Gitlin, Martin. The Greatest College Football Rivalries of All Time: The Civil War, The Iron Bowl, and Other Memorable Moments. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014. Black and White Photos, Notes, Selected Bibliography, Index. Pp. 345. $40.00 hardback, $39.99 eBook.
Reviewed by Mercedes Townsend
In the fall, I will be pursuing my J.D. at Tulane University as part of its Sports Law program, and will have the opportunity to gain a stronger understanding of the issues and phenomena in sports that I have studied in graduate school through a new, legal lens. I couldn’t be happier to experience the great curriculum, location, internship opportunities, and countless other benefits a Tulane legal education has to offer. Despite all of these great things, however, one of the school’s traditions does not sit well with me—its rallying cry, “Roll Wave.” Now, I realize that it is silly for something so seemingly insignificant to cause me such pause, but as an alumnus of Louisiana State University, “Roll Wave” sounds uncomfortably similar to “Roll Tide,” the mantra of the houndstooth-clad University of Alabama.
While LSU celebrates several SEC rivalries including: “The Battle of the Golden Boot” between LSU and Arkansas, the “Tiger Bowl” between LSU and Auburn, and the “The Magnolia Bowl” between LSU and Ole Miss, none has seemed to matter more in recent years than our post-Nick Saban rivalry with the Crimson Tide. Each year, the game promises heartbreak for the losing team and welcomes (temporary) relief for the winner until we face off again the following fall. It is these grudge matches—the ones that stay with and guide fans (even as they prepare for law school)—that Martin Gitlin showcases in his book, The Greatest College Football Rivalries of All Time: The Civil War, The Iron Bowl, and Other Memorable Moments.
Gitlin divides the book into fourteen chapters, each dedicated to the telling of a distinct and storied rivalry. He argues that, more often than not, these rivalries are created and maintained because of geography. These matches, in turn, range from same-state showdowns, such as Alabama and Auburn’s annual “Iron Bowl” and college football’s first rivalry, Lafayette versus Lehigh, to regional rivalries, as seen between the SEC’s University of Georgia and University of Florida. Aside from these “backyard brawls” (pg. 3), Gitlin also outlines the history of cross-country rivalries, such as Army versus Navy and Notre Dame versus Southern California. He gives a well-researched and succinct account of the pivotal games, players, and coaches that have molded these games into the “memorable matchups” we look forward to every year. Furthermore, Gitlin provides a much appreciated nod to the important, but oftentimes underreported rivalries between smaller schools such Lafayette and Lehigh, and historically black colleges and universities such as Grambling State and Southern University’s annual “Bayou Classic.”
Gitlin sets out to offer an “entertaining and enlightening” read for sports fans on some of the greatest rivalries in college football (pg. viii). While this certainly is achieved, he leaves much to be desired from the vantage point of a cultural historian, and, frankly, does not fit the billing of the book’s back cover summary. The back cover reads, “Fans follow their favorite team with unfailing loyalty, and nowhere do the colors come out more fervently than when rivals face off. These games bring out the passion, the rituals, and even the rage of football fans across the country. Whether based on history and tradition, or proximity and local pride, college rivalry games have an intensity unmatched by any other sporting event.” However, Gitlin does not delve into a discussion of these “unmatched” fan bases and their ability to not only create and shape these rivalries, but maintain them. While he does make mention to the idea that the outcome of these games can “destroy the dreams” (pg. 22) of players, coaches, and fans alike or, more severely, leave them “emotionally damaged by defeat,” (pg. 37) he doesn’t provide any commentary on what these visceral connections reveal about college rivalries or how they aid in our understanding of them.
While Gitlin’s discussion of the fans is minimal, he instead focuses on telling the stories of great games. For example, in chapter 4, “Oklahoma vs. Texas: The Red River Rivalry,” he describes the 1984 clash between #1 University of Texas and #2 Oklahoma. In chapter 7, “Georgia vs. Florida: The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” he makes note of Georgia’s painful 2008 loss to rival Florida. This approach allows for a greater understanding of these specific games; yet, it does a disservice to the telling of the history of these rivalries. The scope of these century-long grudge matches are minimized to moments, and the nuanced and contoured composition of these rivalries are blurred into simply game notes and statistics for three or four annual meetings.
Moreover, Gitlin does little to discuss continuity or change in these rivalries and college football as a whole. In the majority of the chapters, he notes that these rivalries emerged with little to no fanfare as college football “had yet to grab hold of America” (pg. 4). However, he does not comment on how the media have further changed these rivalries or, reversely, how these matchups have aided in lifting sports media.
This lack of discussion makes the overall book less successful and causes the description of Grambling and the Southern’s Bayou Classic to teeter on tokenism. Gitlin opens the chapter with the assertion, “It’s not just a game. It’s not just football. It’s a show of empowerment and pride for historically black colleges and African American athletes,” but does little to showcase or support this claim (pg. 243). Because Gitlin opened this way, his failure to provide commentary on the differences between rivalry experiences between HBCUs and the other institutions included in the book or the ways players and fans show “their empowerment and pride” leaves the chapter underdeveloped. Gitlin describes the Grambling versus Southern game as a “festival” of black empowerment, but his lack of further elaboration on this leaves one (me) to wonder if this was simply lip service.
While The Greatest College Football Rivalries of All Time left me with more questions and concerns than answers, it was a quick and informative read that helps stimulate new ideas on what it means to be “great” in college football. The book’s focus on rivalry is one that will certainly resonate with many readers.
Mercedes is Master’s candidate in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her research primarily focuses on the interplay between gender and sports marketing and economics. Her thesis is an interdisciplinary investigation of the causes of pay inequity in professional sports, in particular basketball. Mercedes is a proud alumnus of Louisiana State University, where she graduated with a B.A. in Political Science and a B.A. in English Literature, and is a (post-season) SEC loyalist. Mercedes can be reached at email@example.com.