What makes the Battle of the Boulevard so special?
NASHVILLE, TN - The last time that Belmont and Lipscomb played at Memorial Coliseum -- the home of the Vanderbilt Commodores, a fellow Nashvillian institution of higher learning -- they not only packed the house with 16,000 fans, they had to lock out ticket-holders in order to prevent the fire marshall from shutting down the game.
That was all the way back in 1990.
Now, Belmont and Lipscomb have a combined enrollment of about 9,000 students today. But 22 years ago, there were probably have as many enrolled students at the two universities. That fact alone goes to show you just how passionate these fan bases are that they were able to sell out Memorial Coliseum.
Now consider this: Belmont went Division I in 1997. Lipscomb followed suit a couple of years later in 2000.
Back in 1990, the two schools were members of the NAIA. Granted, they were both powerhouse programs competing for national titles year in and year out, but they were still NAIA schools.
Have you ever been to an NAIA game? Me neither. And more than 16,000 still showed up to see these two teams play.
That should give you an idea of what this rivalry is all about.
What makes the intensity of this rivalry so unique is that both schools embody the lost philosophy of the student-athlete.
There are a couple of players that took the court at the Curb Center on Belmont’s campus on Friday night that may be able to play basketball professionally someday. There are a lot of leagues overseas, and there is a reason these kids were able to get their education paid for through hoops. They certainly aren’t bad basketball players.
But NBA scouts weren’t beating down the doors of the Curb Center trying to get one last credential for the game. John Calipari didn’t recruit any of these kids out of high school. The game wasn’t televised anywhere, let alone on ESPN.
In other words, even if one of the kids from Belmont or Lipscomb does play for pay when their collegiate career comes to a close, they won’t be making a life-changing amount of money. Eventually, they are all going to go pro in something other than sports.
“Its just two programs that are trying to do things the right way,” Lipscomb head coach Scott Sanderson said after the game. “A lot of times people cut corners trying to do a lot of stuff, trying to recruit good kids. Everyone here is going to graduate, which is very important to both of us.”
Belmont is a school with very strong music and arts programs, and being located a stone’s throw from downtown Nashville -- the Music City -- makes it difficult to get a casual fan base to make time in a busy schedule to come see a game. Lipscomb has similar issues with their athletics programs. Their school is affiliated with the Church of Christ, which means that things like drinking and partying and even staying out past 11 pm is not allowed. The Bison faithful aren’t exactly shotgunning beers outside of Allen Arena prior to the game.
The lack of interest in athletics as a whole is a negative and a positive.
Both the Bruins and the Bison have trouble selling tickets to the majority of their home games, and its understandable. I’m a basketball junkie and you’d have a tough time convincing me its worthwhile to pay for a ticket to the Florida-Gulf Coast come to town. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to convince an aspiring country music star to skip a gig at one of the local honky-tonks to see a game against 2-14 Jacksonville.
But it also helps to build up the intensity for the times that the two schools do share a court. The Battle of the Boulevard is more than just a basketball game; its an event. Its something that people look forward to, talk trash prior to and attend because it fills their social agenda.
“Its an event and everybody hypes it up and talks trash on facebook and everyone promotes the game and comes out,” Belmont senior forward Mick Hedgepeth said. “The news comes to our practice the day of the game and I’m sure it goes to their’s. To see what the coaches and players have to say. Its a blast.”
Case in point: Belmont SID Greg Sage said that even though Belmont’s basketball team has been relevant nationally for the past few years, he still has a tough time convincing some of the local media to come cover a game. That will happen when you’re team is far from the only game in town.
But on Friday afternoon, both of the FM sports radio stations in Nashville were broadcasting their afternoon drive-time shows live from the student center right outside the doors to Belmont’s arena.
That doesn’t happen unless Lipscomb is visiting.
The Battle of the Boulevard dates all the way back to 1953.
This year’s first installment, an 85-74 come from behind victory on the road for Lipscomb in front of a Curb Center record crowd of 5,227, was the 129th in the history of the series. The Bison improved to 73-56 all-time vs. Belmont with the win. They’ve played as NAIA teams and as members of Division II. They’ve shared conference affiliations in the Volunteer State Athletic Conference and the TransSouth before the Atlantic Sun. And while Belmont is currently the stronger hoops program, it wasn’t always that way.
“They had the upper hand, they were a phenomenal NAIA powerhouse,” Belmont head coach Rick Byrd told Kyle Whelliston of the Mid-Majority in his book “One Beautiful Season”, which chronicled his travels during the 2009-2010 season. “But we challenged them, and by 1994-95 we beat them six times in a roe. For the first ten years, I was just trying to get us to the point when we were good enough for us to beat Lipscomb. At the beginning, everyone at the school was saying ‘We’ve got to be Lipscomb, we’ve got to beat Lipscomb’. My thought was that we had to get good enough to beat the other teams in the league, and then we could start thinking about beating the best. That’s how good Lipscomb was.”
When Byrd first took the Belmont job back in the mid-1980’s, Lipscomb was being led by Don Meyer, who just so happens to be the all-time winningest coach in college basketball history. Of the 923 wins he had in his career, 665 of them came with the Bison. He built Lipscomb from a team that won just 11 games in his first season into the 1986 NAIA champions, but it was a game that took place at the end of the 1989 season that will go down as one of the most memorable in the history of the rivalry.
Meyer had perhaps his best team in his tenure with the Bison. Lipscomb was 38-1 heading into the league playoffs, but Byrd’s scrappy group of underdogs knocked off the Bison and kept them from advancing to the National Tournament. With the majority of both rosters returning for the 1989-1990, it set the stage for the game in 1990 when, the Bruins opted to move their home game to Memorial Coliseum.
The 16,000 people that were in attendance is still a record for an NAIA game.
Byrd’s program eventually eclipsed that of Meyer so much so that, in 1997, the Bruins decided to move their athletics to the Division I level. They did so in 1997, and after four years as an independent, Belmont landed safely in the Atlantic Sun. Not to be upstaged by their intercity rivals, Lipscomb did the same in 2000. Their tortuous stint as a Divison I independent lasted only three years before they, too, ended up in the Atlantic Sun.
After an eight year hiatus, Belmont and Lipscomb reignited their rivalry. The Battle of the Boulevard was, once again, a conference clash.
The athletes aren’t the only members of the schools that take this rivalry incredibly seriously.
The students do as well.
“You gotta beat them,” TJ Ojehomon, a sophomore an Lipscomb and the school’s athletics hype man said. “Its bragging rights. There’s a lot of pride. Having a successful season kind of rides on beating this team.”
Ojehomon is at every single Lipscomb home game, be it women’s basketball, men’s basketball, volleyball. You name it. He has his seat reserved at the end of the front row, and he spends the majority of the game working up a sweat trying to get the fans of his team into the game. As he describes it, he has “a big responsibility with getting the fans a little rowdy at our games and our athletic events.”
Ojehomon made the trek down the Boulevard to attend the game at Belmont. The way he explains it, the rivalry has more to it than just athletics.
“You don’t have to many schools of equal competition that’s right down the street from each other,” he said. “So when you do get two Division I schools who try to pride themselves on the same morals and try to compete with each other with the students they select and not just the athletics they’re performing? This is a huge game.”
Its not just basketball, either. The attendance at the Belmont’s soccer games increases five-fold when Lipscomb visits. Belmont students head over to Allen Arena to take in the women’s volleyball games with regularity. And all the energy and trash talk that we saw from the 5,227 people in the crowd for Friday’s basketball game?
Its present for the other sports as well.
“Its not one of those love-hate rivalries. We don’t like Belmont, Belmont don’t like us,” Ojehomon said. “They came over to our house for Battle of the Boulevard volleyball. We were doing the same thing, kind of heckling each other and talking a lot of trash, and at the end they came over and shook hands and said ‘Hey man, we had a great time.’ So it is friendly, but when we’re in the heat of it, I don’t like them.”
Braxton Wilson is a fifth-year senior at Belmont and a brother in the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity at Belmont. Playing the role Belmont’s Van Wilder, he’s been to every single Battle of the Boulevard basketball game, home and away, in his time at the school.
But for Wilson, the tone of the rivalry was set the first time he attended a game. As a freshman back in 2007-2008, Lipscomb hosted the first game. Wilson went over with a group of his frat brothers, but the Lipscomb athletic department stuck them up in a corner where their view was blocked by the basket.
“We ended up being so loud and so obnoxious that they never gave us a bad seat again,” Wilson said.
It would be impossible to recap all of the legendary battles waged between these two schools over the past 59 years, but in the mind of John Langdon, a member of Belmont’s athletic department for 14 years and a big enough Bruin supporter that he’s stopped attending the Battle of the Boulevard games in Allen Arena because he can’t handle seeing Belmont losing to their rivals, one game in particular sticks out.
Belmont’s 74-69 overtime win over Lipscomb in the 2006 Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament title game.
“That win kind of sent the two programs on their divergent paths,” Langdon said. Belmont to the top of the league and Lipscomb back to the middle of the pack.
In just their third season in the Division I ranks, Lipscomb had managed a tie with the Bruins for the league’s regular season title. The two teams had split during the regular season, meaning that not only were bragging rights in the city on the line, a first-ever NCAA Tournament bid for either school was up for grabs. The importance of the game for the two programs could not have been overstated.
The excitement of the game didn’t let the crowd down, either. With less than 30 seconds left in regulation, Jordan Hare drove for an and-one layup, hitting the free throw to tie the game and force overtime, where the Bruins would eventually win and advance to their first of four NCAA Tournament. In 2008, Belmont lost to Duke by one in the first round of the NCAA Tournament when Gerald Henderson scored on a driving layup with 11.9 seconds left and the Bruins came up short on two opportunities in the final ten seconds.
Last season, the Bruins won 30 games and earned a 13 seed in the Big Dance, where they lost to Wisconsin by 14 in the first round. With the majority of their roster returning, Belmont was once again considered the favorite in the Atlantic Sun and one of the few mid-majors to get consideration for the top 25 prior to the season. Lipscomb has yet to make another serious run at getting an NCAA Tournament bid.
And if you believe the folks at Belmont, it was that win in 2006 that made all the difference.
The other unique part of this rivalry is that for all the hatred on the court and the vitriol spewed from the stands during the games, the majority of the players are friends.
Or, the very least, friendly.
“I know some of their older guys being a senior,” Hedgepeth said. “I see them around, I like a couple of those guys. I’m friendly with them. But once you cross those lines, their is no friends.”
The way the Atlantic Sun is set up, every team in the league has a travel partner, and, obviously, Belmont and Lipscomb are travel partners. When Belmont plays at Jacksonville, Lipscomb plays at North Florida. Two days later, when Lipscomb is playing at Jacksonville, Belmont is playing at North Florida. Its like that every time they travel.
And it can set up some awkward situations.
“We flew back from Jacksonville Thursday, [a day before the Battle of the Boulevard], and we were on the same plane,” Sanderson said. "[Coach Byrd] was on one side of the aisle watching film and I was on the other side of the aisle watching film.”
Can you imagine Coach K and Roy Williams watching tape of each other’s teams sitting across the aisle from each other on a plane the day before UNC played Duke? I can’t.
“We’re friends. We don’t talk all the time, but we’re nice to one another and we respect one another,” Sanderson said.
Players at this level are no different than players are the high-major programs. They know that they shouldn’t tell members of the press anything that would make it up onto the wall of an opponent’s locker room, even if those members of the press are simply a pair of bloggers on a cross-country trip. That said, you could still get a sense of the intensity of this rivalry through the sugar-coated quotes from members of both teams.
“I do think that it’s not any fun to lose this game. It’s not any fun to lose any game, but it’s been a long, long time since we’ve been upset,” Byrd said after his team’s loss on Friday night. “If you want to say that last year’s loss at their place was an upset, you can, but they were picked to win the league and it was on their home floor. I don’t remember when we’ve been upset before that. It’s a long, long stretch, so I’m proud of what our team has accomplished. There aren’t many people who can go back over a year and a half and say that they haven’t been upset. This was an upset, based on where the teams were at the time, and how they’ve played to this point, but they outplayed us and deserved to win.”
“The games haven’t been as close here recently. When Scott first got in the league, it seemed like we had overtime games every time. They haven’t been as good recently, but it’s the toughest game for us to lose ... a Lipscomb game on our floor.”
Its not just the coaches, either.
“We do play some pickup in the summer and we do have some friends on the other team,” Jacob Arnett, a redshirt junior at Lipscomb, said after Friday’s win. “We’ll hang out and stuff like that. Its not all hatred except on the court.”
“And maybe a little bit off it.”
Last year, Belmont hosted the Battle of the Boulevard on January 13th. It was a Thursday and came just one day after Belmont started classes for the spring semester. In 2009-2010, the game was held at Belmont on January 26th, a full two weeks into the semester. In 2008-2009, Belmont hosted the game on January 12th. It was a Monday and while classes had yet to start -- they were beginning the Wednesday of that week -- the dorms had opened on the 11th, meaning that the students were back on campus.
This season, the Curb Center played host to the Battle of the Boulevard on January 6th, which is the earliest that this rivalry has taken place since both school became members of the Atlantic Sun back in the 2003-2004 season.
This year, Belmont’s dorms opened up on New Year’s Day. Their classes started on Wednesday, January 4th. Every Belmont student was back on campus for the game.
“We don’t start school until Monday,” Sanderson said. “We usually have a whole section full with our people. That’s what the rivalry is about, to have that environment in here.”
Does that make this win feel that much better?
With a smile as he walked away, Sanderson simply said “It does.”