- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
Why did they stop serving ice in the drinks at Georgia games? Because the student who knew the recipe graduated.
Why did Florida disband its water polo team? All the horses drowned.
Did you hear about the Louisville grad who won the $4 million Kentucky state lottery? He asked to receive it in installments of $4 a year for one million years.
Did you hear about the Clemson student who died during a pie-eating contest? The cow kicked him in the head.
Rivalry Weekend in college football is the best. Period. That glorious three days with so many throwdowns between so many teams that have faced off for a century of more, becoming as much a part of our late November routines as gnawing on turkey or pushing strangers out of the way to grab the last cheap Black Friday air fryer.
It is that rarest of times when we can talk smack to our neighbors, thumb our noses at our co-workers and, in so many instances, even stare down and clap back our very own flesh and blood. Not over politics or policy or the latest social media conspiracies, but over a football game. It’s emotional. It’s divisive. But ultimately, it’s just sports. So it’s also a helluva lot of fun. Most of the time.
That’s why one year ago, this weekend just didn’t feel right. The list of reasons for that uneasiness is long, painful and all-too familiar. But for millions of us, particularly in the southeastern corner of the map, the single greatest source of that strangeness was the absence of those traditional cross-conference rivalries that exist within the borders of the states that are home to both an SEC and ACC school.
Clemson vs. South Carolina had been played every single fall for 111 years, even through a pair of world wars. But the Palmetto Bowl was stopped in its cleats by the COVID-19 pandemic and the SEC’s resulting decision to play a 10-game, conference-only schedule in 2020. Same for the other SEC vs. ACC games.
Georgia vs. Georgia Tech, aka Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate, wasn’t played for the first time since 1924. Florida vs. Florida State, the Sunshine Showdown, was curbed after 64 years. Kentucky vs. Louisville, the Governor’s Cup, was sidelined after not missing an autumn since the series was kicked off in 1994, and finally was moved to its rightful place on the final regular-season weekend after the Cardinals joined the ACC in 2014.
Suddenly, family rooms, kitchens and even bedrooms that had always seen Thanksgiving weeks full of house-divided tension of Rivalry Weekend fell quiet. Way too quiet. No one enjoys fighting, but everyone loves to win, especially when victory also brings the opportunity to lord some success over one’s family and neighbors for the next 364 days.
“The whole season was so weird that not playing Georgia Tech was just the final step into total weirdness,” said Georgia alum and superfan Frank Pittman, who says he hasn’t missed a Bulldogs game since 2000. His streak will hit 275 consecutive games this weekend when he drives from Watkinsville over to Atlanta for the Tech game. He had attended at least 19 straight UGA-GT games before the contest was canceled last fall.
“Looking back now, with limited crowds at most of the stadiums, the whole 2020 season almost doesn’t feel like it actually happened at all. Not playing that one, even though Tech hasn’t been great for a while now, that was just kind of the last official part of it all not feeling real. One more big weird something that happened, or actually, didn’t happen.”
“I am surrounded by Florida fans all the time, friends and neighbors, and the talk never stops. It hasn’t my whole life,” said Danny Kanell, the former Florida State quarterback who posted a 3-1-1 record against the Gators as a player and now analyzes games for ESPNU Radio and CBS Sports. “If FSU fans are being honest with you, we probably caught a big break not having to play Florida a year ago when Kyle Trask was throwing 40 touchdown passes, but no one ever wants to not play that game.
“You might be struggling and they might be rolling, like these teams were doing a year ago. But that’s why you want to play. You’re thinking, ‘I hate those guys, so heck yeah, give me a chance to ruin their season!’ That’s what you live for. That’s what a rivalry is. That’s why you missed it so bad when it wasn’t there. That’s not supposed to ever happen. Good or bad, you know you’re going to play. Then you don’t?”
That’s why this edition of Rivalry Weekend feels a little more special than perhaps any that preceded it. It is inarguably unique. Because this time, when the Dawgs hunker down at Bobby Dodd Stadium, the Cats kick it off in Louisville, the Seminoles invade the Swamp and South Carolina runs out to “2001” to face Clemson, the final missing college football pieces that were taken from us in 2020 will finally be replaced.
That return brings a new spectrum of feelings to these games. Healing. Relief. Joy. But exactly how much of those emotions and how long one is allowed to experience them depends an awful lot on where those people are and who they live with. All that healing, relief and joy will inevitably give way to old pals tension, awkwardness and anger.
Hey, that’s what Rivalry Weekend is all about, right?
“I have known my wife since 1984 and I honestly think we have had maybe three or four disagreements and maybe one real argument that whole time. But if it’s a Kentucky-Louisville game and it’s close, the tension just fills this house and we can’t hardly look at each other,” said Mark Redmon, a proud member of Kentucky’s Big Blue Nation and resident of the Louisville suburbs. His wife, Sammy, is a Louisville Cardinal through and through. They have four children, ages 30 through 21, and three of them have also declared their loyalty to U of L. Their daughter is even engaged to a former Louisville player.
“Yes, I am outnumbered in my own house,” Redmon said with a sigh. “In fact, we got married in this house and right here in this house, all of my family was dressed in blue while all of her family was dressed in red.”
Redmon spent nearly 15 minutes explaining the nuances of living in a “mixed marriage,” from their living room seating arrangement while watching Kentucky-Louisville games on TV (“she is over there and I am over here and if I need to celebrate then I go down into the man cave and keep it to myself”) to the one Governor’s Cup that their marriage almost didn’t survive (they attended Kentucky’s upset win over Lamar Jackson’s Cardinals in 2016 when the Heisman winner literally fumbled the game away late).
Kentucky upsets Louisville after Jackson fumble
Austin MacGinnis’ 47-yard field goal with 12 seconds left lifted Kentucky to a 41-38 win over Louisville.
“I never want my wife to be unhappy or sad, but I also don’t ever want Kentucky to lose to Louisville in anything. Ever. And her feelings are mutual for me and Louisville. So, whomever loses, you’ve got to give the other one space, let them work it out emotionally and hope they do it before bedtime. I mean, at the end of the night, I don’t want to fight. I still want to be married. I just really don’t want Louisville to win the game.”
Speaking of a fight, if you happened to have been in attendance for the 2009 edition of the Palmetto Bowl in Columbia, South Carolina, and saw a married couple arguing in the parking lot of Williams-Brice Stadium, there’s a good chance that you were watching Krista and David DeLong. Krista was born and raised in Clemson. David is from Columbia. They met as college students and fell in love, despite their opposing Tiger and Gamecock upbringings. Carolina pulled off the upset win that day, shocking 18th-ranked Clemson 34-17, ending a two-year skid while starting a five-year winning streak with Steve Spurrier at the helm. Apparently, David got a little too, ahem, cocky, for Krista’s taste.
“We have been married nearly 30 years and it’s the worst fight we’ve ever had,” Krista recalled, remembering that she declared to her husband that he was going to need a ride home before jumping into the car and leaving him standing there. “We have never gone to another game together since then. Never. But I love him. That’s probably why we won’t go to a game together again. Because we love each other, and we don’t want to mess that up.”
So, what was it like for the Redmons and DeLongs and all their fellow house-divided brothers and sisters one year ago? Was the 2020 respite from the biggest game of the year a black hole in the middle of the family calendar, or could it have been … no way … a needed break?
“I both look forward to the game and I also kind of dread it because there is so much tension in this house, but I missed it a great deal. We both missed it,” Mark Redmon said. “We are passionate about our teams, but it’s just because we both love it so much. And that’s a big reason that we love each other.”
“Last year, it was more peaceful here, for sure, but there was definitely something missing,” Krista DeLong added. The oldest of their three children has applied to Clemson and the family’s collective fingers are crossed for an acceptance letter, even David’s, as he wants his daughter to attend her dream school … but has also assured everyone that even if she does, he won’t be wearing any orange garb or tiger paws. “For the family, the kids, if I’m honest, last year they probably needed the break from Carolina-Clemson. It was kind of a godsend. A little early Christmas present. But this year’s present is that the game is back. They got their break.”
We all did, whether we felt like perhaps we needed it or not. But this year all college football fans can agree that what we needed was for Rivalry Weekend to be restored to its proper place and power. As we break bread on Thursday, even as so many of us sit across from those with whom we are both bound by blood but divided by diplomas, the return of what this Saturday is supposed to be is something we can all be thankful for.
How many Florida State students does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Only one, but he gets three class credits for it.
Did you hear about the South Carolina tailgater who locked his keys in his car? He had to find a coat hanger to get his family out.
Why does the Georgia Tech team plane fly so low? So the pilot can read the road signs.
How do you get a Kentucky fan to laugh all weekend long? Tell him a joke on Monday morning.
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