Winthrop University

Amid shifting conference alignments, can Winthrop and USC Upstate develop a rivalry?

Fielding Faulkenberry watches the screen as Winthrop fans gather at the Winthrop Coliseum to find out who the Eagles face as they travel to the NCAA Tournament. 3-12-2017.
Fielding Faulkenberry watches the screen as Winthrop fans gather at the Winthrop Coliseum to find out who the Eagles face as they travel to the NCAA Tournament. 3-12-2017. Special to The Herald

The public feels the same thing that Winthrop athletic administrators feel right now. The school doesn’t have a sports rival.

Roughly 200 people responded to non-scientific polls on Twitter and Facebook asking if Winthrop has a rival, a simple yes or no question. On Twitter, 76 percent of the 126 respondents said no. On Facebook, 87 percent also said no.

And Winthrop athletic director Ken Halpin and the rest of his athletic department agree.

“If you have it, it’s everything. And if you don’t have it, you downplay it,” said Halpin. “But it hurts not to have it.”

Winthrop did have rivalry once. But that was before Coastal Carolina left the Big South Conference for the Sun Belt in 2016.

In most good rivalries, those involved don’t even know why they hate the other side. They just do. Winthrop students didn’t know what compelled them to show up when Winthrop played Coastal in various sports, to wear t-shirts that clearly expressed their hatred for the Chanticleers. It just felt like the natural thing to do.

But that ephemeral feeling is mostly absent at Winthrop right now.

Winthrop has only played Coastal in women’s lacrosse, women’s soccer and softball since the Chanticleers left the Big South behind. Non-conference games between the schools’ baseball, women’s basketball and men’s soccer and basketball teams, matchups that helped generate the rivalry initially, haven’t transpired.

“It’s weird not to have a rival,” said Matt Martin, Winthrop’s associate athletic director for external operations who came to Rock Hill from South Dakota in 2016. There, Martin was immersed in a local but fierce rivalry between the University of South Dakota, where he worked, and South Dakota State.

The Winthrop-Coastal Carolina rivalry heated up in the early 2000s for several reasons. The schools shared the same state, though not exactly proximity. And they were two of the best sports schools in the Big South for at least a decade. They competed for league titles in men’s basketball, men’s soccer, baseball, and even at the end of Coastal’s tenure, women’s lacrosse.

“I hated to see them leave. It’s a different league without those teams,” said former Winthrop men’s soccer coach Rich Posipanko, who coached at the school for 27 years.

From 2002 to 2015, Winthrop or Coastal each won the Big South Conference men’s soccer championship six times. The rivalry was heated, including a scrap among the two schools’ soccer players at basketball game that involved a Chick-fil A cow mascot. Their games always meant something.

“I don’t know if you’ll ever have that again,” Posipanko said.

‘A real rivalry’

Daniel Feig had been athletic director at USC Upstate for 12 days when his school left the Atlantic Sun Conference last summer and joined the Big South.

“I chuckle with people that I had the shortest tenure ever as an AD in a conference,” he said.

USC Upstate has never really had a Division I rival. The school joined the D-I ranks in 2007, but entered an Atlantic Sun Conference that didn’t lend itself to many geographic rivalries. The New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), an A-Sun member, is located about 700 miles north of Spartanburg.

“We were in a conference that spanned from New Jersey, to Nashville, to south Florida,” Feig said. “We made the transition for a number of reasons but one of the biggest ones was to reestablish and rekindle old rivalries that we had with schools in our locale, that our alumni, students and people in the region are familiar with.”

The constant quaking of college sports conference realignment means there isn’t always time for new rivalries to fully germinate. But where conference realignment has created numerous leagues with far-flung, ill-matched geography (West Virginia in the Big 12 or Maryland in the Big Ten, for example), Upstate has done the opposite.

In the Big South, it has conference opponents as close as 30 miles away (Presbyterian), and several within 60 miles (Winthrop, Gardner-Webb and UNC Asheville).

Feig said 80 percent of Upstate’s 30,000 living alumni live within a two and a half hour radius around Spartanburg. And he thinks that rivalries will sprout naturally within the Big South, simply because Upstate fans will recognize the schools on the new conference schedule.

The Spartans host Winthrop in men’s basketball Saturday. Could these new conference opponents become rivals?

Winthrop and Upstate occupy a similar geographic region within the same state. They have similarly-sized enrollments, between 5,000 and 6,000. And Feig suspects that the two public schools get enrollment applications from some of the same prospective students.

“I hope that we’ll be in this conference a long time and establish a real rivalry with Winthrop,” said Feig.

“Can Upstate be a rivalry? Absolutely,” said Halpin. “But in order to have a rivalry there has to be multiple competitions with significant stakes involved. Both programs at the point in which they collide, have to be battling it out at the top.”

Can’t force it

Tradition takes time to bud, then bloom. It’s part of what creates the depth of feeling that accompanies college sports. Rivalry is very similar.

“A true rivalry can’t be manufactured,” said Halpin.

And he would know. When he worked at Eastern Washington, the school attempted to manufacture a rivalry with Portland State. They called it the Dam Cup, in honor of the seven dams on the Columbia River between the two schools. The name was kind of funny, and Halpin helped create a web site that measured fan support from the two schools and thought it was the niftiest idea.

It bombed. And the rivalry never took off.

“It almost takes circumstances beyond your control.” Halpin said. “And you can fuel it but you have to be competing for championships for one to develop.”

Martin was a football player at Eastern Washington and remembers wondering why the school was so gung-ho about the game against Portland State. Eastern Washington beat Portland State almost every year in football at the time. It wasn’t a rivalry. Everyone knew that.

“That’s the trick as administrators,” said Martin. “We all want rivalries so that our fans get engaged. Ideally, all of the sudden starting this year would be a nasty, fun rivalry between Upstate and us. But the worst thing you can do is if you try to manufacture a rivalry and the fans don’t buy in, then it lacks authenticity. That’s almost the worst thing you can do.”

Rivalry has to be competitive, which helped the Winthrop-Asheville basketball competition smolder the last 10, 11 years. But it hasn’t really carried over to other sports.

That’s what made the rivalry with Coastal special and real. The schools’ sports teams were competitive with each other and within the league, and it just happened.

“Nobody forced Coastal,” said Posipanko. “There was respect but there was a lot of hate.”

The decision-makers in Winthrop’s athletic department know that a rivalry with Upstate, or any other school, can’t be forced. Halpin unabashedly points to his ill-fated attempt to help foster rivalry between his former school and Portland State. But at least people recognized the attempt, even if it failed.

Another Winthrop athletics admin, Brittany Lane, could point to an even flatter attempt at sparking rivalry by her former employer, the University of South Carolina, and its cross-division SEC partner, Texas A&M. The winner of the South Carolina and Texas A&M football game gets the Bonham Trophy, an idea cooked up by former governors Rick Perry and Nikki Haley.

Nobody really knows why, or cares. The trophy, which is really a piece of art, is a beautiful symbol of an attempted manufactured rivalry that lacks, A) authenticity and fan support, and B) a competitive series. Texas A&M has won all five games since the trophy was created.

When asked about the Bonham Trophy this past season, Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp had no idea it even existed, or where it was kept.

“Well, hell, we ain’t won, so we don’t have it over here, I can tell you that,” he said.

Go into the locker room with the Winthrop men's basketball team before its game against Davidson College on Dec. 4, 2018, with this 360 video of coach Pat Kelsey's pregame speech.

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