Bentonville And Fayetteville Build A Rivalry Through Mutual Excellence

(KFSM)-- Northwest Arkansas is anchored by a pair of institutions. The University of Arkansas' flagship campus in Fayetteville, and the headquarters of one of the world's largest corporations in Bentonville. But that's just the surface; to find the heart of each city, just go to a high school football game. Just make sure to get there early.

"You go out two and a half hours before the game and the line is already at the gate waiting to get in."

That's according to Barry Lunny Sr, and you can take him at his word. The Arkansas high school football legend won four state titles each as head coach of Fort Smith Southside and Bentonville, and he's seen the rise of 7A West football firsthand. But in order to rise, you have to start low.

For a while, Fayetteville and Bentonville didn't think much about one another, mostly because there wasn't much competition to think about. Fayetteville dominated, only losing to the Tigers four times from 1939 to 1999. Then the interstate was built, connecting the two cities. In 2001 Bentonville won a state championship, and football, like the rest of the area, was on the rise, says Lunney.

"In Northwest Arkansas, the community expectations, the schools, were growing."

Zak Clark played at Fayetteville when the Purple Dogs would routinely go on long winning streaks against the Tigers.

"It really wasn't that big a rivalry when I was growing up, but it naturally developed."

Things started to heat up at the turn of the century, with Bentonville winning twice in three years for the first time in the history of the rivalry. But Lunney marks a later point when the rivalry got serious.

"We played them in the 2007 regular season, a few weeks later had to play them in the semi finals and they beat us. So I think that real started through this decade a pretty intense rivalry."

Fayetteville went on to win the state title that year, and since then the Purple Dogs or the Tigers have won all but one state championship in an unprecedented run of domination. And thus the state was introduced to a new kind of rivalry, one that grew out of the mirrored excellence of two programs.

"There's a lot of people who want to use the word rivalry when dealing with inter-city schools," says current Bentonville head coach Jody Grant. "But when those games aren't played for a championship they lose their sting as a rivalry. I think a true rivalry is two teams competing year in and year out for a championship."

His predecessor agrees.

"I don't know if you can get a better rivalry than that," says Lunney. "When there's something that you're playing for of significance on the line, and there couldn't be anything more significant than winning a conference and a state championship."

This dominance has led to an interesting wrinkle in the rivalry: their annual regular season match-up usually gets a sequel.  After last year's game, Grant said first year Fayetteville coach Bill Blankenship approached him after the game and told him "I'm told I'll see you again in the playoffs."

From 1939 to 2006, the teams played 50 times, but never in the playoffs. Since then, they've met seven times in the post season, including four state title games. And while Fayetteville hasn't won in the regular season since 2005, the Bulldogs have won five of the seven playoff meetings. Perhaps nothing better sums up this phenomenon than the 2001 season, when Bentonville went undefeated, until meeting Fayetteville in the state title game. That's a game that former Purple Dog and current Razorback quarterback Austin Allen remembers well.

"State championship was good memories for me, I don't know if it's too good of memories for them."

Ask Jody Grant. It's not.

"Those are memories that I can't seem to bury, you know. We were undefeated, and had beat them earlier in the year, and they ended up scoring late and going for two and beating us and that's one I'll never forget. I think you can look at it from both sides, how there's been a lot of huge moments that go on in these games."

Even a head coach getting set for his first go round at the rivalry has something at stake. First year head coach Billy Dawson will lead Fayetteville into Tiger stadium Friday, but he's familiar with the area.

"I'm a Bentonville graduate so you know, there's some things going on there."

This is a rivalry that has come of age along with the rest of Northwest Arkansas. It may not be the closest, or the oldest, but for the last decade it's been the best.

"I think our kids know their kids and some of the families are still going to church and working with some of those families," says Grant.  "You know, I don't know if they like each other but they respect each other."

And while nine combined titles in ten years may be hard to top, the Purple Dogs and the Tigers will continue trying, fighting year in and year out for more than just bragging rights. Schools will grow, districts will split, but greatness is greatness. Coach Lunney has seen this meeting grow from gimme game to state title decider, and he thinks it's here to stay.

"Fayetteville and Bentonville's going to always be pretty special."