The Braggin’ Rights game is one of my favorite moments every year. It’s a great holiday tradition and almost always a great basketball game in a city I care deeply about since I grew up just across the river. I’ll always remember the first time I went to the game seeing fans hanging over the railings of the then-Savvis Center — but real fans always know it’s the Kiel Center — battling back and forth with M-I-Z, Z-0U, and I-L-L, I-N-I. It’s the best non-conference annual rivalry game each season due to the special true neutral site nature of it.
It’s a truly special and unique game.
It’s also the one true rivalry game that Illinois has in the two major sports. The one game where the other team cares just as much as we do about winning the game. Mizzou fans may try to tell you they don’t care about this game — since they have Kansas, which will always be their biggest rival due to the Civil War history — but they’ll only say this claim about Braggin’ Rights because they lose so often.
But the players care. People in the St. Louis area really care. It’s a huge game no matter what every year.
But there has always been a friendliness to it. There hasn’t been the venom you see between Clemson and South Carolina — whose schools literally went to war with one another, and not the 10 years Ohio State-Michigan kind. Actual war with guns. — or many other rivalries throughout the college sports landscape. There is a reason this is called the Braggin’ Rights* game while other rivalries get names like the Border War, or my favorite: Good Ole’ Fashioned Hate between Georgia and Georgia Tech.
*To be fair, part of the Braggin’ Rights name comes from the human weakness of always falling for alliteration with the game sponsor Busch. I do not recognize the name Bud Light Braggin’ Rights, only Busch, which also is the superior beer. Budweiser > Busch Heavy > Busch Light > Bud Light.
There is a strong respect between the programs and the fanbases. There isn’t a lot of animosity, and while the atmosphere is always intense and passionate, it never crosses the line into anything ugly. You want to win for *drum roll please* Braggin’ Rights? It isn’t a game that makes or breaks a season. It’s just as simple as that. Braggin’ Rights.
But that now may no longer be the case. As someone who helps monitor and run our lovely Twitter account, I can tell you that it’s becoming more toxic between the fans of both schools. Mizzou fans are now very quick to laugh at our misfortunes and take jabs that wouldn’t have been taken before, and we do the same with them.
I used to root for Mizzou when they weren’t playing Illinois, especially in the 2007 football season when the Tigers almost made a run to the BCS Title game with Chase Daniels, but rooting for a Mizzou team now? Please.
There are a few factors that have made this rivalry turn more sour.
Mizzou Volleyball has three former Illini on its team, and the Mizzou Basketball team has three former Illinois signees on the roster in Jeremiah Tilmon, Javon Pickett and Mark Smith — who all happen to be from the Metro East, where Cunozo Martin, Mizzou’s new coach, is from.
Martin also has history with the Fighting Illini as he almost committed to the team during his playing days before heading to Purdue.
There were some Illini fans — including myself — that would have liked to see Martin get a shot at the job when John Groce was fired due to his past recruiting success and his connections to the recruiting hotbed in the St. Louis area.
Martin has now gone over the river to find some new players, an area that has mostly been dominated by Illinois in recruiting between the two schools. Both football programs are also heavily focused on the area. Illinois brought in Cory Patterson out of Trinity Catholic who helped sign Isaiah Williams and Moses Okpala — and probably soon Shammond Cooper — who were guys Mizzou Football wanted. Meanwhile, Mizzou signed Jack Buford and Jalani Williams, who both held Illinois offers, and the Tigers have a good shot at brining in Trinity’s Ira Henry.
With recruiting battles like this it’s no wonder we are starting to see the fanbases more confrontational than anytime in recent memory. The battles in football and basketball in this area will continue to play out more in the coming years, which is why this particular game is so important. Well, that, and the name of one player we mentioned briefly before: Former Mr. Basketball in Illinois, Mark Smith.
I’m not going to take the time to get into any speculation about why Mark Smith transferred away from Illinois after only one season. All that matters is that it happened and there were clearly some unspoken issues between Underwood and Smith. Underwood made the split as smooth as it could be, even supporting Smith’s petition for immediate eligibility, which was granted.
What I will say is that Mark Smith, and how Illinois can perform in the next three seasons against him and Mizzou in this annual game, is huge for the recruiting narrative between the schools in the St. Louis area.
If Mizzou was to win, the Tigers could easily spin a story about how Mizzou is the school for kids in the Metro East. Cuonzo Martin is highly respected by coaches there already, and if he is able to sell a story about how he took a very disgruntled Edwardsville native from Illinois and Underwood AND took him to Columbia where he turned his career around and started to enjoy playing basketball again, it will only help Martin’s reputation as a guy who really cares about people from the 618. That reputation could also spill over into football recruiting where the biggest battles currently are. Combine Smith with Tilmon and Pickett also choosing to go to Mizzou to play for Martin when Illinois hired Underwood, as well as a few wins in a row by the Tigers, and the Illini dominance in the area will be damaged catastrophically.
On the other hand, if Illinois was to keep its streak alive in this matchup, that narrative will never come-to-be. Mizzou could still try as Mark Smith is having a great season with Mizzou now, but if Illinois would be able to counter with, “well yeah, and we still beat him, so?”, the potential takeover of the Metro East pipeline could be slowed or even stopped. Mark Smith could just be one player who didn’t mesh with the coaching staff at Illinois, but the Illini are just fine without him.
If Illinois wins and Mark Smith is the only Tiger with a Braggin’ Rights victory, then the perception down there stays the same. Lose, and the pipeline could start to loosen.
This recruiting battle and Smith going to Mizzou has me more excited for the Braggin’ Rights game than I have been since both teams were ranked in the top 15. This is a huge game and everything going on around it between the fanbases, and both athletic departments make it more than just about braggin’.
Let’s go and get it.
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