Why It’s A Rivalry: Marquette/Wisconsin is more than proximity

I was listening to the new 97.3 The Game and The Double Team last Wednesday — because everyone should — when a caller decided to accuse producer Armen Saryan and his alma mater of Marquette of teaching kids to be “jealous” of all things associated with the Wisconsin Badgers.

It’s at this point that I remind people of the conflicted nature of the Marquette Courtside blog: It’s a blog about Marquette Basketball, written by a guy who grew up a Marquette fan, but is under the employ of both iHeart in the fall and winter and Marquette Athletics in the fall and spring as a PA announcer. The blog is on the websites for stations that carry Wisconsin Athletics, so it truly can’t poke too many jabs at the team the station carries or its fans. To make it easier not to do that, and to avoid other conflicts of interest, I write the blog from the perspective of a well-informed journalist rather than a fan, though I feel my history as a fan informs the perspective. It’s still important for the blog to recognize the rivalry, though, since it’s important to its target audience of Marquette fans. I know, having been one myself.

The fan part of me wants to take a swing at the caller — figuratively, through words, not physical blows. But this isn’t the place for that. Journalist Dan, however, noted Double Team hosts Bob Brainerd and Dario Melendez saying they aren’t always sure why it’s such a rivalry. The caller proved it’s not just Marquette fans who have strong feelings about the matter. I have a feeling Saryan, in a similar boat to me, probably wanted to stand up for Marquette, but hesitated due to his own iHeart employment.

Brainerd and Melendez hinted they may bring up the “why” of the rivalry again this week, as the big game is coming up Saturday. We’re going to start the discussion here because I think there are an abundance of reasons it’s a rivalry that goes deeper than basketball. Here are just a few:

  • STYLES OF PLAY. The fact we’re starting with this tells you there are bigger cultural schisms to come. It’s true, though. Marquette, dating back to Al McGuire, has employed a more up-tempo, free-wheeling, fluid style of basketball, dependent on guard play. Wisconsin, meanwhile, has settled into a style championed by Bo Ryan, advocating post work and size along with guards who aren’t so much creative as able to play in the system and not make mistakes. Marquette fans aren’t afraid to call Wisconsin boring. Badger fans see the style as consistent and successful for disciplined, direction-following kids, and may accuse MU of not having those qualities.
  • PUBLIC AND PRIVATE. Obviously, Wisconsin is a state school and Marquette is Jesuit Catholic. I, myself, am a product of public schools, including UWM, whose relationship to both MU and UW is a separate discussion. The vast majority of kids at my public high school strove to go to Wisconsin. Contrast that with the kids who aspire to Marquette after attending private Catholic schools their whole lives. Sure, many kids do crossover at some point (that’s a different show on The Game), but the difference in cultures is present and is a conscious choice students and families make. You choose to associate with one or the other.
  • FOOTBALL AND NO FOOTBALL. Going to Marquette means forgoing Saturday home football games, as Marquette did away with its program in 1960. (Granted, this year, many Wisconsin students also seemed to forgo games.) Still, with Marquette now carrying a successful team in the fast-growing, bro-laden sport of lacrosse, it has a team appealing to the fan who likes pre-game barbeque (seriously; the NCAA lacrosse tournament is nicknamed “The Big Barbecue”) and big hits. It’s another cultural choice, and another way of separating the two institutions.
  • MILWAUKEE VERSUS MADISON. There are those who say, “But they’re both cities in the state.” True. But they’re also culturally pretty far apart. Milwaukee is a more established metropolis, so much so that it’s had to reinvent itself after its industrial past abandoned it in the Rust Belt years. Marquette is a sizable part of Milwaukee, but is also bordered by urban neighborhoods to the north and west and downtown business to the east. No one will ever consider Milwaukee the “college town” Madison feels like, particularly southwest of the isthmus. With recent, white-collar business growth from Epic and American Family, Madison has a more modern feel, like a city just finding its stride. Madison still has small-town its rural surroundings at heart, though. North of Milwaukee, the Lakeshore Chinooks consider 1,500 fans a nice crowd, as they’re clearly one of many entertainment options. The Madison Mallards, in the same Northwoods League, draw two, three and four times that regularly, as it’s often the only thing going on during the summer besides Brat Fest. Whether it be diversity (or lack thereof, in a few ways), government presence, activities, connection to Chicago, whatever, when you start to spend a lot of time in both places, you realize the state they occupy is about all they have in common.
  • RURAL AND URBAN. We mentioned how Marquette is surrounded by city. UW has some recently built suburban buffer, but is much more connected to rural Wisconsin. Our Marquette/Wisconsin preview blog two years ago highlighted how disconnected urban and rural areas seem to be in this day and age. Go around rural areas of the state and you’ll find Badgers gear is often only second to Packers apparel in popularity. UW’s agricultural programming has been an important part of farming in Wisconsin for a long time, while its medical school is also important to many central state. Wisconsin has law, business and engineering schools, but those colleges are much more important to Marquette, which tries to pull more students from around the nation than UW, most of whom are flying in and out from other urban areas.

The final point is probably the core difference between the institutions. All of the above ideas ultimately come back to it. Style of play? McGuire famously said he wanted city kids, while Ryan’s style has played best with big, obedient kids willing to accept discipline — types that fit right in on old-school family farms. Marquette appeals to higher-income individuals who can afford private schooling. Camp Randall, meanwhile, calls to kids who either played in or just loved the atmosphere of the small town gathering on Friday nights for high school games.

There are other differences, sure — colors, traditions, educational offerings, etc. But you’re picking a culture when you pick a school, and if you’re remotely immersed in that culture, you know how different the places are, despite only separated by a 90-mile stretch of I-94.

If you want to know why I’m on Marquette side of the fence, the answer’s simple: I’m third-generation Milwaukee. Family’s been here a century. I have relatives in rural Wisconsin, so I get it. But I’m a city guy, and Milwaukee is my city, so Marquette is my team.

So as I’ve urged for years with the rivalry, and with all things: Be informed and choose. It’s a distinct choice, and it makes it more fun to root for one and (respectfully, playfully, within reason) despise the other. Have at it. And Armen? Anyone who sees this and thinks they’ve got it better someplace else is either wrong or maybe has who’s-jealous-of-who backward. I got your back.


BUT FIRST … : Before Saturday’s showdown, MU faces UTEP tonight at Fiserv Forum. Tip is at 7:30.

Photo: Getty Images

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