Last year I wrote about Valpo's current rivalry with Milwaukee
, and I alluded to a potential budding rivalry with Detroit from last year's Horizon League championship game
. Both last year
and this year
, I've written about Valpo's reviving rivalry with Oakland.
But there was another rivalry Valpo had in the old Mid-Con days that in one way went beyond these two rivalries. Unlike the rivalry with Oakland, this one was never one-sided. The fact that Valpo will probably never cross paths again with the Oral Roberts (ORU) Golden Eagles does not diminish my memories of that annual match-up. From 1998 through 2007, these two teams provided much excitement and mystique. Until the 2004-2005 season, each team held serve against the other every single year. Finally that season ORU scored their first ever win at the Athletics Recreation Center (ARC). Unfortunately, Valpo never returned the favor. They met each other only twice in March. In the 1999 Mid-Con championship game, Valpo beat ORU to win the auto-bid. In 2006, ORU beat Valpo in the semifinals of the Mid-Con tourney. Ironically, the 1999 game was in the Quad-Cities, while the 2006 game was at the Union Multipurpose Athletic Center
(UMAC) in Tulsa, ORU's hometown.
And therein lies the first interesting tale. To this day, the Mid-Con/Summit League continues the practice started after 1995 of holding the conference tourney entirely at a neutral site. It was held in Iowa for a few years, then in Fort Wayne for a few years (long before IPFW joined the conference), then in Kansas City for 2 years (home of the UMKC Kangaroos), then in Tulsa for 4 years. Currently, it is held in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, home state of the SDSU Jackrabbits. From 2000-2002, ORU fans complained about the home state advantage Valpo had (Fort Wayne is a 2 hour drive from Valpo, for crying out loud). Meanwhile, the Tulsa Sports Commission (TSC) had put together a killer bid to host the tourney at the Mabee Center
, in spite of the fact that the conference's one well known rule forbade hosting on a campus site home court of one of the teams. How did they ignore this rule? They claimed they were told they could submit a bid to host on ORU's home court. To this Valpo fan at least, it broke down this way: the TSC and their ORU allies could not accept the reality that the conference was not going to hold its tournament on campus. So they found a way to ask the question so as to get a favorable answer - "of course, you can submit such a bit. That doesn't mean you'll win", which they interpreted as "yes, absolutely, submit your bid for the Mabee Center and as long as it's more competitive than the other bids, you'll win ." For all I know, the conference office had grown tired of being assaulted by this overture every year and became passive aggressive as a coping mechanism. Then again, an ORU fan would probably argue that since the conference commissioner back then was Jon Steinbrecher, son of Valpo A.D. Bill Steinbrecher, the Mid-Con headquarters were obviously biased against ORU. It would be premature to conclude this, but I can tell you that many Valpo fans and officials, including no less than Homer Drew absolutely despised the idea of holding the conference tourney at the UMAC in Tulsa in 2005. Never mind that they had no issue whatsoever with holding the tourney at Kemper Arena in 2003 and 2004. I'll decode that for you: Valpo never feared UMKC, even in the Michael Watson era. It was ORU they feared. A fierce Valpo fan was fuming at Kemper Arena in 2004 over the thought that the tourney was going to be in Tulsa the following year, exclaiming that ORU was trying to buy the auto-bid.
Yes. Sitting in an arena in UMKC's home town, watching the tourney, this man was pissed about ORU enjoying hometown advantage the next year. Principle had nothing to do with it.
It was all about the rivalry. Homer Drew reportedly went on a fishing trip with the ORU TV color analyst whose name escapes me, but he all but implied that it was a travesty the tourney would be held in Tulsa (while speaking to Valpo fans next door to Kemper Arena!). Maybe he was implying nothing more than the rivalry, but that plays into my storyline quite nicely.
Valparaiso University has a long tradition as a higher education institution of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and for the last 20-30 years or so the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has joined in that tradition. Oral Roberts University's campus includes a giant sculpture of praying hands, and its founder is the legendary televangelist by the same name. I'm not absolutely certain with which of the charismatic denominations this school is affiliated, but I am absolutely certain it is a denomination neither Lutheran denomination shares fellowship with. To put it another way, their respective ecclesiastical and spiritual traditions clash something fierce. Their cultures clash too. While Valpo's Bryce Drew has been known to thank Jesus for a win or a made basket (including his own miracle shot against Ole Miss in 1998), he is an anomaly. In Tulsa, this kind of sports-religious talk is commonplace, though not quite universal. One year, IUPUI's buzzer-beater attempt to force overtime went half way down the basket before bouncing out again. The next day's Tulsa World blazed a headline inspired by then president Richard Roberts (son of Oral) asserting essentially that Jesus had put a lid on the basket. Meanwhile, I'm told that one time when ORU played at the ARC, one of their players made an obscene gesture toward the Valpo student section. Even a year or two removed from Valpo's upgrade to the Horizon League, many Valpo fans on our message board still found reasons to talk about their hatred of ORU (I'll exempt the alum of the Valpo baseball team since ORU dominated the Mid-Con in baseball even more so than Valpo dominated it in basketball). And there were always ORU fans on their message board who thrived on their hatred of Valpo. They never let us forget how we couldn't win in Tulsa, one victory over Southern Utah in March of 2006 notwithstanding.
If there's ever been a rivalry worthy of UNC-Duke acrimony in the Mid-Con, this was it, at least during Valpo's tenure. Sure, UMKC's Michael Watson may have dropped 52 points on the Mabee Center and then stomped on the Golden Eagle at center court, but Valpo was the bane of their existence year in and year out. Culture's clashed. For the most part, the home team always won (ORU only won once at the ARC). Valpo made it to the championship game 6 of the 9 years while ORU only made it 4 of those years. Valpo won 4 auto-bids, ORU only 2. Too many times, they looked forward to tangling with the Crusaders in March only to slip up against UMKC or IUPUI. They particularly flamed out at Kemper Arena, a venue closer to Tulsa than to Valpo. Each time they were bounced by the hosts in the quarterfinal round, while Valpo manhandled the hosts in the semifinal round. In short: ORU exhibited classic signs of rage fueled by a hidden inferiority complex, while Valpo exhibited classic signs of disdain for a fan base that doth protest too much. When the TSC finally won the right to host the tournament at a nearby High School gym (with a bigger capacity and more perks than the ARC, by the way), Valpo fans found it easy to believe that the conference had finally decided to take pity on ORU and give them what they always wanted. Needless to say, when the Horizon League came calling, they were only too happy to get away from their hated rivals from the south.
I saved the best story for last. From 2003 through 2007, every Valpo-ORU regular season tilt at the Mabee Center in Tulsa was preceded by a lunch at a nearby restaurant involving a handful of Valpo fans and a handful of ORU fans, all from their respective message boards. You would think from the above description that such a thing would never happen. Indeed one of the fans who took part in this was from time to time still reminding people about how a bunch of Valpo fans threw beer on him in Fort Wayne one year. Maybe it helped that one of the Valpo fans who took part in these lunches was then the TV voice of the Crusaders, Dick Harlan, and one of the ORU fans who took part was the PA announcer at the Mabee Center Mike Canada - both of whom behaved objectively as requirements of their profession. Then there's the fact that people behave differently face to face than electronically. But chiefly, I think it worked because as much as our cultures clash, hospitality is still a staple and even cultural Lutherans are programmed to be amenable in the face of unrelenting hospitality. Those lunches cemented friendships that survived the culture clash that continued.
Oral Roberts is now in the Southland conference, so both of these teams have abandoned the Mid-Con (the tourney has been in Sioux Falls four straight years and ORU has failed to win even once there). Oakland may be on its way to joining the Horizon League, but I doubt ORU will ever be invited or even be interested. Oh, and the BracketBuster event is over after this year, so that avenue is gone too (Valpo plays Eastern Kentucky this year). By the way, if you are looking for ORU on ESPN's bottom line, you'll never see it. For reasons passing understanding, they are always listed as "ORAL ROB".
I do keep in touch with one ORU fan on facebook, and in honor of that, I'll end with the bitterest memory a Valpo fan could have of this rivalry. To say that ORU always held serve at the Mabee Center would be to miss the drama. Several times Valpo threatened to break the curse, but something would always happen to tip the scales in the favor of the home team. In 2004, Jimmie Miles missed a free throw, Kikas Gomes failed to box out as regulation time ran out, and Valpo lost in overtime in spite of Ali Berdiel's 28 points. But the capper was in 2002. Valpo was on its way to a 13-1 season, having won a crazy overtime game at the Jungle (IUPUI) on an off-balance buzzer beater by Lubos Barton off an in-bounds pass from Ali Berdiel. The only loss was way out in Cedar City, Utah (Southern Utah) early in the conference season at a time when Valpo was getting a few Top 25 votes. The Crusaders had beaten the Golden Eagles handily at the ARC that year by 20 points, and had only home games against Oakland and IUPUI left on the schedule when they rolled into the Mabee Center on a Saturday night. On Senior night, the Crusaders held the lead for most of the game. In the closing minutes, ORU clamped on the full court press. Valpo struggled a little, and finally surrendered the lead. With the score tied and ORU still pressing full court, Lubos Barton took the in bounds pass in the corner of the back-court and decided to get cute, flinging a no-look pass over his shoulder - right into the hands of Tyrone Tiggs who laid it up and in without missing a beat. ORU held on to win 77-74, maintaining the Mabee Center mystique. It was a choke of epic proportions that still resonates, even though Valpo won the auto-bid that year and in 2004. No matter where ORU fans find themselves these days, those of my vintage will forever relish the memory of that game.
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