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The Vanishing Traditions of College Sport

College football is losing its most precious attraction - traditional rivalries. Tom Burke spoke on the issue when he emceed the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston's College Awards Banquet on January 10.

The following is Tom Burke's welcoming address at the January 10th Gridiron Club of Greater Boston's College Football Awards Night

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being with us this evening. Thank you for being part of what the Gridiron Club does – keeping alive the memories, standing up for all the tremendous good that comes from athletic competition, and carrying the flame of tradition. 

It’s especially good and important that you’re joining us tonight, at this point in the history of college athletics.  I say that because it seems – to me anyway – that not everybody the sporting world still values tradition as highly as it should be valued.

Let me give you an example.  “Maryland, My Maryland.” Don’t you love that song? I get goose bumps when the Naval Academy Glee Club sings it before the post parade at the Preakness.

It’s a very nice musical rendition – set to the tune of “O Tannenbaum” - of a long poem that is not so nice. In fact, it may be the most militaristic and warlike piece of poetry every written by an American. 

“Maryland, My Maryland” was the work of James Randall. He despised Abe Lincoln, calling him the despot and the tyrant. He wrote the poem 1861 to urge Maryland to secede from the Union and cast its lot with the Confederacy.  One stanza:

    Dear Mother! burst the tyrant's chain,

    Maryland My Maryland!

    Virginia should not call in vain,

    Maryland, My Maryland!

    She meets her sisters on the plain-

    "Sic semper!" 'tis the proud refrain

    That baffles minions back amain,

    Arise in majesty again,

    Maryland! My Maryland!

Maryland and Virginia. The Old Line State and the Old Dominion.  They’ve been sisters for hundreds of years.  And whatever side you might have taken during the Civil War, you’ll probably agree with me that they belong together.

Virginia should not call in vain. But now she will. When she calls to Maryland from the football field, there will be no answer. Maryland will be out somewhere in the cornfields of Iowa. Maryland and Virginia first played football in 1919, and had a game every year since 1957. No more. Tradition? Who needs it?

If you’ve never been to College Station, Texas, put a Texas A&M football game on your bucket list. It’s a happening.  It’s only 85 miles across the plains from Austin and the University of Texas. Up until 2008, Texas A&M and Texas had faced each other 117 times on Thanksgiving Weekends.  It was a rivalry more fierce than any that we laid-back Northerners know.

How about the Back Yard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia? Fans travel just 70 miles along the Monongahela to see this game. For how many generations have the coal fields of West Virginia fed the blast furnaces of Pittsburgh?  They belong together too. In football, the universities have played 104 times. The 14th oldest rivalry. No more.

Kansas-Missouri.  The Border War.  In 2007, the universities decided they didn’t like the name of the game and changed it to “Border Showdown.” This rivalry harkens back to pre-Civil War days and “Bleeding Kansas.”  The Civil War really began out there, years before Fort Sumter and Bull Run.

The teams even got their nicknames from that era. Jayhawkers were originally characters that included abolitionists, military regiments, robbers, and murderers. In the years following the Civil War, the term became synonymous with native Kansans. In Missouri, the Tigers were a home guard unit that protected Columbia, Missouri from marauding guerilla bands.

The football series was a war, all right, and when the Kansas coach heard about the name change, he wasn’t pleased.  His quote: “It’s a goddam war! And they started it!”

Kansas-Missouri was college football’s second-oldest rivalry. 120 games.  Gone.

Nebraska-Colorado. First met in 1898. Total games – also mostly around Thanksgiving - a mere 69.  That’s over now, too.

Brigham Young-Utah.  The Holy War. First played in 1896. 94 total games, and every year since 1946. They will play in 2013 and once more in 2016. But that’s it.

I’m sure there are many more such stories, and not just in football.

There’s going to be a lot of prosperity created in the coming years – when college leagues break up, and re-form, and have playoff games, and sign new television contracts, and establish even more networks.

But I’m not sure that we’ll be any wealthier, after all that.  There’s a richness about life that can only come your way through friendships, and family – and through those traditions and rituals that anchor you in the world and define who you are.

So it is in sport. But we’re seeing many of those traditions disappear. That can’t be a good thing.

That’s why I say that your presence here, in the body as well as in spirit, is so important. That you sit in the stands, and come to the games in person, and now, that you are present for the well-deserved accolades and recognitions….You’re doing your part to preserve tradition – perhaps more than you realize.

So thank you again, for being with us at the Bob Whelan College Awards Night. We always appreciate your support. Especially this year.

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