SB Nation

Ryan Nanni | November 6, 2014

Black Hills Brawl

In the hills of South Dakota, a college football rivalry is renewed for the 129th time

This is the first thing you see when you walk out of Rapid City Regional Airport toward the rental car parking lot.

About as straightforward as you can get. You can find that directness all over the Black Hills region of South Dakota, starting with the Hills themselves, so named because the ponderosa pines covering the slopes put them in dark contrast to the green and gold prairies.

The furniture store is called Sofa Mart. The runner's shop is called The Runner's Shop. Their blunt names clash with the comparatively vague Target and Best Buy and Blockbuster. (Yes, Rapid City still has a Blockbuster. Two, to be precise.)

It's the longest-running college football series you've never heard of.

The local rivalry game, the Black Hills Brawl, is also just what it sounds like. Two teams, Black Hills State and South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, both nestled in the Black Hills, claw at each other until only one is left standing. And it's the longest-running college football series you've never heard of.

"Awake before sunrise in the cold and rain" feels the same, irrespective of geography. The South Dakota School of Mines Hardrockers are spending it on the practice field, but it wouldn't be more pleasant on a beach.

Though the beach probably wouldn't have a former linebacker darting all over it and bellowing over the Guns N' Roses playing in the background. This is Mines head coach Stacy Collins, a barrel-chested kinetic force.

"It's a tough-ass game for tough-ass men!"

That's the recurring theme from Collins as the Hardrockers spend the predawn hours working on their red zone offense and special teams. The team is recovering from a loss to one of the region's best programs, Bob Stitt's Colorado School of Mines. They're also still transitioning to a new quarterback, Montana transfer Trenton McKinney. But they are here because they want to keep the Homestake Trophy.

The prize for winning the Black Hills Brawl is deceptively heavy; when you hold it, your brain starts worrying about broken toes. For now, it lives in Collins' office thanks to a comeback by the Hardrockers at home in last year's game, but in three days it will travel with the Mines team 50 miles northwest to Black Hills State University in Spearfish. Whether the trophy makes the trip back remains to be seen.

Collins gathers the team at midfield. He tells them that mornings like this are what they have to be prepared for. The season ahead will have moments when they'll be tested in conditions that are far from ideal.

And Collins is right. That night, Rapid City gets its earliest snowfall on record.

This year's showdown is the 129th edition of a rivalry that predates the Egg Bowl, Arkansas-LSU, the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, Kansas-Kansas State, Bedlam, and the Third Saturday in October.

And, like any historic rivalry, the Black Hills Brawl is surrounded by misinformation. The schools and local media will tell you it's the second most-played series in college football behind Harvard-Yale, but Harvard-Yale's actually third, behind Yale-Princeton (136 games) and Lehigh-Lafayette (playing their 150th this season). They also wrongly claim the first game in the rivalry was played in 1895. That requires a bit more unpacking.

The first Mines football team was organized in 1895 by Rudolph F. Flinterman, a chemistry professor at the school who'd learned the game as a student at Michigan. He did so after School of Mines received an invitation to play a Thanksgiving game from Black Hills College, a now-defunct Methodist school in Hot Springs. Black Hills State (then known as Spearfish Normal School) did play a role in the birth of Hardrocker football -- School of Mines only got the invitation because Black Hills College had previously been turned down by Spearfish Normal.

Assembly of Flinterman's team was so hasty that they didn't have uniforms or helmets, and they lost 18-0. The local paper, the Black Hills Weekly Journal, accurately described the sport as "a game suited to paying off old grudges." And South Dakota School of Mines didn't field another team until 1900, the actual first year of the Black Hills Brawl.

To a fan on either side, it's just as meaningful as any Iron Bowl or Backyard Brawl or Red River Shootout. The 1899 South Dakota School of Mines team (above); the 1899 team from Black Hills State, then known as Spearfish Normal School (below). (Via the Digital Library of South Dakota)

Mines beat Spearfish Normal that year. And in 1901. And 1903. And 1905, 1906, 1908, 1909, 1912. But a little one-sidedness helps build the visceral distaste you need in any good rivalry.

(The Black Hills Brawl has been played twice in a number of seasons and three times in 1917.)

The Hardrockers won every game in the series until 1916. There is no better expression of the joy Spearfish Normal felt in ending that streak than this, from an entry in the school's yearbook:

The impossible has been accomplished, the undoable has been done, the insurmountable has been surmounted, the jinx of 20 years has been annihilated, a dream has become a reality. We beat the Mines.

The rivalry has molded each team. Spearfish Normal didn't have a nickname until its 1927 game against Mines, when a student named Bessie Kennedy began shouting "go you yellow jackets!" because of the jackets players wore over their uniforms on the sideline.

Despite the early dominance by School of Mines, it's an even series. Entering this year, the Hardrockers had a slight edge, with a record of 60-57-11. The game has rarely, if ever, had implications beyond South Dakota, but it's never needed them. To a fan on either side, it's just as meaningful as any Iron Bowl or Backyard Brawl or Red River Shootout.

* * *

The overnight snow that covered the field at Lyle Hare Stadium, home to the Black Hills State Yellow Jackets, has melted by afternoon practice. The theme for the Hardrockers was toughness; here, the emphasis is on speed. Drills, reactions, rotations: the staff wants them all done as quickly as possible. Goal line situations and special teams play get particular focus today, the latter controlled by Jared Petrino, a cousin to Bobby and Paul.

Petrino isn't the head coach at Black Hills State. That would be John Reiners, a former track athlete and wide receiver who spends most of practice in relative silence. You hardly remember he's there until you spot him in a corner having a talk with one or two players. His assistants light the fires, and Reiners controls them.

It doesn't take much of a spark this week. The upperclassmen Yellow Jackets aren't used to seeing an empty space in Reiners' office, where the Homestake Trophy sat after wins in 2011 and 2012.

"Of all the losses I've been associated with, the ones with School of Mines ... they eat you up. These seniors, they don't want to be the group that has to hear it from the alums. They don't want to be the guys that left and didn't get the trophy back."

This is the secret of any classic rivalry: football is merely a means for a clash of cultures.

This is the secret of any classic rivalry: football is merely a means for a clash of cultures. Whether the clash is real or imagined is irrelevant. It only needs to exist in the minds of the fans, so they can point to the enemy and see him as different. You already know the usual permutations -- traditional powerhouse vs. beleaguered upstart, flagship university vs. agriculture school, morally upright vs. win-at-any-cost.

The dichotomy at work here: smart kids vs. safety school. Or nerds vs. cool kids, from the other point of view. The coaches at both universities are aware of this.

On the Mines side, Collins calls it "just two different schools, a STEM education school and a liberal arts, broad-based school."

Reiners is a bit blunter. "They think they're a lot smarter than us. No matter what, if we beat em, they'll chant, 'You'll be working for us some day.'"

There's some base truth. Scan the Mines roster, and you'll see nothing but engineering and geology and interdisciplinary sciences majors, because the school offers only 16 bachelor degree programs. None looks like an easy path to a diploma. Black Hills State's academic legacy is as a teacher's college, and the school offers several degrees that don't require laboratory fees. Each is a fine place of higher education -- Black Hills State has spent plenty of time and money to make itself a welcoming place for military veteran students, for instance -- but the distinction's enough for rivalry purposes.

The history and the culture clash gives you the Brawl. But none of it exists without the Hills.

* * *

Different though they may claim to be, School of Mines and Black Hills State are both children of the same mother, the Gold Rush. The Homestake Trophy is named after Homestake Mine, from which more than 40 million ounces of gold came before it closed in 2002, and both Spearfish and Rapid City were results of the mining boom.

More was in the Hills than just gold. Thousands of Lakota Sioux called the Black Hills home, a claim that stemmed from the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie's promise that the Hills were to be "set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation" of the Sioux. The terms of the 1868 Treaty were clear and difficult to abrogate.

But when an expedition led by General George Custer announced it'd found gold in the Black Hills in 1874, the federal government had two choices: abide by the terms of the treaty or find a pretense to evict the Lakota. The decision they reached was unsurprising. Within a year, President Ulysses S. Grant quietly instructed the Secretaries of War and the Interior that the military should cease its efforts to keep trespassing miners out of the Lakota territory. Congress followed that by passing a bill in 1876, the same year Spearfish and Rapid City were founded, cutting off all food aid to the Lakota Sioux unless they relinquished their claims to the Black Hills.

Left with little choice, the Lakota signed the Agreement of 1877 and left the Hills for permanent reservations. In less than 10 years, they had gone from a signed guarantee from the United States giving them firm rights to the Black Hills to signing those rights away for nothing.

the damages awarded to the Sioux have sat in Treasury trust accounts, which have grown to approximately $1 billion.

To hike the Black Hills is to experience the Earth's natural silence, the sort of quiet only broken by the physics of snow dropping from a bowed pine branch or the biology of a mating call. The Hills are simultaneously vast, stretching over 1.2 million acres, and constrained, as nearly every inch seems taken up by trees. This is a part of the world that is largely uninhabited. But it is by no means empty.

In the 1920s, the Sioux began presenting their legal claim to the Black Hills, arguing that the Agreement of 1877 amounted to an illegal seizure of land. For the next 50 years, the case meandered through federal court, Congress, and the Indian Claims Commission, until the U.S. Court of Claims found in favor of the Sioux.

"A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history." That was the description given by the Court of Claims to the sequence of events which forced the Lakota out of the Black Hills, and their determination was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1980, awarding the Sioux over $100 million, the value of the land illegally taken from them a century earlier, plus interest.

The Sioux turned it down. They didn't want to be paid in exchange for their eviction. They wanted the Black Hills back. So, for nearly 35 years, the damages awarded to the Sioux have sat in Treasury trust accounts, which have grown to approximately $1 billion. It's an enormously contentious issue within the Sioux community, especially as the value of the settlement continues to grow. Accepting the money would permanently extinguish any claim to the Hills, but it would undoubtedly provide the Sioux of today with other resources and opportunities.

It seems like too much money to turn down. When you're actually in the Black Hills, it's not that clear. You can understand why someone wouldn't want to sell this.

* * *

If there is a comforting link between the underhanded Black Hills of the past and the Black Hills of the present, it is that both offered the promise of opportunity. And while that opportunity in the Gold Rush came at the expense of native tribes, today it is about self-determination.

The School of Mines roster is full of players from outside the region -- 27 from California, 13 from Arizona, another 12 from Texas -- drawn in no small part by the chance to receive a degree that can give them higher starting salaries than the median Harvard graduate. BHSU's roster is more local, but still includes students who've come to Spearfish from their homes in Florida or Illinois or New York, the kind of kids who might not find spots at more prominent football programs.

Rivalry history only matters for 364 days a year. The day of the game is different. None of these players was alive in 1934, when Black Hills State beat Mines in two games by a combined score of 58-0, or in 1938, when School of Mines beat BHSU 30-0 on the way to a conference title, or in the 1950s, when the Hardrockers only lost this game two times, or even in 1990, when the Yellow Jackets won in overtime and sealed a winless season for Mines. When the Hardrockers won the 2002 Brawl in double overtime (a game Collins remembers well, as he was defensive coordinator for School of Mines that season), most of these players hadn't turned 10. Even the rivalry history these players have already participated in doesn't matter.

Even the rivalry history these players have already participated in doesn't matter.

True to the Yellow Jackets' practice approach, they come out fast, running their offense without huddling and using a 78-yard bomb to senior receiver Anthony Eboreime to set up the first score of the game. Three plays later, they force and recover a fumble deep in Hardrocker territory. That turns into a 14-0 lead with barely 10 minutes gone in the first quarter.

Ostensibly, Collins' practice speech about persevering in less-than-ideal circumstances was about playing in bad weather, but it works just as well with things threatening to collapse for School of Mines. And the Hardrockers don't fold under the pressure, as their transfer quarterback, Trent McKinney, leads a 10-play drive all the way into the Black Hills State end zone.

BHSU takes a 28-13 lead on a long pass with most of the second quarter to go, but both offenses halt. Turnovers and penalties pile up, and a mild dread creeps over the home crowd. An 11-point lead in the second half didn't hold up last year; is 15 points enough now?

That dread grows when the Hardrockers open the third with a field goal. Anderson throws a pick on his first pass of the second half that turns into a Mines touchdown pass to Rashad Ridley three plays later, and when Black Hills State is forced to punt on its next possession with the lead down to five, the dread is titanic.

But the Yellow Jacket defense forces a three-and-out, and Anderson takes advantage with his fourth passing touchdown. Undeterred, Hardrocker receiver Tim Crenshaw  rips off a 52-yard kickoff return.

Then, disaster. Ridley fumbles, and the Yellow Jackets march to the goal line. On the last play of the third quarter, Black Hills State has the ball at the Mines 3-yard line with third-and-goal. Phydell Paris is stopped just short at the 1.

Reiners decides against the safe three points, which would still only leave his team ahead by two scores. He wants to put this out of reach or make School of Mines drive the entire length of the field. Paris gets the ball again. Again, the Hardrockers hold him short of the goal line.

It's an odd point in the game where the emotions of both fan bases come to a meeting point.

Ninety-nine yards it is.

The emotions of both fan bases come to a meeting point. Those rooting for Black Hills State are nervous, because they know they missed a chance to shut the door. Those rooting for South Dakota School of Mines realize they've still got an uphill climb.

The Hardrockers start with small gains, then junior Marcus Sanchez hauls in a 40-yard reception. Sanders is moving the ball all over the field, finding receivers at will. It takes 13 plays and almost four minutes, but Mines does what every Black Hills fan was counting against -- the longest touchdown drive possible.

Your brain looks at this and says this is a Division II game. This is a tiny thing going on in a very large college football universe. This is not important.

Every other cell in your body screams that your brain is full of shit.

In last year's second-half collapse, BHSU quarterback Ward Anderson threw a costly pick in the end zone with the Yellow Jackets holding a slim lead. Whether he's thinking about that pick or not, Anderson doesn't let the past repeat itself, as he runs for 40 yards and completes six passes to help drain five minutes off the dwindling game clock. The last of those completions is very nearly the death blow to School of Mines, a touchdown to tight end Luke Whalen. It's the third score of the game for the brawny Yellow Jacket, who missed two seasons while deployed in Afghanistan with the Army National Guard.

But six minutes remain, and the Hardrockers are not about to lay down and die. With a little over two minutes left, the Hardrockers have first-and-goal from the 14-yard line. Three incomplete passes follow, and Black Hills State is one play away from retaking the Homestake Trophy.

Sanders takes the snap and lofts a throw to Sanchez, the big-play threat for Mines all day.

It's too high. The Yellow Jackets take over on downs, and the rest is formality.

Mines and BHSU combine for six turnovers and over 200 penalty yards, but each gains 500 yards of offense, almost all of them through the air. The Yellow Jacket bench empties onto the field in celebration and, as Reiners predicted, Mines fans chant, "That's all right, that's okay, you'll all work for us someday." Great rivalries rarely produce gracious losers.

Black Hills State's seniors have done their jobs and brought the Homestake Trophy back to Spearfish, drawing closer to all-time parity and trailing in the series by just two games. School of Mines returns to Rapid City without its prize but not empty-handed; the players and fans will carry the sting until Round 130 begins.

But that's a long way off, and today the scoreboard reveals the only two numbers that matter: 42-30.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editors: Jason Kirk, Spencer Hall | Photos: Ryan Nanni

About the Author

Ryan Nanni writes about college and professional football without having played either, which makes him an expert on both and a true American.