Tom Ross: Occidentally overlooking rivalries |

Tom Ross: Occidentally overlooking rivalries

President-elect Barack Obama and I are on opposite sides of the stadium when it comes to Division I football playoffs. However, I’m fairly certain Obama and I already agree that the story of Myron Claxton’s Shoes represents one of the best traditions in small-college football.

If you tuned in to “60 Minutes” on Sunday night, you may have heard Obama reiterate his support for an eight-team playoff in major college football. He went even further, saying he would use his influence to effect this change and added that any reasonable and serious football fan could not disagree. But he didn’t mention Saturday’s rivalry game between Occidental and Whittier.

Call me unreasonable, Mr. Obama. Just 28 hours earlier, my Wisconsin Badgers had come from behind to salvage a piece of their season and defeat the Minnesota Golden Gophers. More important than any contrived playoff, the victory in the big rivalry game kept Paul Bunyan’s Axe in Madison, where it belongs, for a sixth straight year.

I understand that a Division I football playoff wouldn’t negate all of the rivalry games that enrich college football. I just think the drive to crown a national champion via a playoff misses the point. College football is at its best in rivalry games and traditional holiday bowl games that pit the champions of two conferences against one another.

That’s the way I like it.

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All across America this month, college football programs of all sizes are playing out storied rivalries. Many of the games are made more significant for the victors with the chance to hoist a trophy with true historic and symbolic meaning. It’s the kind of memory they will repeat as grandfathers.

It’s also true that all across America, small colleges, after wrapping up their rivalry games, are getting ready for the playoffs.

“Back Home in Indiana,” last week, two tiny colleges played for the Monon Bell, one of the most revered trophies in college football.

DePauw University defeated previously unbeaten Wabash College, 36-14, to keep the 300-pound railroad locomotive bell on the DePauw campus in Greencastle for a second straight year.

However, winning the football game isn’t always enough to secure the bell. The Monon Bell has been stolen at least eight times. One case in 1965, known as the “Frijoles Incident,” saw tacos tossed on the gridiron after a Wabash student hoodwinked the president of DePauw with a ruse about foreign exchange students.

And there are many more rivalry trophies with colorful names like: Floyd of Rosedale (a bronze pig named after a governor), The Milk Can, the Tiger Rag, The Beehive Boot, The Keg of Nails, The Blue Sombrero Trophy, The Sawhorse Dollar and The Causeway Carriage.

But nothing can quite match the story of the trophy known as Myron Claxton’s Shoes. The winner of the rivalry game between two Southern California colleges, Whittier and Occidental, claims the Shoes each year.

Before Obama went to Harvard, and before he went to Columbia, the president-elect spent his freshman and sophomore years at Division III Occidental, about eight miles northeast of downtown L.A. in a neighborhood called Eagle Rock.

Writing in Quaker Campus, the student newspaper of Whittier, reporter Allee Kamela, tells the story of Myron Claxton’s Shoes.

An All-American running back for the Whittier Poets in 1939, Claxton had his football cleats pilfered out of the locker room by a group of Occidental players on the Thursday night before the rivalry game.

In 1939, replacing a pair of football cleats wasn’t as easy as going to the equipment manager. Claxton was forced to play the Occidental game in his work boots.

Whittier won the game, 36-0, in spite of the inappropriate footwear the Poets’ star player was forced to wear. He crossed to the opposite sideline after the contest and retrieved his cleats. They were bronzed in 1946 and have become a permanent fixture in the rivalry that has been played since 1895.

History can be a murky thing.

Occidental won the Nov. 15, 2008, contest, 48-14, a victory that allowed the Tigers to reclaim the Shoes and sent them on to play Willamette University in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs. Ooops.

Did I say playoffs?

Can I have a do-over, Mr. President-elect? I think you win again.

– To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205 or e-mail