Unless you’ve lived in Arizona, attended one of the state’s two universities or experienced a Territorial Cup game live, you don’t understand just how much animus runs in the Arizona-Arizona State rivalry.
“Just about every school has a rivalry,” said Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez. “We just happen to have one of the most intense in the country.”
I know, I know. You hear similar things about other college football rivalries, but trust me on this. I grew up in the Grand Canyon State and graduated from one of the universities. Having covered other rivalries within the sport, I can write without hesitation that the Duel in the Desert ranks among the most intense and bitter.
There's nothing like it… pic.twitter.com/MhLY8xwk9r
— Sun Devil Football (@FootballASU) November 19, 2015
Standing on a street corner on Arizona State’s campus 10 years ago, I’d just finished covering my first Duel for the University of Arizona newspaper. Maintaining objectivity is among the most basic tenets of sports journalism, but having just filed a recap and column from Arizona’s 23-20 loss at Sun Devil Stadium, I must have worn my disappointment a little too clearly.
How else could a Jeep full of ASU undergrads known to shout, “UofA sucks!” along with a few other, more colorful phrases, before peeling out? I was in a neutral-colored button-up — green, to be exact — and slacks.
Somehow, Wildcats and Sun Devils can just spot one another. Don’t question it; it’s science.
Allegiances are often passed through generations. Times change, but the intensity between fan bases remain the same. Whereas my dad, an ardent Wildcat fan, unplugged the phone after Duel losses in my childhood to avoid fielding harassing calls from his ASU-grad buddies, today’s equivalent is shutting off notifications on text messages.
The longer I’ve covered college football professionally, the further removed I’ve become from traditional fan mentality. Today, I appreciate quality football and I frankly don’t have the capacity to hate, dislike, choose-your-verb Arizona State. And there are probably Arizona alumni getting on the phone after reading that sentence to ask if I can have my degree retroactively revoked.
The rancor is real and all-consuming, and goes beyond the gridiron. Brass from the two schools butted heads decade ago, particularly in 1958. Head coach Todd Graham cited the ’58 referendum that turned Tempe State Teachers College into Arizona State University as a watershed moment for establishing the rivalry’s intensity.
This transcends a series of undergrad pranks (ASU got a doozy over on UA this fall), some heated games or even just proximity. The hostility is deep-seeded, and the Duel is merely a manifestation of that.
Hoisting the Territorial Cup at season’s end defines Arizona and Arizona State’s respective seasons, and both Rodriguez and Graham said that was made evident to them immediately upon their hires in late 2011.
“Regardless of what’s at stake in the conference race, you know there’s going to be a lot of emotion from the fans and from the players,” Rodriguez said.
Graham took it a step further.
“It’s the most important thing here, period,” he said. “You can win 11 games, go 11-1, and you lose this game, you’ve had an unsuccessful season.”
Certain installments in the Duel’s 89-game history reflect Graham’s sentiment. Arizona State’s 1982 season ended 10-2 with a Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma, but that campaign will forever be punctuated with the Sun Devils’ 28-18 loss to the 6-4-1 Wildcats. That began a decade-long dominance of the Cup on Arizona’s end.
Fourteen years in the infamous “Ultimatum Bowl,” one-loss Arizona had just broken into the Top 20 and Wildcats head coach Darrell Mudra demanded the Sun Bowl accept his team prior to the Duel. Arizona State gave Mudra the receipt for his hubris: a 30-7 thrashing.
The Ultimatum bowl was a prelude to the Frank Kush era, in which the Sun Devils placed their pitchfork prominently in the series.
Last year’s meeting added a new, important chapter to the rivalry. UCLA’s loss to Stanford the same day made the Territorial Cup a de facto Golden Ticket into the Pac-12 Championship Game.
The contest itself befit a championship bout, with Arizona outlasting the Sun Devils in a 42-35 decision that gave Rodriguez his first Territorial Cup.
This season’s meeting lacks the implications. The Wildcats snapped out of a three-game losing skid last week to eek into bowl eligibility. Arizona State ended its own three-game skid, but remains one victory shy of that all-important bowl bid.
The stakes as far as the Pac-12 are concerned are lower. Between the Wildcats and Sun Devils, however, the 90th edition of the Duel in the Desert is every bit as meaningful as the previous 89. For almost 365 days, the losing side’s left with that silver embodiment of the rivalry in the back of everyone’s mind.
“I’m not thinking about anything else but the Territorial Cup,” Graham said.
NOTE: The definitive examination of the rivalry is my friend Shane Dale’s book, Territorial. I recommend it for college football fans of any affiliation. It’s even a rarity that both Wildcats and Sun Devils can agree on.