The Rock and the Hawk

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The Slippery Rock University football team has played Indiana University (Pa.) many times over the course of its 121-year history—93 times, in fact. A few dates in recent memory stand out, but one of them is still whispered about today.

Nov. 9, 2002.

IUP played SRU at the then N. Kerr Thompson Stadium in a contest with conference and national implications. A win clinched IUP the PSAC-West title and a spot in the NCAA Division II playoffs while SRU still held onto a shred of hope for a division title.

A tightly contested game came down to the wire and the Crimson Hawks walked off with a 34-28 overtime win to clinch the title.

However, the result of the game paled in comparison to the aftermath—at least to SRU.

“The game went into overtime and unfortunately, we lost,” former SRU head coach George Mihalik said. “They scored down on the scoreboard end and you could tell as soon as they scored—it definitely looked predetermined—they ran the length of the field to go stand on ‘The Rock’. Our players saw that and our intent was that nobody stands on our rock.”

In the postgame celebration, Crimson Hawk players rushed the ceremonial Rock and pushed past Rock ROTC cadets, who were stationed there to prevent the very same event, and a fight broke out.

The fight between Crimson Hawk players, Rock players and Rock cadets led to nine suspensions, five IUP and four SRU players, but ultimately served to heighten the greatest rivalry in the PSAC.

Mihalik, who is known as Dr. Evil in Indiana, the only name he will call IUP, was not upset with his players for jumping into the scrum. In fact, he reiterated that his players did exactly what they needed to do.

“It was a matter of defending your school’s symbol, your school’s pride, your school’s honor and it was an unfortunate situation that occurred,” Mihalik said. “It’s sad that it wasn’t controlled from the other side.”

However, the brawl on The Rock did not ignite the rivalry, according to Mihalik. It was only a continuation of controversial games over the past decade.

Mihalik pointed to a game in the early 1990s where IUP was holding a sizeable lead over SRU late in the fourth quarter. On a fourth down, the Crimson Hawks ran a fake punt that was converted and scored on. Mihalik emphasized that the play was completely unnecessary with the score already decided.

That game was just one in a series of games throughout the 90s and early 2000s.

“There was another situation in the late 90s where we were accused of running up the score at their place on their homecoming,” Mihalik said. “Folks forgot about the fake punt, but they remembered that. It’s just been ongoing.”

Despite the bitter feelings between the two schools, Mihalik did admit the strong tradition around Indiana athletics is something to be admired. But he stopped there.

“You were hoping I had something else to say,” Mihalik said, laughing loudly.

The grudging respect lies on both sides as junior IUP student Jake Slebodnick pointed to the matchup of SRU quarterback Roland Rivers III and IUP quarterback Quinton Maxwell as one of the best matchups in not just the PSAC, but D-II football, this season.

Sometimes lost in the media coverage of Rivers and Maxwell, the social media presence of student-run accounts can occasionally be seen as taking things too far—on both sides.  Slebodnick, a communications media major, cautioned SRU students to take what they read online with a grain of salt.

“Don’t take what our Barstool Twitter says as gospel, because while many may believe the word is negative about [SRU], we actually talk about the formidable aspects about the university. Especially since they have a fantastic athletic program,” Slebodnick said.

With a combined 29 PSAC titles, SRU and IUP have the measuring stick for teams in the conference. Since 2010, the two teams have combined for seven of the nine PSAC-West titles. Each team has also won the PSAC outright twice in the same span.

The success and prominence of both schools on a regional and national scale has led to some interesting comparables.

Mihalik likened the rivalry to that of other prominent college football rivalries while Slebodnick took it to another level.

“I still get goosebumps talking about [that game],” Mihalik said. “It’s as big a college football rivalry as any major college rivalry. On our scale in Division II, it’s just as big as an Ohio State and Michigan or an Alabama and Auburn. This is ‘the game’ that you look forward to playing in each year and who is going to have bragging rights that year. It’s still a game I enjoy attending.”

Slebodnick compared the teams’ rivalry to that of the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees in the MLB. He said the smack talk is unmatched and the bragging rights about which team is better lasts the entire year.

Joey Crissman, a sophomore communications media major at IUP, pointed to the closeness of the students at IUP and SRU as a reason why the rivalry thrives among students, past and present.

“During the season, the rivalry game is the one game you look forward to,” Crissman said. “Since a lot of people from both schools know each other, you kind of get some bragging rights if your team wins. It’s all in good fun.”

Sometimes, that closeness can even transcend family ties.

In the case of Hayley Woodside, a sophomore communications media major at IUP and quadruplet, all three of her siblings go to SRU. She’s the self-described “lone wolf” at IUP.

“[The game] matters to me because I’m the only one in my family who goes to IUP and I feel like I need to represent my school,” Woodside said.

Deciding to go to IUP, Woodside strayed from the norm in her family and blazed her own path. When deciding where to attend college in the late 1960s, Mihalik found himself faced with a similar decision: SRU or IUP?

“I was a senior in high school and I lived near the two of Indiana, maybe 20 miles away, and Indiana was having a great year,” Mihalik explained. “There was something called the Boardwalk Bowl in which small colleges could play. Indiana played in that and The Rock upset them in 1969. Looking at a university to attend, I thought SRU must be on the upswing. If they just beat Indiana, they must be a program that’s going to do some good things. So, I decided to come attend The Rock.”

When SRU defeated No. 5 IUP on Oct. 25, 1969, a chain of events was set into motion that would impact both schools for 44 of the next 45 years.

Mihalik came to SRU and became the team’s quarterback under former coach Bob DiSpirito. After graduating, already with three PSAC titles under his belt, he became a graduate assistant at SRU and, aside from one year at the University of Kentucky, spent 44 years becoming the winningest coach in Rock history.

If the Crimson Hawks had won that fateful game in 1969, Mihalik said his college choice may have been very different.

“Maybe a good chance,” Mihalik admitted. “It affected history, at least my personal history.”

While Mihalik no longer barks out orders on the SRU sideline, his anticipation for the yearly matchup has not diminished. Being unable to do anything to influence the team, his anticipation may even be higher.

According to Slebodnick, the yearly game creates an atmosphere that allows the students to come together and get behind both the football team and the university as a whole.

That sentiment was echoed by Mihalik… in the hope that any negative events would be avoided.

“[The rivalry] continues today and hopefully not to the point of any negative types of total team interaction during or after a game. Just a good, hard intensity on the field and a determination from both universities that this is a big week,” Mihalik said.

Starting in 1907 with a 44-0 Rock victory, the teams have met nearly every year since—sometimes more than once.

While SRU drew first blood, IUP holds the overall advantage with a 50-41-2 record. In the past two meetings, homecoming for both teams, SRU and IUP have walked away from road matchups with a win.

No. 3 IUP defeated No. 9 SRU, 34-17, in 2017 and unranked SRU defeated No. 14 IUP, 30-27, last season.

This season’s matchup once again falls on a homecoming Saturday. As of Oct. 2, No. 10 SRU will host No. 19 IUP at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium on Oct. 14 for the 122nd all-time meeting.

The matchup will feature the two highest-scoring offenses in D-II football and should, once again, decide the winner of the PSAC-West.

No matter the outcome or aftermath of the game, one thing is almost assured: back and forth among everyone involved.

“Well, SRU and IUP are rivals,” Crissman said. “We talk shit. Whether it’s on Twitter or in person.”

Sometimes, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

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