Examining the nature of the Cal-Stanford rivalry

Kore Chan/File

Update: Since its original publication, this post has been updated to reflect additional editing.

One of my favorite pieces of writing from this very newspaper — perhaps my all-time favorite — was written by Mike Silver in 2002. Silver, working at Sports Illustrated at the time, took to the fine pages of The Daily Californian to pen a guest column titled “The Seven-Year Bitch Must End,” a reference to the Stanford football team winning the previous seven Big Games. In the column, Silver rips into that junior university from Palo Alto, writing, “One thing I’ve learned is that the creative, spontaneous originals among us live richer lives than our safe, boring contemporaries.”

The entire piece continued in that vein, sticking a fat middle finger up to Stanford and genuinely, earnestly talking mad shit. I love it because I feel the same way, mostly as a product of my interactions with the Stanford Daily – Stanford’s student newspaper, a sorry group of kids who play flag football in jeans.

What I’ve found during my time at UC Berkeley, however, is that not many people really care about the rivalry at all.

See, the Cal-Stanford dynamic has the three elements that comprise most classic college football rivalries: their football teams are historically of about the same caliber, the schools are of the same relative size, and the two schools are pretty close to each other. They even share a long, storied history of battle, dating back 122 years. Despite all of this, nobody really gives a shit.

I asked my sister, a freshman here, how her dorm floor is reacting in the week leading up to the Big Game. She said her floor was “most excited about the lights on the Campanile” but admitted no one has really said anything about the game this week. I asked my roommates, forestry and engineering majors, whether they were getting heated about hating Stanford on Saturday.

“Not really,” said my roommate Ian. “I think there are people who dislike the school and what it stands for, but I think on the whole, Berkeley students are intelligent enough to understand it’s a research institution putting out really great work and has value as a university.”

From what I’ve come to understand, there’s a small but vocal group of UC Berkeley students who really do genuinely care about the football team and the Stanford rivalry. They post on blogs and chat together on Twitter and generally behave like a Giants fan or a Niners fan might behave. But those fans are of a limited quantity.

I wondered if this phenomenon extended to other rivalries, so I emailed Lev Facher, a football writer from the University of Michigan newspaper and a Berkeley native, to understand the dynamic between Michigan students and their arch-nemesis Ohio State. I thought Michigan to be a comparable analogue. Like UC Berkeley, Michigan is a large state school with strong academics. So I asked Facher how the student body felt about football in general.

“I’d say the student body is generally very passionate about football,” wrote Facher. “This year is different thanks to a ton of different factors, but when the team is half decent and the students feel they’re being treated well, there are as many as 20,000 people in the student section at the Big House. The mood on campus is definitely affected by result of a big game, and gamedays dominate Ann Arbor much more extensively than they dominate Berkeley.”

And of the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry?

“The student body is unified in its ‘hatred’ of Ohio State, but those feelings tend to be in spirit only,” wrote Facher. “Many — even most — students don’t know enough about OSU to hate it, don’t have friends who go to school there, and haven’t set foot in Columbus. Everybody is confident in UM’s superiority as an academic institution, and that’s what everybody cares about most in the end.”

So perhaps this is where the discrepancy lies. UC Berkeley is definitively not a football school, and Stanford is even less of one. Search “Stanford attendance” on Twitter and you’ll scroll endlessly through pictures of empty stadiums on a beautiful gameday and jokes about the school’s indifference toward football. But one would think that despite both Cal and Stanford’s general disregard of football, they’d find one week to care enough about the sport to funnel their disdain to their crossbay enemies.

But I think the shared academic excellence puts a damper in any desire to disdain one another. At Michigan, Wolverines can look down at the Buckeyes and laugh at their academic inferiority, while Ohio State students can mock the Michigan students’ superiority complex.

With Cal and Stanford, there’s no obvious discrepancy. Yeah, there’s the private-public thing, but the tuition at UC campuses is so high that Stanford is sometimes the cheaper option. With both schools not giving a shit about sports and sharing essentially the same basic characteristics, there’s just no reason for a rivalry to be thriving. Unless, of course, their student newspaper plays flag football in jeans.

Michael Rosen is a contributor to The Weekender. Contact him at [email protected]

A previous version of this article stated that Lev Facher is a football writer. In fact, he is a basketball writer.