, as 2012 signaled the end of an era when A&M left the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. Texas Athletics Director Steve Patterson told ESPN in 2014 he doesn’t see the longtime rivalry restarting anytime soon. “I think the reality for us is A&M made a choice they felt was best for them to move to the SEC,” Patterson said. “Unless there really is a compelling business or branding reason, I see a hard time renewing that rivalry in football.”
3. Notre Dame vs. Michigan
The Notre Dame vs. Michigan matchup in September 2014 proved to be a sad day for the Wolverines, on the receiving end of a 31-0 pummeling from the Fighting Irish. But the shutout also represented the sad end — for now — for a series that began in 1887. That year, an experienced and talented Michigan squad traveled to South Bend, Indiana, to teach a young Notre Dame team the game of American football; it would be the first football game in Notre Dame history. Michigan ruled that day, and leads the all-time series, 24-17-1. Given that both teams have claimed 11 national championships, and Michigan ranks first in all-time NCAA football wins, with Notre Dame No. 3, many of those matchups carried significant implications for the national championship.
No plans are on the horizon to renew this tradition. Notre Dame’s scheduling agreement allows its Olympic sports to remain in a competitive Power 5 conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference, while its football program remains independent. In exchange, Notre Dame agreed to play five ACC teams annually. While maintaining rivalries with USC, Stanford and Navy, the Irish scheduling crunch resulted in the loss of the Michigan rivalry.
2. Nebraska vs. Oklahoma
For those who don’t understand how deep the scarlet and cream and the crimson and cream run in these respective fan bases’ veins, consider this: Nebraska and Oklahoma either won or shared the Big Eight Conference title 32 out of 34 seasons between 1962 and 1995. So the team that won this annual game was virtually assured of the Big Eight title. The rivalry dating to 1912 lost some allure with the formation of the Big 12 in 1996 — splitting the two teams into separate divisions, effectively eliminating the season rivalry. 1998 marked the first time the schools didn’t play in more than 70 years. The Huskers and Sooners met sporadically for Nebraska’s remaining time in the Big 12. The final Big 12 championship game in 2010 marked the final meeting between the two teams, at least for now.
The good news is these storied programs have scheduled a home-and-home series in 2021 and 2022. The 2021 version will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1971 Game of the Century, which pitted top-ranked Nebraska against No. 2 Oklahoma. The Huskers would go on to win both the game and later the national championship.
1. Kansas vs. Missouri
The second most-played rivalry in Division I football, the fiercely contested “Border War” dates to 1891. Yet the animosity between the two states dates back even further, to often bloody attempts on the part of some in then-slave state Missouri to sway Kansas from entering the Union as a free state. This environment bred one of the most hateful rivalries in college football history; early accounts of the rivalry contend Civil War veterans who once clashed on the battlefield stared each other down on the sidelines — “Yankees” on the Jayhawks side, “rebels” on the Mizzou side. This uneasy history would play out in modern times on social media and with clever T-shirts; one classic Jayhawks T-shirt featured a drawing of abolitionist John Brown, with the motto: “Kansas: Keeping America Safe From Missouri Since 1854.”
First meeting on the gridiron in 1891, the two teams met in football 120 times. But Missouri’s 24-10 win over Kansas on the gridiron in 2011 is the end of the on-field skirmishes — at least for now. The two are not scheduled to play each other since Missouri left the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference in 2012. Missouri head football coach Gary Pinkel said in a 2014 chat session that he is open to rekindling the series: “It’s an open invitation. There’s some pouting going on still … but it will happen again someday. It will.” According to scheduling requirements for the two schools, a rematch could occur as early as 2019.
One More: Classic Big East Basketball Rivalries
Originally formed as a basketball conference in 1979, the Big East Conference featured some of the best talent and coaches in the country, with Big East teams winning eight national titles. The changing landscape in college football, however, sent a ripple effect through this great basketball conference. Syracuse joined the ACC in 2013 for football reasons and the conference was rebranded as the American Athletic Conference, with UConn joining the likes of Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, Houston and Temple in the new conference.
Several core teams (Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Villanova) kept the old Big East name, and even added traditional basketball powers in Marquette and DePaul, but for many fans, it won’t be the same without Syracuse and UConn in the mix. Syracuse has played a non-conference game with Villanova and St. John’s since the breakup. While Connecticut played former conference rival Villanova in the second round of the 2014 NCAA tournament, the school has not scheduled any games against former teams in the conference thus far.