The Rocky Mountain Showdown

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As the end of the summer approaches, so does the ‘Rocky Mountain Showdown’. Former University of Colorado (CU) basketball coach Joe Harrington stated that he would take recruits to the Rocky Mountain Showdown, the football game against arch rival Colorado State University (CSU), as there was no more intense, no more alluring event in college sports. Based on the history and pageantry of that alpine faceoff, it would be difficult to argue with Coach Harrington.

There have been a lot of epic rivalries in the history of college sports for fans to relish, but there is nothing compared to Ralphie, the live Buffalo mascot who charges the field to fire up the crowd.  The Rocky Mountain Showdown has its roots in 1893 and is now the oldest in-state athletic battle between two public Universities. It was finally locked down as an annual event in 1995 and like most other great rivalries, the game has traditionally been held at a neutral site: Broncos Stadium at Mile High in Denver. The event draws the mountain state’s largest college game attendance of any sport with crowds ranging from 65,000 and up, nearly selling out the NFL venue.

Historically played in the waning days of summer, the Rocky Mountain Showdown is the kickoff entrée to Labor Day Weekend in Colorado. It has also proven to be a great start to the season for the Buffaloes, since they won 12 of the last 16 matches against the Rams. The all-time series stands at 66-22-2 in favor of CU. Unlike other traditional rivalry matches, many of which are played around Thanksgiving, the Showdown is marked among the first games of the season for both schools. The chief reason is that Colorado and Colorado State play in different athletic conferences. Alabama and Auburn play in the SEC, Michigan and Ohio State are in the Big 10, and Harvard and Yale are both in the Ivy League. But in this collegiate football feud, CU plays in the PAC-12, while CSU participates in the Mountain West Conference.

In addition to being one of the oldest gridiron contentions, the Showdown is also one of the most natural rivalries in college sports, and physical proximity has much to do with it. Located only 60 miles apart, the two schools are situated in each other's backyards by Western geographic standards. In contrast, the University of Montana is more than 200 miles from Montana State University. Even Harvard University is more than double the distance from Yale University as Boulder is from Ft. Collins.

Since the institutions compete in a wide range of sports and not just football, they also fight for the same recruits, sponsors, press and fans. Bumper stickers that read "A House Divided" adorn many vehicles in the Mile High State. Most other college rivalries are also confined to one major sport. The Harvard-Yale football game is intense, but in hockey Yale is not even in the Bean Pot Tournament, which features Harvard, Boston College, Boston University, and Northeastern University, all of which are located in Boston. The UNC-Duke basketball clash is among the fiercest and most widely watched game in the NCAA, but their football confrontation hardly moves the needle.

Plenty of Rocky Mountain Showdown veterans have moved on to the NFL and other sporting pursuits. The NFL expects about five players from each school to join the league this Fall and next. They will follow in the cleat prints of luminaries from both ends of Route 25, such as Kordell Stewart (CU) who quarterbacked for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1990’s; linebacker Joey Porter (CSU) who played for the Steelers as well; All-American Michael Westbrook (CU) who was wide receiver for the Washington Redskins; defensive end Al "Bubba" Baker (CSU) who was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1978; and former Supreme Court Justice Byron "Whizzer” White who starred for CU football, basketball, and baseball. A runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1937, White was an accomplished athlete and Rhodes Scholar who went on to Yale Law School and also put in three seasons in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Pirates (forerunners of the Steelers) and Detroit Lions. He was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Kennedy in 1962.

As a meeting of two non-aligned institutions, the Rocky Mountain Showdown requires full commitment from the administrations of both schools to keep the venerable rivalry going. It’s difficult for nonconference schools to play consistently every year in any sport, especially football which is the main revenue generator for college athletics. 2019 marks the final year under the existing contract that CU and CSU will play at Mile High. The Showdown will sunset next year with the game hosted at CSU’s 41,000-seat Canvas Stadium. CSU hopes that home field advantage will reverse its historic losing streak against CU and re-ignite excitement for continuing an annual meet-up 

Rick George, Athletic Director for CU, and Joe Parker, Athletic Director for CSU, deserve credit for keeping the extravaganza event alive. But as the schedule is laid out now, the teams won’t go head-to-head again until 2023 in Boulder and 2024 in Fort Collins. Another long pause is expected to follow before the home-home series picks up again in 2029-30 and 2033-34. No doubt, during those hiatus years, we’ll miss watching Ralphie storming out on the gridiron to kick off the Rocky Mountain Showdown as the start to the college football season.

Jonathan Yates is host of "The Culture of Sport".  He has written numerous articles in outlets such as Newsweek, The Washington Post and held interviews at NPR and CNBC.

Other Articles Enjoyed:  Under The Radar, One of College Sports' Greatest Rivalries, How The NCAA Overtook Its Rival, The NIT

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