The most intense rivalry in the Old North State doesn’t involve athletic teams representing Triangle neighbors North Carolina, Duke or NC State, or even the political football that gets tossed around at the State Capitol.
It’s the barbecue competition that evokes powerful emotions and divides the state right down the middle.
Eastern style or Western? Vinegar base or ketchup?
The debate over which is better will remain subjective depending on location and preference. But if the folks at Gardner-Webb and Campbell have anything to say about it, the issue will finally be decided on the football field.
When Bulldogs and Camels meet Saturday in the inaugural BBQ Bowl in Boiling Springs, they’ll be playing for more than just a victory and an advantage in the Big South Conference standings. They’ll also be competing for a rivalry trophy adorned with a large pig on top, to be claimed by the winner of each year’s game.
The losing team, meanwhile, will be forced to supply barbecue from its region of the state for a postgame feast.
It’s a concept that was the brainchild of Gardner-Webb president Dr. William Downs.
“Dr. Downs grew up in Raleigh and attended NC State, and he loved the traditional rivalries they had in the ACC,” Bulldogs athletic director Chuck Burch said. “So he wanted to see something like that for Gardner-Webb.
“When you look at the two schools that are very similar to each other in their mission, with Campbell and Gardner-Webb both Christian universities playing in the same conference, it made sense that they would be a possible rival in football.”
The Bulldogs and Camels have met 12 times dating back to 1929 when both schools — which are located about 200 miles apart — were junior colleges. Campbell holds a 5-4-3 advantage in the series.
That history is deceiving, though.
The schools didn’t play between 1950-2018 and have faced each other only twice as four-year, FCS programs. Gardner-Webb won the first 35-7 in Buies Creek, while Campbell returned the favor 49-47 in triple overtime in Boiling Springs two years ago.
The Camels (2-2, 1-0 Big South) are a slight favorite against the Bulldogs (2-3, 0-1) in this year’s game.
It promises to be a high-scoring affair. Campbell is leading the Big South in scoring offense at 37.5 points per game behind backup quarterback Wiley Hartley, who has thrown for 300-plus yards in each of his two starts since stepping in for the injured Hajj-Malik Williams. Gardner-Webb ranks second at 32.0 thanks to the efforts of running back Narii Gaither and receiver and T.J. Luther, who rank 2-3 in the league in all-purpose yards per game.
While it’s still too early in the rivalry to, as the cliche goes, “throw the records out,” this one has already gained some immediate spice thanks to the introduction of the barbecue debate into the equation.
“This is the beginning of what a rivalry game will be about,” said Campbell coach Mike Minter, who knows a little something about the subject, having played for Nebraska in college and the Carolina Panthers in the NFL. “You’ve got to start somewhere.
“I’m sure Oklahoma-Nebraska didn’t start on their first game saying that this is going to be one of the biggest rivalries in college football, or for that matter, Oklahoma and Texas. Over time, everybody else gets excited about what’s going on.”
Minter downplayed the hype surrounding the game and the trophy that’s up for grabs, saying his team is focused solely on “preparing for the moment.” He did, however, say he and his players might eventually get into the spirit of the thing.
“We have not even talked about the BBQ Bowl,” he said. “After the game, we’ll hopefully have a conversation about the BBQ Bowl.”
Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge of Shelby will be the Western/Lexington style, while White Swan Bar-B-Que of Smithfield will be the Eastern provider. Nationally known barbecue expert and writer Bob Garner is scheduled to preside over the postgame festivities.
“A good, spirited cross-state rivalry in football can add tons of energy to the college game,” Gardner-Webb president Downs said. “I grew up in ACC country, so I know full well how fans look forward to rivalry week each year. I also love good barbecue, and North Carolina is home to some seriously heated competition between Western-style and Eastern-style.
“I’m grateful to Campbell’s president, Dr. (J. Bradley) Creed, for agreeing to combine two things we all love — sports and eating — into this annual pigskin battle.”