Hillsdale College and Grand valley State University are both charter members of the GLIAC and have competed against each other since 1972. Until 2009, Hillsdale did not have a football or basketball program capable of beating GVSU. Through better training, resources, and recruiting, Hillsdale has made the rivalry competitive.
“Grand Valley set the precedent,” said Keith Otterbein, head coach of Hillsdale’s football program. “They were the national champions for quite a few years. They set the bar for our conference, and have raised the caliber for football.”
The goal of the basketball coaching staff, when first hired in 2007, was to beat GVSU, said John Tharp, head coach of Hillsdale’s basketball program.
GVSU, however, does not see Hillsdale as its greatest rival, said Tim Selgo, athletic director of GVSU. Because of the university’s closeness with Ferris State University, a greater animosity exists between those two schools.
Nevertheless, Selgo does acknowledge that some rivalry does exist between GVSU and Hillsdale.
“Grand Valley and Hillsdale has always been a good rivalry,” he said. “Certainly the last three or four games have all come down to the end. A mistake here or there has easily made the difference between a game.”
The coaching staffs of football and basketball both agree that, in the last 10 years, the athletics department has improved consistently. At the beginning of the decade in both sports, Grand Valley was the national champion while Hillsdale struggled.
“We looked down the field and thought ‘wow, these are men.’ They used to kill everyone,” Otterbein said. “I tried not to look down there during warm-ups.”
Luke Laser ‘10, a former Hillsdale basketball player, said that the Grand Valley players’ attitude toward Hillsdale players contributed to the rivalry.
“They were better than us on the court. They tried to talk down when they played us,” he said. “We took it personally. It became a hatred.”
In the last five years, Hillsdale has started to win against Grand Valley. Along with individual wins against GVSU, both Hillsdale football and basketball were GLIAC champions last season.
“The rivalry is getting more and more intense because we’ve been beating them,” said junior Brett Miller, football player. “We’ve become a stumbling block to them. We are the team they want to beat.”
Otterbein sees the Hillsdale victory against GVSU in 2009 as a turning point for the football program. At that homecoming game, Hillsdale was pitted against a Grand Valley squad that had not lost one league game in 70.
“I thought, ‘why are we playing these cats during homecoming?’” Otterbein said. “Someone outside of this office obviously decides when homecoming is.”
Hillsdale went on to beat GVSU with a score of 27 to 24.
While GVSU might have more successes in athletics, the Hillsdale coaching administration takes solace in the fact that their players also receive an excellent education.
“The story that we tell is that we have the best academics in Division II,” Tharp said. “We provide that better than anyone else in the country.”
Hillsdale recruits players that have the academic ability to fit in at Hillsdale, Otterbein said. Of the three freshmen that the basketball team recruited this year, two scored a 32 on their ACT and the other received a 29.
“We separate ourselves from other schools by the type of young people we recruit,” Tharp said. “A higher character and a good academic profile override everything else.”
Despite the competitive-fueled animosity basketball and football feel against GVSU, both administrations admire the GVSU sports program.
“We have all the respect you can have for what they’ve done and how they’ve done it over a long period of time,” Otterbein said. “We want to be them in terms of the success they have. Who wouldn’t want to be them? They have a decade of success. Dang, they are really good.”