By: Kyle Norris, KCOU Sports
Go up to any Mizzou fan and ask them who is the Tigers’ rival, and more than likely they will tell you it’s that school from out west, the Kansas Jayhawks. Now with all regular season athletic contests with KU done for the time being because of the break up with the Big 12, the big push has been for the new rival to be the University of Arkansas. The football game already has been given the name of the “Battle Line” rivalry.
But there’s one school that Mizzou has consistently played for many years in many sports. They’ve never been conference foes, but they’ve met annually in men’s basketball for more than 30 years, and have played each other many times in sports like baseball, softball, and even football. That one school is the University of Illinois.
It’s easy to forget the rivalry between the two states separated by the mighty Mississippi. The Braggin’ Rights men’s basketball game is played once a year around Christmas. It’s been one of the streakiest rivalries in college basketball. It’s also one of the most underrated. The two schools are known for having competitive programs, but not to the likes of a Duke / North Carolina combo or a Kentucky / Louisville. That doesn’t mean that Mizzou / Illinois games haven’t had games with high-caliber drama.
Let’s travel back in time, 27 years to 1988. It was a point when both schools were in their glory days with Lou Henson at Illinois and Stormin’ Norman, Norm Stewart at Missouri. The Illini would come back from 18 down at halftime to take Braggin’ Rights 87-84. Illini captain Kenny Battle scored 28 points in the game, including two free throws with under 30 seconds left to put the game away.
Travel ahead 5 years to 1993; I was just born. (Whoa.) Mizzou would pull out a 108-107 victory over Illinois in three overtimes. Melvin Booker set a school record 13 assists in the game, setting up clutch shots at the end of regulation and to extend overtime play.
Even times closer to today, specifically just four months ago, the 2014 edition of the Braggin’ Rights game was a classic. Even as Missouri struggled to the 9-win season, one of the best games they played on the year was against their rivals from across the river. With the scored tied 59 all, Mizzou knew who to guard. Rayvonte Rice. The redshirt senior guard for the Illini, who ended up leading the team with 16.5 points a game in 24 games, was Illinois’ go-to guy. He already had 16 points in the game. With only seconds left in the game, Mizzou had Rice double-teamed. Yet Rice still got the ball and threw up a three as time expired, making the shot and giving Illinois the 62-59 win in one of the classic Mizzou / Illinois matchups in recent memory. One thing you are always guaranteed of when you have a Braggin’ Rights game at Scottrade is a NCAA tournament atmosphere before conference play begins for both teams.
The Tigers and Fighting Illini athletic teams square on more than just the hardwood in St. Louis. The women’s squads have faced each other 12 times, with the last time being in 2008. Illinois holds a 9-3 advantage in the series. The Braggin’ Rights baseball rivalry has been a staple in the schedule for both programs. After the Fighting Illini victory on March 31, Mizzou holds a slim 13-12 edge in the series. The softball teams have brought together the rivalry in recent years, with the Tigers holding a 7-1 advantage in the series. The most even series (because the series is tied) is the women’s soccer rivalry. The two teams have faced each other eight times since Mizzou’s program inception in 1996, with each team taking four games. Not to mention the matchups in volleyball, wrestling, and more, these two schools see a lot of each other.
Most sports matchups between these two schools are known as Braggin’ Rights, but one series has it’s own flare. That would be the football series, which when it’s played in St. Louis is called the “Arch Rivalry” (we see what you did there.) The teams have faced off 24 times, with Mizzou holding a 17-7 edge. The two teams haven’t faced off since the last four-year series in St. Louis was not renewed. But since that time, the two programs have went in two directions. You have an Illinois team that has a great year about once a decade and a Tiger team that is in the Top 10 for total wins since 2007. If the series had been renewed back in 2011, who knows how long it would be before Illinois won a game in the series.
These two football programs were at the same point in the late 1990’s. Both schools had hit rock bottom. Since 2001, Illinois has had three head coaches in Ron Turner, Ron Zook and Tim Beckman. But for Mizzou, it has been one man, Gary Pinkel. Pinkel was the hire that has brought Missouri football to national prominence. At one point in time, it looked like Ron Zook was going to do the same for the Illini. In his third year at the school he led the team to nine wins and took Illinois to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1983. But in the following two years, the team would combine for eight wins total, and the team never made it back to the promised land they had reached in 2007 again under Zook. The only difference between these two schools? Missouri got their early 2000’s hire right, Illinois did not.
Missouri and Illinois have never been aligned in the same conference. They never had a war against each other. But these two schools continue to understand the importance of the rivalry and competition. For the Missouri faithful, maybe it’s time to look at the Fighting Illini and think “Well, at least they are willing to play us.” Mizzou and Kansas is hatred. Mizzou and Arkansas is being thrown on the fans. Mizzou and Illinois is a true rivalry.