By David Fong
MIAMI COUNTY — Matt Burgbacher has both played and coached in high school football rivalry games throughout his career.
By his own admission, though, none of of them have the history or mystique of tonight’s Troy-Piqua rivalry game, which will kick off for the 131st time at 7 p.m. at Troy Memorial Stadium. The series is tied, 62-62-6. Although this will be Burgbacher’s first time coaching in The Game, growing up in Miami County, he’s well aware of what it means to both communities.
“This is going to be a new experience for me,” said Burgbacher, a Tippecanoe High School graduate. “Everyone wants to ask me about coaching in my first Troy-Piqua game. I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be excited and it’s going to be fun. When I played at Tipp, our big rival was Milton. That was a big game — but it obviously wasn’t as old as this one. When I was coaching at Fort Loramie, we played Minster the first game of the season and that was a big deal — but Fort Loramie has only had a football program for a decade now, so obviously it didn’t have the same history.
“There aren’t many rivalries anywhere where the two teams have played 130 times. I know what this rivalry means to the people in Troy, and I know what this rivalry means to the people in Piqua. Not that I’m comparing this to Ohio State or saying this is on that level, but when people look at Earle Bruce and John Cooper and Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer — sure, they look at their overall record, but they also look at how they did against that team up north.”
Burgbacher said one of the biggest challenges in coaching a rivalry game of this magnitude is striking a balance between getting his players to play with emotion befitting the biggest game of the season, while at the same time making sure they keep a level head and don’t let their emotions get the best of them.
“I think you’ve got to treat it both ways,” he said. “In some ways, it is just another game. We are going to play 48 minutes. There are going to be two teams and one football. But, it turn, the kids are aware of what this game means. We don’t have to beat it into their heads. Obviously they’ve read a lot about this game and heard a lot about this game. Naturally, they know who is going to be on the other side of the field across from them.
“I think both teams are going to have to weather the storm. I expect both teams are going to come out jacked up. But once that initial emotion and adrenaline wears off, who is going to be able to play with the most consistency? I think the team that is able to do that — to weather that initial storm — is going to win the game.”
While this will be Burgbacher’s first time coaching in The Game, on the other sideline, Bill Nees — the winningest coach in school history — will be coaching in his 25th Troy-Piqua game. He’s 12-12 against Troy in his career. Like Burgbacher, he wants his players to embrace the historical nature of the rivalry.
“This is the game kids will always remember,” Nees said. “When we have former players come back, if they had a winning record against Troy, that’s what they want to talk about. If they didn’t have a winning record against Troy, they tend to sit in the corner and be a little quieter when the subject comes up.
“Every high school has its rival and everyone wants to beat their rival. But because this one has been going on for so long — and because it’s been so close for so many years — this one is a little special. Our kids understand that. They want to be a part of this rivalry. This is a big deal to them.”
Contact David Fong at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong