Death of 123-year Michigan high school football rivalry looms

Photo: Jon Young

UPPER PENINSULA, Mich. — While America celebrated “Rivalry Week” and football traditions last weekend, football fans in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are concerned about the possible end of the state’s second oldest in-state rivalry.

Marquette and Negaunee high schools first met on the gridiron in 1894. The only older in-state rivalry in Michigan, Battle Creek Central vs. Kalamazoo Central, began in 1893.

But after 123 years, a game between the Redmen and Miners may not be on next year’s schedules because Negaunee has joined the newly realigned Western Peninsula Athletic Conference.

“We have joined the WestPAC conference, and scheduling is still being worked out,” said Negaunee Athletic Director Andrew Brunette. “There could be a nine-game schedule that does not allow us to play Marquette anymore. We would like to keep the rivalry, but may not be able to if our conference schedule doesn’t allow us to play games outside the conference.”

In 2012, Negaunee vs. Marquette was voted “Michigan’s best prep football rivalry” in a USA Today poll of 50,000 voters. The records stand at 70 wins for Negaunee, 60 wins for Marquette, and 11 ties.

“When I heard about it, I was shocked, because I know how much I looked forward to playing Marquette every year,” said Dick Koski, who coached Negaunee to a 199-93-1 record in 31 seasons and led the Miners to a Class-CC State Runner-Up finish in 1991. “It was the game of the year as far as we were concerned. To not have that game saddens me.”

In 1969, the local newspaper, The Mining Journal, purchased the Diamond Jubilee Trophy to honor the tradition.

“The Diamond Jubilee Trophy was always the one you wanted to win,” said Marquette City Manager Mike Angeli. “It was almost like you could lose every other game, but if you won that, you had a successful season.”

Angeli played for Marquette from 1969 to 1972. His brothers Ed and Geno, and his son Mike Jr., also played in the rivalry.

“Those of us who have been watching Marquette football for decades, that’s the game we wait for,” said Angeli. “It was THE game… but things change.”

Photo: Jon Young

Although Marquette’s Athletic Director Alex Tiseo hopes the rivalry will continue, West PAC Commissioner Sean Jacques said the latest consideration is a nine-game conference schedule.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association only allows nine games. Jacques said the conference members meet again Tuesday, but he had no comment on scheduling choices made by league members.

The WestPAC is made up of smaller schools than Marquette, which has an enrollment of 979. Negaunee’s enrollment is 405.

John Johnson of the MHSAA said declining enrollments have spurred the growth of 8-player football, making it difficult for remaining 11-player teams to secure full schedules. In 2017, 61 Michigan teams played 8-player football, including 12 U.P. schools.

“To go to a conference that guarantees a full schedule makes a lot of sense in this climate,” Johnson said, adding part of the issue is that it takes six wins to qualify for playoffs, which impacts schedule building.

“Playoffs have long caused league realignments and breakups of natural rivalries; that’s the toughest thing about this,” Johnson said. “In order to get something, you have to give up something. A lot of those rivalries are unique in school sports. They define school sports and are what’s good about school sports. That’s a tough pill to swallow.”

The storied rivalry between Kingsford and Iron Mountain, the alma mater of Steve Mariucci and Tom Izzo, may also fall victim to the same scenario: Iron Mountain joined the WestPAC, but Kingsford has not. The towns, separated only by the asphalt of Woodward Avenue, have played since 1925. Iron Mountain’s enrollment is 303, while Kingsford’s is approximately 560.

“With the proximity of Kingsford and the longstanding tradition of two communities that coexist on opposite sides of the street, this is not something we’re taking lightly,” said  Iron Mountain Athletic Director Joe Pontrbriand. “With a limited number of teams in the U.P., we’ve decided to switch conferences to fill a schedule. We were looking at the possibility of having only six games on our schedule if we didn’t.”

“If this occurs, the people I’d be saddened for are the football student-athletes who won’t get to participate in that game, the rest of the student body who won’t get to participate in the tradition of that game, and the community, which loses one of our largest events of the fall,” said Tiseo, who played for Marquette’s varsity in 2002 and 2003.

“If there’s any possible way to play Negaunee, we’d like to continue the rivalry,” Tiseo said. “I hope the West PAC can resolve this in a timely manner. This is the type of game that spurs the next generation to play football. It’s hard to replace the excitement you see at the Negaunee/Marquette game.”

“My dad was a coach when I played in (the rivalry),” said Marquette coach Dave L’Huillier, whose father coached at both Negaunee and Marquette. “I’ve been a part of this rivalry for 47 years . . . my whole life.”

Marquette won this year’s game 35-19 at Negaunee, so would retain the Diamond Jubilee Trophy into the indefinite future.

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