Border Battle should bring excitement to Idaho athletics, falls flat instead
The Idaho men’s basketball team defeated the Washington State Cougars 77-71 Wednesday night for the first time since 2002. It was also the team’s first win in Coug territory since 1989.
The two teams have played each other for 109 consecutive seasons. It’s the sixth longest rivalry in the nation, behind only Ivy League schools, and it’s the longest rivalry in the Western United States.
To top it off, the Palouse is a rarity — it’s the only place in the country where two Division I universities sit just eight miles apart. While the differences in the two schools may be abundant, they have more in common than most based simply on location.
With a rivalry that dates back to 1906, one might expect to see annual Border Battle excitement — full arenas with fans from both sides bearing school colors, pride and enthusiasm for a bit of healthy competition.
Instead, both teams were met Wednesday with a near-empty Beasley Coliseum containing fewer than a handful of students from either side and a sprinkling of Cougar alumni. The atmosphere gave the impression of a friendly practice matchup rather than a 278-game-long rivalry.
The lack of attendance on the Cougar side was a bit surprising, considering the effort put in by the so-called “Zzu Cru” and WSU student body to “Invade Idaho” in 2011 and 2013. But with long-standing rivalries in the Pac-12 Conference as well, and what’s expected to be a less-than thrilling season for the Cougs, it was understandable. Disappointing, but understandable.
Idaho, on the other hand, lacks any semblance of a conference rivalry as it heads back into the Big Sky for the first time since 1996, and nonconference, in-state “rival” Boise State refuses to make a trip up to Moscow for any sort of athletic competition.
The Border Battle is Idaho’s one opportunity to get fans — particularly students — truly excited about tradition and competition, and every year they fail to do so.
It’s no secret Idaho’s money-making sports programs haven’t put many Ws in the books in recent years, and when teams aren’t winning games, it’s hard for any athletic department to fill seats. But with two schools eight miles apart and a rivalry so long-standing, it should be a little easier for at least one game each season.
For a university that places so much pride in tradition — a reason many students are drawn to the school — Idaho fails to recognize when it could fully exploit rituals dating back to the early 1900s. It’s not difficult to take initiative and build excitement around a single game, especially one with so much history.
But few students even knew the game was taking place Wednesday, and of those that did, even fewer had any inclination to attend. It’s as simple as a weeklong campaign with a slogan — “Crush the Cougs” or something equally cheesy — a few hundred t-shirts, basic social media outreach and several buses to transport interested members of the general student body eight whole miles. This year, the Idaho band and Spirit Squad didn’t even make the trek.
Idaho has built a new tradition and it doesn’t include marketing to students, maybe because their tickets are sold whether they attend the games or not, or maybe the department has developed the misguided idea that students will come anyway.
Students bring the competitive atmosphere of spirit and pride, their presence makes a noticeable difference in the athletes’ demeanor and, at the end of the day, athletics exist for and because of the student body as a whole — not just for alumni and donors.
This weekend, the Idaho club hockey team will take on WSU in another Battle of the Palouse. The stakes aren’t the same as varsity sports, but the implications are still there — bragging rights, another Idaho victory and the chance to contribute to the healthy competitive spirit that should exist between these two schools. With what little advertising and social media outreach the club team has done, there’s sure to be more than a handful of Vandals bundled up to watch the game.
Maybe it’ll spark the return of a rivalry, or maybe it’ll continue to falter as Idaho continues to ignore the traditions that make it unique.
Kaitlyn Krasselt can be reached at email@example.com