By Clayton Ward
–On September 6, 2008, Eastern saw it’s only true rivalry – the original Battle of the Bluegrass – fade into obscurity. In front of a crowd 18,500 strong, the Eastern faithful watched the game close 37-13 with the Hilltoppers heads held high and a bitter taste left in mouths of Colonels everywhere.
Western made the move to FBS, joining the highly feared and respected Sun Belt Conference, where only the best of the best play.
The Hilltoppers were always the natural rival to Eastern.
It was the Battle of the Bluegrass: Kentucky’s own Ohio State-Michigan, Duke-North Carolina, Auburn-Alabama. It was a reason to actually make it to the stadium after tailgating.
When Western abandoned ship, Eastern was left without a Ying to its Yang.
With Western stepping out from Eastern’s foreseeable future in the two major sports, football and basketball, students and fans are wondering, “Who’s our next Western?”
Who is our new rival?
Let’s start with football, because as far as football is concerned, I don’t think there will ever be any replacing Western. And I’m not alone.
“I don’t think you can have a next Western. Eastern vs. Western: It just doesn’t get any better than that,” head football coach Dean Hood said.
With six of the 10 highest-attendance games ever played in Roy Kidd Stadium belonging to the Battle of the Bluegrass, I’ll have to agree with Coach Hood.
In basketball, all you have to do is hint that there’s a chance at the NCAA tournament and Eastern fans will show up to triple the average attendance in Alumni Coliseum.
But things aren’t that easy with football. The Eastern-Western games were the stuff of legend.
Coach Hood said he and Western Coach David Elson discussed a game at a neutral site.
“I thought that it would be great to have a game in Louisville. I thought we’d pack it, have it on an off night (and) have it on ESPN U or something,” Coach Hood said.
Unfortunately, there is a stipulation of some sort in Western’s Sun Belt contract keeping it from happening. Chances are slim, at best.
In-state rival replacements include Morehead and UK. But Morehead is out of conference and non-scholarship, making it hard to play annually and more or less an unfair fight.
Coach Hood has made it no secret he will play Kentucky every year, given the opportunity, but that’s like a sibling squabble with 15 years of age difference. Sure, big brother will play you, but only until victory becomes questionable.
When push comes to shove, he’s not about to be one-upped by little bro.
The closest team each year to the Colonels in football is Eastern Illinois, whom we’ve only played a total of 16 times. Even with close, important games, there’s still an obvious lack of tradition.
In basketball, Morehead is more than likely the successor.
Having played the Golden Eagles more times (160) and for longer (starting in 1930) than any other team, they’re the logical choice. Of course, it helps that they’re the team to beat, having won the conference tourney last year.
So what about Murray State for basketball and football?
First, they play within the OVC, which guarantees at least one game, match or event in almost every sport.
Second, they are within the state – a big reason Western was such a hated opponent. This cause feuds financially with scholarship and grant money, as well as fighting for students and athletes.
Finally, Murray’s sports are up.
Last year Murray won the first ever Commissioner’s Cup. The Commissioner’s Cup is an award given to the school judged to have the best OVC men and women’s sports for that year.
In OVC play, they’re always a challenge in basketball and, much like Eastern, are never far from the top in football.
There may never be another Western, but Colonel fans are too passionate to abandon the concept of rivalries. Maybe we’ll have one new rival, or maybe we’ll have several. It’ll all shake out in time, but one thing’s for sure: loving Eastern goes hand in hand with hating its nemeses.