Feb. 10, 2005
Charleston, SC - It was the Cold War of Charleston.
By December of 1976, The Citadel and College of Charleston basketball teams had studiously avoided playing each other for 20 years. In fact, the non-aggression pact was so thoroughly enforced that the Bulldogs and Cougars had met only once in the previous 40 years.
"The two schools -- separated only by a bundle of old houses -- politely ignored each other," reported the local newspaper.
But the Cold War thawed on Dec. 7, 1976, when College of Charleston beat The Citadel by 81-72 to win the first Citadel Invitational. The celebrating Cougars cut down one of the nets at McAlister Field House, and there's been little polite about the rivalry since.
"So what? Why don't you get a football team?" a Citadel cadet was heard to say in the aftermath of that game.
Some things never change.
But some things do, and The Citadel vs. College of Charleston rivalry - which celebrates its 75th edition today at McAlister -- has evolved into one of the rarest rivalries in Division I college basketball. Only a few cities can claim rival teams that play in the same league, and Charleston is one of them.
In Philadelphia, St. Joseph's, Temple and LaSalle of the Atlantic 10 are three of the legendary Big Five in Philly hoops. In Los Angeles, people watch the Southern Cal-UCLA battles in the Pac 10 when not obsessing over Kobe. The Boston University-Northeastern feud in the America East is really about hockey. And did you know Illinois-Chicago and Loyola Chicago both play in the Horizon League?
"Without a doubt, having two colleges in the same conference in the same city playing twice each season makes the games so meaningful," said former College of Charleston coach John Kresse, who coached against The Citadel from 1983 until his retirement after the 2002 season. "I think the players and the students, more than the coaches, want bragging rights.
"The cadets come over on the weekends and want to date our coeds, and sometimes that's not too popular with our students. We don't have football and we have a good rivalry in baseball, but basketball has been very special over the years. Without a doubt, it's the best rivalry in the Southern Conference."
So then, why did the Cougars and Bulldogs play each other only once from 1937 to the 1976-77 season?
"Because College of Charleston was NAIA back then, and The Citadel was Division I," Kresse recalled. "The Citadel felt like it had more to lose than to gain from the game, even with a victory against the College."
For 40 years, the only Citadel coach brave enough to play the game was Hank Witt in 1955-56. The Bulldogs were 2-19 that season, but one of those wins was a 56-52 victory over College of Charleston.
The potential rivalry lay dormant until The Citadel hired Les Robinson in 1974. Robinson was friends with Cougars coach Alan LeForce, and the two cooked up a way to get the clubs together -- The Citadel would invite College of Charleston and Baptist College to a tournament at McAlister.
The Cougars beat Baptist and The Citadel to win the tournament, but the Bulldogs got their revenge the next season.
"That's how we started it back up, and it was very obviously a heck of a rivalry right from the beginning," said Robinson, now athletic director at The Citadel.
Even so, the teams did not play again until 1983, when College of Charleston was opening its new arena at the F. Mitchell Johnson Center. College of Charleston president Edward Collins Jr. wanted a name opponent to celebrate the opening, and persuaded the brass at The Citadel to play the game.
"Our president asked, as a favor, that they would play in our new building," Kresse said. "We wanted a Division I game of prominence for our new facility."
The Cougars' 63-50 victory was the first game televised in the Johnson Center. The Citadel won the rematch at McAlister later that season, and College of Charleston went on to win the 1983 NAIA national championship.
The teams have played every year since then, and the Cougars have dominated the series as they've gone from NAIA to Division I, joining the SoCon in 1998-99. The Bulldogs have won just six of 30 meetings since 1983.
As the Bulldogs and Cougars prepare to meet today, both coaches have more on their minds than rivalry. Citadel coach Pat Dennis' club (12-9, 4-7) has lost four straight games. College of Charleston coach Tom Herrion's Cougars (14-7, 7-4) are coming off their worst SoCon loss ever, an 82-59 drubbing at Chattanooga on Monday.
"My team is coming off a disheartening loss, so I'd like to think that regardless of the opponent, we'll prepare ourselves well to rebound from that," said Herrion, who said he expects a "physical" Citadel team to play 40 minutes of zone defense.
Said Dennis: "Our biggest concern is to get back to doing the little things we were doing earlier in the year to win. We haven't been doing those things as well lately. We know we're in for a battle with an athletic, well-coached team."
-- Tonight's game will be televised by C-SET, which is available on Time-Warner Cable in Florence, Rock Hill and Columbia. It is not available on Comcast Cable in Charleston.
-- The two schools disagree over the series record. The Citadel has it tied at 37-37, while College of Charleston has The Citadel leading, 38-36.
Senior Kedron Young is the only current Bulldog to be a member of a Citadel team that has defeated the College of Charleston.