Dennis Rodman. Ben Wallace. John Salley. Magglio Ordonez. Al Simmons. Chris Chelios. Erik Kramer. Bobby Layne. All of these prominent sports figures from past and present have one thing in common: they have played for teams in both Chicago and Detroit during their careers. Chicago sports teams might have individual rivals from cities other than Detroit such as the Green Bay Packers and St. Louis Cardinals that are more pronounced. However, Chicago and Detroit are linked by having geographically defined and historic rivalries in every sport across the board whether it’s in the professional or college (when taking into account the Big Ten plus Notre Dame) ranks. Not even New York vs. Boston (they have the pro sports covered, but you couldn’t pay enough money to the average person on the street to watch Rutgers play Boston College in anything on the college front) or Los Angeles vs. San Francisco (L.A. doesn’t have an NFL team while the Bay Area only has a quasi-NBA franchise in the Warriors) have sets of sports rivalries that run as wide and deep as Chicago vs. Detroit. With the important series between the White Sox and Tigers (the Sox took game 1 last night after a marvelous performance by Jon Garland) occurring this week, here’s my ranking of the top Chicago vs. Detroit rivalries taking into account history and present fervor:

1) Bulls vs. Pistons – As I’ve stated before, the Bad Boy Pistons were the first team I ever had pure hatred for during my childhood. During the late-1980s and early-1990s, this was the most heated rivalry in all of sports with annual nationally televised Christmas Day matchups at the old Chicago Stadium and inevitable meetings in the NBA Playoffs, coming to a peak when the Pistons walked off of the court after being eliminated by the Bulls in 1991 without even acknowledging Michael Jordan and his team. The rivalry subsided when the Bulls, during their 1990s dynasty, eventually found new foils in the Knicks and Pacers and then the Pistons rose back to dominance after the start of the new millennium right when Chicago went into the cellar. However, with Ben Wallace defecting from a Motown fan base that loved him to go to Chicago out of all places (the basketball equivalent of Johnny Damon spurning the Red Sox for the Yankees), these two franchises are going to be rekindling that old hatred this season and beyond.


2) Notre Dame vs. Michigan – Michigan fans will tell you that while Ohio State, without question, is their biggest rival, they save their harshest vitriol for the Irish. At the same time, even though Domers count USC as their most important game of the season, there’s a certain respect for the Trojans in contrast to the pure hatred for the Wolverines. Notre Dame and Michigan are the two winningest programs in college football history with fight songs that are beaten into everyone’s heads, whether or not they care one iota about these teams, from birth. When you add in the pompous fans on both sides, the only thing comparable to this game is watching the Yankees play themselves in an intrasquad game: you hope there’s a way that both teams can lose. Regardless of how much I might hate these teams, the college football season really doesn’t start until Notre Dame plays Michigan in September.

(Sidenote: I really wish I could put Illinois vs. Michigan on this list, but I’ve learned over time that the “rivalry” is completely one-sided with my Illini brethren. Now, the most emotionally scarring sports moment that I have ever witnessed at an event that I actually attended was the 2000 Illinois – Michigan football game, where the Illini had the game stolen by the Big Ten referees who, with less than four minutes left in the game with Illinois ahead, incorrectly called a fumble by Illinois’ Rocky Harvey when he was actually down and then seconds later inexplicably didn’t call a fumble on Michigan’s Anthony Thomas when he dropped the ball when his knees weren’t anywhere near close to the ground. Michigan would go on to score the winning touchdown on that drive. The errors were so egregious that the Big Ten issued an unprecedented apology to Illinois a couple of days later and spurred the conference to begin using instant replay. What happened in Champaign that Saturday evening wasn’t a case of heartbreak a la Illinois losing in the 2005 NCAA Championship Game. Instead, it was probably the only time I’ve ever felt completely violated after watching a sporting event. To say the least, my disdain for Michigan peaked at that point.

However, when I went to law school at DePaul, the two undergraduate schools that matriculated the most students there by a substantial margin were Illinois and Michigan. Everytime I spewed my anger toward the Maize and Blue, my Michigan alum classmates were sincerely and genuinely perplexed. They had absolutely no feelings toward playing us whatsoever. In fact, a number of them upon moving to Chicago even started cheering for Illinois when they weren’t playing Michigan. They simply didn’t think about us at all as any sort of rival – we might as well have been Northern Illinois. While learning about this apathy was initially even more enraging from a personal standpoint, it also made me realize that Illinois vs. Michigan was a fictional rivalry and we, as Illini fans, look pretty petty into making the matchup into something more than what it actually is. This is now so apparent across the Big Ten that the Michigan Daily even had an article a couple of years ago examining how much we hate them in contrast to their ambivalence toward us. From that point on, I decided that if I was going to hate a team that really wasn’t a true rival of the Illini, I’d redirect more of my sports rage toward someone outside of the Big Ten: Duke. Of course, that’s not to say that I won’t continue to drop “Muck Fichigan” lines at every opportunity.)

3) Bears vs. Lions – In 1934, the Detroit Lions began their tradition of playing on every Thanksgiving Day by matching up against the Chicago Bears. When examining longevity and frequency, only the Packers are bigger rivals to the Bears than the Lions. While in terms of sporting excellence this rivalry has seen better days, the Bears and Lions are, year-in and year-out regardless of records, the most important franchises in their respective cities. So, as we wait for Matt Millen to put together an offensive formation that features one quarterback and ten wide receivers, we can appreciate the history between these two NFL teams along with the passionate fan bases that they bring to the table.

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4) Blackhawks vs. Red Wings – As I mentioned a few weeks ago, this rivalry once would have been the clear and undisputed #1 on this list. However, this matchup is looking more like Illinois vs. Michigan as opposed to Bulls vs. Pistons with every inept team that the Blackhawks trot out on the ice. Still, there’s incredible history here, from their mutual status as Original Six franchises to the Bobby Hull vs. Gordie Howe boxing matches.

5) Illinois vs. Michigan State – A continually growing college basketball rivalry that is based more on excellence as opposed to bad blood. When looking at the Big Ten over the past decade, these two programs have perennially been at the top of the conference, which makes their annual matchups that much more important. For the record, if I had to pick the one head coach in college basketball other than Bruce Weber that I respect and admire over everyone else, it would definitely be the Spartans’ Tom Izzo.

6) White Sox vs. Tigers – This season, these two teams are battling for supremacy in the American League. I’ve got to rank this rivalry at #6, however, because they have spent the last one hundred seasons as pretty lackluster franchises. It wasn’t very long ago that the Tigers were battling to avoid losing 120 games in a season, while the White Sox finally broke an 88-year World Series championship drought in 2005. If these two clubs can sustain some success over multiple seasons after this year, then we’ll have another true rivalry on our hands.

And finally…

7) Cubs vs. Tigers – This isn’t a real rivalry at all, but it serves me with an opportunity to remind my readers that are Cubs fans that your team (a) hasn’t won a World Series since 1908, when they defeated none other than the Detroit Tigers in five games and (b) hasn’t won a National League pennant since 1945, when they then lost to the Detroit Tigers in the World Series in the maximum seven games. The Circle of Life continues (as well as the Curse of the Billy Goat).

(Images from,,,

  1. matt says:

    I can’t pretend that the Tigers have been anything but lame for the last 15 years
    (up to 2006), but they won world series every decade except the 50’s,
    70’s and 90’s, and so far this decade. They won in ’35, ’45, ’68, ’84,
    and they were the second winningest team in the 80’s and were
    in the top four in the 60’s.This does not rank with the Yankees
    27 titles, or the Cardinals 11, or even the Dodgers 9, but they
    probably are as good as the Reds, Braves,Orioles etc., and the
    Red Sox and White Sox went like 87 years each before winning
    the series, so I’d say the Tigers are a little better than
    a franchise that has been lackluster for a hundred years.


  2. Ryan Doherty says:

    Growing up north of Chicago in the 80’s and 90’s I didn’t really know much about Detroit other than what I saw in Robocop movies. Last year I moved to East Lansing MI to go to Michgan State Law School so i’ve gotten to see a lot more of Detroit sports fans. I hate to say it but they are terrible fans, truly horrible. You think the bandwagon effect was bad after the White Sox won last year, you have no idea what is going on with the Tigers. I also have managed to make it to a few Tigers and Lions games and the atmosphere is terrible. It seems that half the fans can’t be bothered to pay enough attention to know when to cheer. Maybe I’m spoiled with my experiences at Wrigley and Soldier Field but I had always expected more from Detroit fans I guess. Well only two more years till I can get back to where the real sports fans are.


  3. […] While Chicagoans hold their greatest vitriol for the Packers, we can take solace in the fact that no matter how the Bears perform, we at least get to live in what we consider to be the greatest city in the world as opposed to Green Bay. As I’ve noted before, Chicago has across-the-board pro and college sports rivalries with all of the teams in Detroit, but anyone that’s ever lived in the Windy City would never willingly move to the Motor City. (Granted, any that’s ever lived anywhere would probably not willingly move to Detroit.) There’s really only one town that Chicago is constantly comparing itself to in terms of life in general: New York City. Chicago has always competed with New York in terms of sports, pizza (as a certified pizza connoisseur, I have a deep respect for the thin slice that you can fold over, but there’s nothing that compares to the deep dish), the arts, comedians, writers, mobsters, politicians, financial markets, skyscrapers, rappers, and pretty much everything else. Since New York holds an unparalleled place in the world’s psyche along with carrying a whole lot more sizzle, though, Chicago has a bit of an inferiority complex with its East Coast rival as displayed in the “Second City” moniker, albeit the harping about New York here is not nearly as acute as the afflictions in Boston and Philadelphia (I’ve seen firsthand how neurotic those people are towards NYC). In the age of geographic alignments of sports leagues and divisions, Chicago-New York matchups don’t take on the gravity or frequency today as they did compared to even only a decade ago, yet there’s still some glamour associated when the two largest sports fan markets in nation meet up on the field, court, or ice. (Don’t waste my time, L.A. “fans”.) Thus, in honor of the Bears’ being in the midst of two consecutive trips to the final resting place of Jimmy Hoffa, here’s a ranking of the Chicago-New York sports rivalries from top to bottom: […]


  4. nemoforone says:

    What about the possibility of pulling out of Iraq, letting Iran invade and lose resources fighting their own kind,
    and then come in and mop up the dregs?


  5. […] get giddy at the thought of a Hawks-Wings series even though that’s a much tougher series.  When I ranked the various Chicago-Detroit rivalries a few years ago, I noted that the hockey rivalry used to be as intense on the city’s sports scene as […]


  6. FDP3 says:

    Off topic… as an ND undergrad alum, and UI grad alum , I remember pretty uniform hostility towards ND during my grad school days[and beyond].

    As someone who grew up outside Illinois , I think Illini fans’ hostility towards ND was more a Chicago thing rather than a religious thing, unlike most anti NDERs nationwide.

    For sure ND over the years has gotten more press, as well as more favorable press than the Illini.

    Two of my graduate school friends were Catholic Chicagoans who despised the Irish.

    As Bears fan and living in the Twin Cities my attitude towards the Vikings mirrors Wolverine fans towards the Illini.


  7. Part of the vitriol Illinois fans feel for Michigan is sheer jealousy, no doubt. But an oft overlooked point is the way Schembechler went out of his way in running up the score on the Illini in the years after the firing of his beloved Gary Moeller. Schembechler never acknowledged that Moeller was a complete disaster, choosing instead to blame Illinois for not giving Moeller enough time.

    Illinois may be less than a blimp to the average UM fan, but they held a special spot in Schembechler’s dark and empty soul.


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