Niyo: Hope-Calvin basketball rivalry still a battle royale as No. 200 nears
Holland — It’s a line attributed to a former president at Hope College — a guy whose first name was Calvin, appropriately enough — and it’s one Glenn Van Wieren, the beloved former Hope men’s basketball coach, can recite as if it were a Bible passage.
It’s also one that bears repeating this weekend as Hope tips off against Calvin College for the 200th time Saturday in one of college hoops’ treasured rivalries.
As the late Dr. Calvin VanderWerf once put it, an atheist “is someone who goes to the Hope-Calvin basketball game and doesn't care who wins.” And it’s hard to imagine anyone inside the sold-out DeVos Fieldhouse on Saturday would qualify as a non-believer when it comes to The Rivalry, a year shy of its centennial anniversary, but still as competitive and communal as ever.
Only 31 miles separate Hope in Holland, just off Lake Michigan, and Calvin in Grand Rapids, and the margin between these two NCAA Division III programs on the court isn’t much wider after all these years. Hope leads the all-time series, 103-96, and the schools are separated by just 102 points over those 199 games: 13,584 points for Hope, 13,482 for Calvin.
But the true measure of how “close” this rivalry is runs much deeper than that. In fact, it traces its roots back to the 1850s when the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) split from the Reformed Church in America in west Michigan, and Hope and Calvin were founded soon after as Christian-based liberal-arts colleges, each affiliated with opposing pews.
“A spiritual battle,” is how the 76-year-old Van Wieren describes the early days of a rivalry he was practically reared in, as a third-generation Hope graduate who spent 47 years as a player, coach and professor here before retiring in 2010.
But listening to him and others reminisce, something else comes through. Friends often make the best enemies, and the mutual respect that undergirds the Hope-Calvin rivalry is born out of shared beliefs and a common ground they can’t help but fight over.
“It’s so intertwined, these two schools,” said Kevin Vande Streek, in his 23rd season as Calvin’s head coach. “We have high school teammates playing against each other, guys who’ve stood up in each other’s weddings, guys who are friends, neighbors, cousins. It’s all there.”
And all that, says Aaron Winkle, who earned Division III player of the year honors in 2000 while leading Calvin to its second national championship, is what makes this small-college showcase such a big deal.
“If it was just about proximity, if it was just about theological differences, if it was just about recruiting all the same kids, it would be significant,” said Winkle, who served as associate chaplain at Calvin after a brief pro career in Europe and now is head of school at Living Stones Academy in Grand Rapids. “But I think it really is the combination of all those things that’s the multiplier — or the intensifier — of the rivalry, and why it’s become so special to this west Michigan community.”
This all began way back in 1917 when a group of Calvin students surreptitiously scheduled a game against Hope, which had started playing basketball 15 years earlier. The Calvin crew called themselves “The Rivals” — if they only knew then what we know now— and the game went about as well as you’d expect: Hope won, 56-8. And since the Calvin students were acting without faculty approval, according to college historians, that ill-advised game also cost the seniors their commencement.
The rivalry officially began in 1920, with Hope winning the first six contests before the series was halted for a few years due to some rivalry rowdiness including “defacing of property, verbal abuse, and fistfights.” Watson “Waddy” Spoelstra, whose grandson, Erik, is now the Miami Heat’s head coach, played a starring role for Hope when the games resumed. And while there’d be another hiatus as things overheated in the late 1930s, by the early ‘50s it was Hope sponsoring Calvin’s application to join the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
Then came the “glory years,” as Van Wieren recalls them, playing alongside his brother, Clare, for Hope coach Russ DeVette and later joining his staff as an assistant. Van Wieren took over for DeVette in 1977, near the end of Calvin’s decade-long, 22-game rivalry win streak, and went on to compile a 660-219 record that included 17 league titles, 21 NCAA tournament appearances and three Final Four trips. And as long as we’re counting, he’ll tell you that old Holland Civic Center court had 33,560 planks of sugar maple in it. And that blessed bench he sat on — or paced in front of — all those years? Well, they gave it to Van Wieren as a gift, with all the chewing gum still stuck underneath.
But the real gift, he’ll tell you, are all the lives he touched and the lasting friendships Van Wieren made. And when they held a reunion honoring all the great teams from the 1990s earlier this month, with dozens of players — now doctors and teachers and coaches themselves — returning with their families, he choked back his emotions and thanked them all for another reminder of that.
“Whenever somebody in town asked me, 'Coach, how's the team going to be this year?' I’d always say, 'I'll tell you in 20 years,'" Van Wieren said. “Well, 20 years later, these guys didn’t let anyone down.”
The games rarely did, either, all those nail-biters in noisy gyms where you couldn’t hear yourself think, let alone hear the coach calling out the plays.
“The energy was palpable,” said Hope’s current coach, Greg Mitchell, who played for Van Wieren in the late-1980s and remains the school’s career leader in three-point percentage. “It always just meant so much because of the stature of the two programs.”
Live TV broadcasts of The Rivalry began in 1960, and Winkle, who grew up in Lake City and played at tiny McBain Northern Michigan Christian, laughs when he talks about leaving the past behind him when it comes to the Hope-Calvin game.
“I’m embarrassed to say I still sit there in my basement and flip on the TV and watch it and my hands are sweaty and my heart is beating and I’m reminding myself that this isn’t as important as it is,” said Winkle, now a married father of four. “I don’t know, maybe one day it’ll stop. But 20 years later, I still find myself caring about it probably more than I should.”
He’s hardly alone, though. Back in 1990, the Hope-Calvin game — on a Wednesday night in late January — was deemed important enough by WOOD-TV executives in Grand Rapids that it preempted George H.W. Bush’s second State of the Union address, a couple of months after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Important enough, too, that Van Wieren went to great lengths to try to ease the pressure on his players, even as he stoked the rivalry fires. For 20 years, he’d raise organic turkeys on a hobby farm he owned just outside of Holland, and he’d let the players name one bird each year — on one condition. The turkey’s name would be “Calvin.” Players were invited to come to the farm to butcher and pluck the turkey, and the day before the Calvin game Van Wieren would take it to the college to cook it. (“They were so big they wouldn’t fit in my oven,” he laughs.) Then the seniors on the team were treated to a feast, carving up the turkey after sticking a sign in it that read, “Beat Calvin!” Or eat Calvin, as it were.
Vande Streek can’t help but laugh at stories like that. He knows farming, having grown up in rural Wisconsin, but he didn’t grow up in this rivalry the way Van Wieren did.
“It’s funny, in the interview process, people asked about it, and I’m like, ‘Well, I’ve been a part of some pretty big rivalries …’” said Vande Streek, 60, whose first game against Hope was held at Van Andel Arena in downtown Grand Rapids, where a sellout crowd of 11,442 a Division III record — watched the Knights lose, 70-56. “But it didn’t take long to realize I had no idea. I mean, you wouldn’t believe all the people I hear from about this game.”
It’s surprisingly hard to escape, considering the colleges’ combined enrollment is less than 7,000 students. Take Nicole DeFillipi, a 2011 Calvin grad from Sterling Heights who a couple of years ago began working as a nurse for a Christian humanitarian organization called Mercy Ships, which travels to various African port cities providing free surgeries where medical care is scarce. On board the Africa Mercy, she ran into Kate Pickford, a 2014 Hope graduate working with the ship’s communications team, and friendly banter led to an impromptu Hope-Calvin watch party last winter on Deck 7 of their ship while docked in Douala, Cameroon. This year, they plan to watch in Conakry, Guinea.
There’ll be similar events Saturday hosted by alums donning their orange-and-blue or maroon-and-gold all over the United States, from Seattle to San Diego and Boston to Orlando. But it’s here in west Michigan that the game truly hits close to home.
Todd Hennink, a 49-year-old Grand Rapids businessman, can attest to that. It was his deep 3-pointer as time expired that beat Hope for the MIAA title in 1990, setting off a wild court-storming celebration at the old Calvin Fieldhouse and sending the Knights on their way to a Final Four. (Jeff Febus, Calvin’s longtime sports information director, was among the first to tackle Hennink on the court, leaving his friends’ white jersey smeared with face paint.) And yet Hennink can remember his first shot against Hope, a halftime buzzer-beater as a sophomore — “That guy gave me an Excedrin headache, I’ll you that right now,” Van Wieren chuckled — just as vividly.
“You make the shot and you’re running to the locker room high-fiving fans,” Hennink said, “and then you see you see your old elementary school principal cheering, and then an elder at church and … the rivalry, it was just fantastic.”
Packing them in
More than a decade ago, ESPN selected the Hope-Calvin rivalry as one of the five best in college basketball, trailing only Duke-North Carolina and Louisville-Kentucky in the men’s game. That honor came as Hope was celebrating its 100th season at the Civic Center. Now the Flying Dutchmen play their home games at DeVos Fieldhouse, the $22 million facility that opened in 2005.
Hope has led all Division III men’s programs in attendance for 16 consecutive seasons, averaging 2,434 fans per game in its 3,400-seat arena last season — nearly double the next closest school. (Hope’s women’s team outdrew every other men’s team as well.) Meanwhile, Calvin ranked 10th in Division III attendance last season (1,048 per game) in its own 5,000-seat gym, Van Noord Arena, that opened in January 2009 as part of the $50 million Spoelhof Fieldhouse Complex.
Almost 10 years to the day later, there were 3,200 fans on hand for this season’s initial Hope-Calvin game at Van Noord, where the Knights stormed out to an early lead — junior Derrick DeVries (Grand Rapids Covenant Christian) scored 21 of his game-high 29 points in the first half — and then held on for a 74-70 wire-to-wire win. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the Calvin student section serenaded their rivals, chanting, “There’s no Hope!”
Later, asked to sum up what it felt like to get a win, especially after the Knights were swept by Hope last season, junior forward Alex Bos smiled, “Yeah, you’re definitely on cloud nine for a while — there’s no denying that.”
Still, there’s no denying things have changed. One look at the MIAA standings tells you that. Either Hope or Calvin has won outright or shared the league title in 61 of the 65 seasons since the Knights joined in 1953. (Albion’s 2005 title is the lone exception in the last four decades.) Yet both sit three games back of first-place Trine (Ind.) University with six games to play. The top six teams qualify for the MIAA tournament in late February, which decides the league’s automatic NCAA berth.
Seated in his office, Vande Streek is surrounded by reminders of what that’s like. He’s 430-205 in 23 seasons at Calvin with nine MIAA titles and 10 NCAA trips, and the nets from two Final Four trips as well as the 2000 national title hang among the souvenirs on his shelves.
“Up through the mid-2000s, one or both of us were a fixture in the national setting,” he said, recalling the 2006-07 season when the two schools met five times in all, including an NCAA second-round matchup in Aurora, Ill. “But since that time, I don’t think either of us have been back to that level.”
They’re still competitive in their conference, and the MIAA is still competitive nationally in Division III. But Vande Streek took some grief years ago when he noted the rise of NAIA schools would change the face of small-college basketball. He’s right, though. Across town, Cornerstone University is an NAIA Divison II powerhouse, led last season by national player of the year Kyle Steigenga — the nephew of former Michigan State star Matt Steigenga — and this year by Sam Vander Sluis, former high school teammates at Holland Christian. And the days where a local star like former Calvin All-American Mark Veenstra (1973-77) turns down Big Ten scholarship offers to play Division III ball are a quaint memory.
NAIA schools have the equivalent of six full-ride scholarships to offer in men’s basketball, meaning coaches can spread that money around and cover most of their roster’s tuition costs each year. NCAA Division III schools aren’t allowed to offer athletic scholarships, and while some outside the MIAA certainly bend the rules, it’s an uphill battle for schools like Hope and Calvin, where the cost of tuition, room and board is about $45,000 annually.
“We still fight NAIA schools for kids,” Vande Streek said, “but we don’t win very often.”
But, he adds, with as much winning as Hope and Calvin have done over the years, “no one around the country or in our league feels sorry for either one of us.” And as Mitchell, in his fifth season coaching his alma mater, notes, “That’s not to say that the expectation has changed. It’s ‘Hey, find a way.’ And I would agree with that.”
There’s still plenty to sell, from the faith-based education and the dedicated faculty — “Our greatest resource is our people,” Mitchell says — to the alumni base and the facilities. There’s also the rivalry, of course. Calvin welcomed more than a dozen recruits for the Jan. 9 game against Hope at Van Noord, and Mitchell figures to do the same Saturday at DeVos, where he anticipates “a vibe unlike any other” for the 200th edition.
“The energy, the juice, the passion,” he said, “it’s gonna be at an all-time high.”
And in this rivalry, you better believe that’s saying something.
Hope vs. Calvin
What: The 200th game in the Hope vs. Calvin men’s basketball rivalry.
When: Saturday, 3 p.m.
Where: DeVos Fieldhouse, Holland, Mich.
TV: WGVU in west Michigan; DirecTV Channel 367; live stream (go to hopecalvin.com for the link).
Series: Hope leads, 103-96, in a series that began in 1920.
Watch parties: There are 56 watch parties nationally organized for Saturday’s game. For more information go to hopecalvin.com.
Notable: Just 102 points separate the teams over 199 games, a difference of 0.54 points per game. … Calvin’s longest winning streak in the series is 22 games, from 1969-70 through 1979-80. Hope’s longest winning streak is 10 games, from 1994-95 through 1997-98. … The teams have met 17 times in the MIAA tournament and six times in the NCAA Tournament. Calvin leads the NCAA Tournament series, 4-2. … Calvin has won the NCAA Division III national championship twice (1992, 2000) and Hope has been runner-up twice (1996, 1998).