The Fifth Lap
During my time at Rice, our rivalry with the University of Houston has seemed, for lack of a better word, forced.
Don't get me wrong, I always look forward to Rice-UH matchups. At a broad level, drawing fans from both sides creates a pretty neat atmosphere. And at a personal level, having grown up in the Houston area, I have friends and family who are UH students and alums (including my dad).
But there are times the "rivalry" feels a little imposed by geography. It's kind of like being a little kid at the birthday party of a neighbor's son, not because you and he are very good friends, but because his mom felt obliged to invite you because you're a neighbor. Yes, it's fun, but it's not quite the same as being at your best friend's.
Moreover, recently both universities have quietly courted other potential rivalries. UH desperately wants to have a big, state school rival like Texas Tech University. And Rice games against the University of Tulsa and Southern Methodist University have taken on increasing hype and significance. However, neither school offers an all-out rivalry.
And maybe that's not such a bad thing.
My brother is a student at Texas A&M University, giving a little insight into what comes with a college rivalry at the opposite end of the spectrum from Rice-UH.
On the one hand the atmosphere of a University of Texas-Texas A&M game is electric. The old football games (which I predict will be back sooner rather than later) drew students, alums, and families together to campus with an enthusiasm well beyond what you can get from homecoming or parents weekend. Even for families who don't make it to campus, watching the UT-A&M game is often part of the Thanksgiving tradition, putting both universities squarely in the state's spotlight. Beyond football and the Thanksgiving tradition, the Lone Star Showdown automatically gave every varsity team a marquee matchup sure to draw fans. At the same time, though, the rivalry is so extreme as to border on obnoxious and detrimental. The university starts to define itself not around being Texas A&M, but as being the anti-UT (known as TU if you're a true Aggie).
Heck, the first actual words in Texas A&M's fight song are "Goodbye to Texas University." And hearing Aggies hiss anytime UT comes up in conversation gets old really fast (about the first time, actually).
The bad blood became caustic enough and present high up enough in the university that it played a role in Texas A&M's decision to move to the SEC, as well as the UT's refusal to play the Aggies in non-conference matchups. Now both fan bases will simply sing about the other, while never actually getting to compete.
So, as Rice and UH approach the Bayou Bucket game and prepare for the transition of UH out of Conference USA, the question presents itself: What to do with our tepid rivalry?
The answer, I propose, is to shift the focus away from competing against each other and instead toward engaging the Houston community as a whole.
While being located in a big city presents clear advantages, it also makes it more difficult to connect fully with the community at large.
While the local university is often a focal point of college towns or small cities, Rice and the University of Houston are simply two entities in a myriad of opportunities and attractions. Rarely is either one of us the center of the city's attention, athletically or otherwise.
Imagine, then, Rice and UH combining to create a week during which we are Houston's center of attention, much as Texas vs A&M used to garner the state's focus. Athletics can be the impetus or the culmination, but shouldn't be the full extent. Instead, that week could include events that engage the business community, that bring grade-school students to our campuses or that provide fun family activities. It could provide the energy needed for journalists to put us on the front page, or run mini segments on the evening news.
Such an event would require creativity, coordination, and calculated timing. Its benefits likely wouldn't be reaped until the future, and even when they are, they will likely to be hard to quantify. But it would provide both universities with broad exposure that neither can capture on its own.
If it succeeded, it would take the Bayou rivalry and use it to bring out the best in both universities. And that, at the core, is the best kind of rivalry after all.
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