The Apple Cup sometimes seems like an irrelevant rivalry, but … it’s the American struggle at heart, y’all


The Apple Cup — an annual football clash between Washington State University (Pullman) and University of Washington (Seattle) — has been played roughly 105 times. In that period, both teams have been ranked only five times: 1936, 1972, 1981, 1997, and 2001. In fact, this year’s game — being played today — is the first time that both schools have been bowl-eligible prior to the kickoff since 2002. This is a big thing in Washington state (and Idaho, etc.): this year’s game finally has meaning, and only a couple of years removed from “The Crapple Bowl” — when 0-10 Washington met 1-10 WSU in 2008. This year, both teams seem bowl-bound, and the added relevance — not as much of a factor for the past decade, admittedly — caused tailgating to commence around 6:30am PT:

Think about that in terms of rivalry series in college football; in 105 years, the two teams have been ranked five times. Now consider this: between 1970 and 1975 alone, OSU and Michigan were both ranked in the top five before their end-of-season meeting. Ah, you say! Those schools are in the Midwest, and have a richer and deeper football history to cull from! OK. Consider this, then: in the last 13 years of the “Civil War” (Oregon vs. Oregon State), we’ve seen three BCS Bowl trips decided one way or the other. The last time that happened in the Apple Cup was 1997, when Washington State locked up their trip to the Rose Bowl with a win.

This is all a long way of saying that even a diehard college football denizen might sleep on the Apple Cup as a great rivalry game, but … they should not. In fact, the Apple Cup has going for it what many other notable rivalries at the college level do: it’s a perceived battle between the haves and the have-nots of a given state. Since I’m not from Washington state and have only been there for a series of failed job interviews, let me turn this one over to someone who would know better: Drew Bledsoe, former Coug (WSU) QB and one-time No. 1 overall NFL draft pick. Here’s an essay he wrote for Sports Illustrated back on their 50th anniversary:

Football does, however, make headlines in Washington, and the annual Apple Cup game between Washington State and Washington is the state’s biggest sporting event. What makes the game special is that it’s a rivalry between the haves (Washington) and the have nots (Washington State). When you grow up on the eastern side of the state, as I did, you view the people on the western side as rich and snobby. Seattle is, after all, the home of Microsoft (and UW). We Easterners like to think of ourselves as blue-collar, hardworking farming people. So the Apple Cup isn’t merely a battle of football programs; it’s a battle of ideals and lifestyles.

Couldn’t have really said it any better myself. Bledsoe was also part of one of the more visually-stunning Apple Cup editions of all-time:

(That play was voted as the most iconic moment in WSU football history by fans on CougCenter, FYI.)

Here’s the broader takeaway: American income inequality keeps growing. (There’s even an animated map you can follow!) The “haves” get richer; the “have-nots” fall behind. The divide between urban and rural on this issue has led to secession discussions. Football is just a game; it’s not life. But it has become our country’s most popular game, and college football creates and defines allegiances that often last for life; in sum, it’s important to people. So when you see a rivalry that, in the mind of perhaps its most famed combatant (apologies to Steve Gleason, Brock Huard, and others), is an almost-literal battle between the elites and the workers, well … that’s kinda interesting.

The Apple Cup is on Fox Sports in about two hours. You can watch it for a myriad of reasons: you’re a fan of one of the teams, you believe the turnaround story of Mike Leach is interesting, you want to see Bishop Sankey break some records, you like seeing games played in potential snow conditions, you’re bored and fat and eating leftover turkey, or … you feel like rooting for the little guy in the grand, ever-intense battle between haves and have-nots in our society. A little too deep? Perhaps. But what makes college football so great is the passion it brings up in people, and that passion is often rooted in the perception of what that school is, what that school’s alumni become, etc. UW-WSU don’t always go head-to-head with titles on the line, but they might be fighting every year for what’s really important in our society. And hey, if nothing else, last year’s game was a friggin’ barnburner:

Ted Bauer