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North America’s oldest rivalry: UCC vs. TCS

Trinity College School alumni Adam De Pencier is the father of Upper Canada College Grade 12 student Hannibal De Pencier and writes about the school’s varsity football team.

In anticipation of Saturday’s Association Day game between UCC and TCS, De Pencier interviewed Old Boy Rodger Wright ’70 (a former TCS headmaster who recently joined UCC’s office of advancement) about the rivalry between the two schools.

Here’s an edited version of what De Pencier wrote:

There are several strong rivalries that UCC enjoys with sister schools, and it’s a matter of opinion as to which is the strongest. Nearby St. Michael’s College School always stirs the blood, as does a trip up to the macho precincts of St. Andrew’s College (SAC). UCC rowers were relative newcomers to the sport when they began competing with Ridley College, and they’ve had some great races over the years.

So these things are never set in stone. They wax and wane depending on the parity and equivalence of the contestants.

Let’s take this out of the realm of opinion and deal in facts, and the fact is that the game that takes place this Saturday afternoon between UCC and Port Hope’s Trinity College School is the oldest sporting rivalry in North America, with the first contest taking place in 1868. Over the years it has resulted in some brilliant contests, heartbreaking and heart-lifting moments (none more so than UCC’s 18-point comeback win over TCS in the final quarter of last year’s championship game, which UCC won 32-31 on a rouge in overtime). There’s also been occasional bad behaviour, including two brawls that ended football and cricket games between the two schools.

No one is in a better position to appreciate this rivalry than Wright, who has held several portfolios at both schools. I sat down with him earlier this week to get his take on UCC vs. TCS.

De Pencier: UCC. TCS. What are the first words that come to mind?

Wright: Intense. Meaningful. Historic.

De Pencier: So take me back your own experience of the rivalry when you were a UCC student.

Wright: In the late ‘60s we had some really strong teams, guys like Dave Hadden ‘71 (Queen’s University and Toronto Argonauts) and Stu Lang ‘70 (Queen’s and Edmonton Eskimos) who could take control of games all by themselves. Barry Wansbrough was our coach for some of those years, so we won our fair share. But then in my last year, Grade 13 in those days, TCS came down to Toronto and beat us 19-7. They were delirious, celebrating on the Oval. That one hurt. (De Pencier’s note: The importance of this win to TCS can be gauged by the fact that the school put the picture of this celebration on the cover of its yearbook.)

De Pencier: A bit of a follow-up to that: many current parents and certainly all players on our team can hardly imagine the “Little Big Four” (UCC, TCS, SAC and Ridley) days when there were thousands of people watching on the Oval (and an equal number of dollars wagered among codgers and codgers in the making on Bay Street). What was that like?

Wright: It was a spectacle. The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star would send reporters and it would be in the Monday papers. There were victory parties afterwards. ‘Nuff said.

De Pencier: Henri Tejfil, the British psychologist, argues that rivalries can be healthy when they rally around a shared identity, but can devolve into savagery when they demonize your opponent. George Orwell called sports “organized war without the guns.” How has your experience of the rivalry played out in your experience as a coach, athlete and headmaster?

Wright: It has never been a rivalry of hate or contempt. Never. In fact, one passage from The College Times in 1974 puts it best: “We lost to a fine team from TCS. But I can’t say how great it is to play a team like TCS. We lost that one 46-17, but I didn’t get kicked or punched once.” That kind of says it all in terms of what you want to see.

De Pencier: So we have a sense here at UCC of what this game means, but tell us what this means down at TCS? What is going through their heads as the week builds?

Wright: UCC was “the Big Blue Machine” and our kids were perennial underdogs. There would be a huge pep rally on the Friday night. What I also remember, though, was that the student leaders, the captains, would have very concentrated, focused discussions about strategy for the upcoming game. My first year as head at TCS we came down and beat UCC and one of the players said to me afterwards: “Sir, welcome to TCS. That was for you.”

De Pencier: Football seems to particularly lend itself to rivalries like Queen’s vs. Western and Harvard vs. Yale, and there’s an entire mythology surrounding football, including the famous line by Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne who said, “Let’s win one for the Gipper.” What is there about football that that does this?

Wright: So to put in the context of what we’re looking at, it’s about boys, and for many years it was largely about boarding. The entire game was a great mirror for what we were thinking as young men. How would we do, how would we measure up? We would realize, as is invariably the case, that our perfect image of how the game would play out would not measure up in the clear light of day.

De Pencier: What would you say to the kids on both teams who will be at kick-off this Saturday?

Wright: You’re part of a great tradition. Enjoy the moment. And yet it will actually mean something quite different in subsequent years when you smile and say to yourself, “We were young Turks once.”

Rodger Wright graduated from UCC in 1970 as a Mason Medal winner and has gone on to an illustrious career in Canadian education, including: UCC faculty member, coach and housemaster (Seaton’s House); headmaster at TCS for 21 years; and principal at Collingwood School in Vancouver for 13 years. He recently joined the UCC advancement office as an adviser on strategic and advancement matters.

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