Anatomy of a Rivalry

I remember it as if it were yesterday. Freshman year in high school, our basketball team stopped for a snack at the Town Pump in Shelby, Montana. Near the check-out counter was a collection of giant water mugs adorned in the colors of the Bobcats and the Grizzlies. I counted roughly two Bobcat mugs and 20 Grizzly mugs. My head coach (an unabashed Grizzly fan) took a Grizzly mug, looked at me, smiled and said, “Will, why do you think there are so many Grizzly mugs and so few Bobcat mugs?” A confident version of myself would have calmly looked him in the eye and said, “Well, the Bobcat mugs have sold so quickly (which of course wasn’t true) that the only mugs available are the ones people don’t want.” Instead, my response was an assorted collection of “Uh,” “Um” and “Cranberries.”

Such is the life of Bobcat fans that grew up during The Streak. As Dave Dickenson, John Edwards, Don Read and Joe Glenn were busy racking up both conference and national titles, the Bobcats were relegated to the shadow of their in-state rivals. It wasn’t always this way.

From 1956 to 1985 the Bobcats were the dominant team in the state, going 22-8 in Cat/Griz matchups, winning three National Championships in the process. However, in 1986, the Grizzlies hired Don Read, finished construction on Washington-Grizzly Stadium and the rest was history. It would take 16 years before the Bobcats would be victorious against the Griz again. In that time the Grizzlies won eight conference championships and two National Championships, and the Bobcats would win neither.

As a result of the losing and the schoolyard taunting that came with it, some Bobcat fans (except the normal ones), have developed an uneasy relationship with this rivalry. It’s why Cat/Griz fills us with as much dread as it does excitement, it’s why we cling to every victory no matter how small (ping-pong champions!) and it’s (probably) why the predominant cheer amongst some Bobcat students is the classless, yet catchy “Eat [expletive] Grizzlies, Go Cats Go!” over the classic yet timeless “Pooooor Grizzlies.”

This rivalry can put families and friendships under a unique kind of pressure when late November rolls around. Some split families can watch the games together. Others have to separate themselves into little bunkers suitable for the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was once in a relationship in high school with a Grizzly fan. I went to Bozeman, she went to Missoula, we’re no longer together. Coincidence? Yes, coincidence. But still, Cat/Griz is responsible for dividing this state . . . which why it’s the most important game of the year.

For a state with no professional sports teams to call their own — the closest professional team is in Calgary — Cat/Griz brings about a passion that, in Montana, cannot be awoken by any other team or game. There are no easy geographical or class divisions. Plenty of Bobcat fans reside west of the continental divide in so-called Grizzly territory. Plenty of Montana farmers, despite the fact that Montana State is the only university of the two to offer a degree in agriculture, are Grizzly fans. The enemy is your town, next door, or worse, in your household. This makes it all the more fun. When the Grizzlies were being courted by the floundering Western Athletic Conference in 2010, some Bobcat fans feared the Griz would leave the second-level FCS division in favor of the first-level, greater revenue (and greater cost) FBS. There were two reasons for this fear. First, any victory by the Bobcats in the FCS would always come with the bitter stigma of “Well, you only won because you didn’t play the Grizzlies.” Second, despite the lopsided rivalry record (Griz lead 70-37-5), despite The Streak and despite the number of Grizzly water mugs vs. Bobcat water mugs at truck stops, few universities benefit from having a game that generates interest in the non-sports fan. In this way, the relationship between the two can be oddly symbiotic.

It’s true the two universities could probably get by without each other. After all, North Dakota State has prospered without their Nickel Trophy rivalry with North Dakota. However, in my humble and often incorrect opinion, the Cats and Griz make themselves better as they continue to look over their shoulders to spot the progress of their in-state rival. In an added bonus, should a season develop into a lost cause, no other game can offer redemption.

When the Bobcats won only one game during the 1983 season, that season was considered somewhat of a success for the sole reason that that one win came against, you guessed it, the University of Montana Grizzlies. In 2011, when the Bobcats won double-digit regular season games for the first time since their 1984 National Championship, the pride and joy from that accomplishment was instantly snapped away when the Grizzlies marched into Bobcat Stadium and won 36-10. How many other universities can seemingly make or break their season, despite their previous successes and/or failures, on the outcome of just one game?

So, as the Cats and the Griz take the field for the 114th meeting this Saturday, the typical clichéd, yet entirely accurate year-long bragging rights will be on the line. Playoff implications certainly make it sweeter, and it’s nice when the Big Sky Conference championship waits on the state of Montana to decide its king. But even if both teams were winless, this game would still mean nearly as much.

By the way, when people ask me, “Will, what would it take for you to finally cheer for the Grizzlies?” My answer is always the same. First, the Grizzlies must be guaranteed to only win two to four games that year. Second, the Grizzlies must be playing a conference opponent that the Bobcats need to lose. Finally, and most importantly, I have to be married to Jennifer Lawrence. Only then, if all three criteria are met, will I consider cheering for the University of Montana Grizzlies. If you lived through the losing end of The Streak, you’ll understand.