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Data Journalism: The Most Underrated Rivalry in American Sports History

Photo provided by Hope Athletics

When you think of the greatest rivalries in American sports history, there’s probably a list that you’ve become far too familiar with. Yankees-Red Sox, Cowboys-Redskins, Michigan-Ohio State, North Carolina-Duke, Celtics-Lakers, and even Auburn-Alabama. I apologize to the NHL, most of their true rivalries are between Canadian franchises.

Now while I’m not here to determine which of those rivalries — or any others — is the best rivalry in history, my intentions are to settle a debate almost no one is talking about. The most underrated rivalry in the history of American sports.

For that we have to travel along Interstate 196 to the Great Lake State of Michigan. There you’ll find a men’s basketball rivalry dating back 96 years to 1920. Doused in religion, Hope College and Calvin College share a rivalry that is approaching a century old, a geographic proximity of only 30 miles, and an utter dominance of the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA).

I know your inner voice is probably asking yourself, who are either of these schools? Are they even apart of Division I? Or, better yet, why should I care?

The back story to the rivalry goes something like this: Hope was founded in 1866, and is affiliated with the Reformed Church in America. Calvin, founded in 1876, is affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Both are Christian-based liberal arts colleges, thus creating a rivalry between two institutions that see hardly any differences.

Starting during the 1920-1921 season, Hope currently leads the all-time series 101-93. Through those 194 games, the scoring difference between the teams is less than half-a-point (0.46) per game in favor of Hope. Hope has scored 13,216 points, while Calvin is only 90 points behind with 13,126 points.

I couldn’t make those numbers up if I tried.

To show off their dominance of the MIAA, since 1953 — the year Calvin joined the league — Hope or Calvin have been the league champion or co-champion a total of 60 times. That means there’s only been four seasons where the two teams didn’t have at least a share of the title.

The largest advantage in the series was 17 games by Hope (ending during the 1967-1968 season), while Calvin’s largest advantage was 10 games (from the start of the 1994-1995 season through 1997-1998).

Calvin once defeated Hope 22 consecutive times extending over a decade from 1969-1970 until the second game in 1979-1980.

After the 1968-1969 season, Hope held a commanding 16-win advantage in the series. Calvin then went on their win streak of 22 games to go ahead in the series by six games. Since then, through the 2012-2013 season, the series has exchanged hands five times.

Not to mention, the rivalry has been tied eight different times — the most recent during the 2006-2007 season.

Taking a look at the postseason acumen for the 96-year rivalry, the teams have met 16 times in the MIAA tournament since it began in 1992. Hope owns a 10-6 advantage and is 8-4 when the game determined the tournament champion. Since the 2006-2007 season, the two teams have nearly exchanged MIAA championships, with Hope owning a slight 6-4 edge.

The teams have met six times in the NCAA playoffs with Calvin winning four of the six, with Hope posting back-to-back victories in 2006 and 2007.

There have been a total of 11 overtime games with Hope holding a 6-5 advantage.

Now I know that’s a slew of information and frankly, doesn’t quite justify the caliber of such an underrated rivalry. Perhaps we should compare to the more recognized North Carolina-Duke rivalry.

As of their most recent matchup, the Tar Heels and Blue Devils have matched up a total of 243 times. North Carolina leads the all-time series 134-109, with their rivalry also dating back to 1920.

These two Division I basketball powerhouses share one of the fiercest rivalries in all of sports and are separated by just eight miles along U.S. Highway 15-501 in North Carolina — aka Tobacco Road.

Once we delve into the teams postseason history, the striking similarities between the two rivalries begins to fall apart.

To start off, both North Carolina and Duke are tied third all-time each with five NCAA Tournament Championships.

North Carolina has made 19 Final Four appearances (1st all-time), while Duke has made 16 appearances (4th all-time). In terms of their Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) dominance, Duke has won 19 times (1st) and North Carolina is right behind with 18 (2nd).

Yes, the Carolina-Duke rivalry is a much more intense rivalry mainly because they’ve both consistently been among the nation’s elite men’s basketball teams for most of the last 60 years. Both are also two of the most victorious programs in NCAA men’s basketball history: with Carolina #3 on the all-time list and Duke at #4.

Although the argument being made here isn’t between Hope-Calvin and Carolina-Duke, it’s using the rivalry of Tobacco Road to justify why in the world such a rivalry has been so overlooked — despite its life in Division III athletics.

Their January 29, 1997 game at Van Andel Arena in downtown Grand Rapids, established an NCAA Division III single game attendance record with a capacity crowd of 11,442.

ESPN covered the rivalry in February 2005 and was featured on ESPN.com in July 2007 as “a great, under-the-radar college sports rivalry.” It was also highlighted in ESPN The Magazine in 2009, the third time in four years, as the only small college rivalry to be featured in the article.

The rivalry was also profiled by the New York Times during the 2014-2015 season and to no one’s surprise, was ranked fourth in ESPN’s most recent poll of the nation’s greatest college basketball rivalries — behind only UNC-Duke, UConn-Tennessee (women), and Louisville-Kentucky.

With all of that being said, I feel I’ve made as strong as possible of an argument for the most underrated rivalry in American sports history.

— For further justification, check out the table below.

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