At left, a University of Virginia mascot and a University of Maryland Terrapin. (Washington Post illustration; Original images via Getty Images)
March 6

Eric Hoover is a senior writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Everything was fine until someone pelted me with a frozen hamburger patty.

It was Nov. 13, 2003, and I’d come to see my beloved Virginia Cavaliers play the Maryland Terrapins in College Park. Before the football game, I was tailgating with other Wahoos when a horde of Terps fans appeared, shouting expletives and throwing stuff at us. We scurried for cover, and then — wham! — something hit my shoulder.

The cold disk of ground beef hammered home the fact that detesting a rival is the best and worst part of rooting for your team. Mere dislike is for amateurs. Only through unabashed loathing can a fan experience the bliss of victory and the despair of defeat. Spectators thrive on adrenaline, and rivalries get it flowing.

For Maryland and Virginia, though, the bottle’s about to run dry. On Sunday, Maryland’s men’s basketball team will play its final regular-season game as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference — against Virginia, naturally. Once Maryland leaves for the Big Ten Conference later this year, the Terps and the Cavs will no longer compete regularly in football and basketball. About a century after the schools’ teams first squared off, one of the region’s most intense rivalries will die.

If all politics is local, the best rivalries are, too. The Washington area is loaded with Maryland and Virginia graduates who’ve long trash-talked one another at dinner parties and bars. Although Maryland will bring in the big bucks in its new conference, Terps fans will soon have to trek to Midwestern campuses, such as Iowa and Minnesota, to support their teams on the road. No more trips to Charlottesville, less than three hours away.

Sure, in basketball at least, the rivalry’s not as intense as it was before Maryland adopted Duke as its No. 1 enemy around 2001, though that relationship is rather one-sided. Blue Devils fans, consumed with hatred for North Carolina, see the Tar Heels as their only rivals. Being replaced by Duke made the U-Va. faithful boo the Terps more intensely. Still, the Maryland-Virginia conflict remains a truer one, felt by both sides and across all sports, from lacrosse to soccer to field hockey.

In my experience, Maryland fans are the most obnoxious in the region. Their slogan — “Fear the turtle” — is good advice; the turtle’s been known to riot, spew F-bombs and vandalize the cars of rival fans. I’ve witnessed such nastiness at dozens of Maryland-Virginia games over the past 30 years. At U-Md.’s Byrd Stadium in 2003, my friends and I encountered a scowling, red-clad toddler giving the finger — with both hands — to passing Virginia fans. This little charmer’s parents cheered him on.

The most obscene sentence I’ve ever heard was shouted in my ear by a Maryland fan after Virginia’s quarterback threw a fourth-quarter interception during the 2001 game at Byrd. A rather imaginative young man described how his team had just performed what once was a widely illegal sex act upon my hapless Cavs.

Every fan base has bad apples; Maryland’s got an orchard. Imagine an entire student section shouting: “Hey! You suck!” before each basketball game. Or go to U-Md.’s Comcast Center and witness this eloquence for yourself. Beware, Route 1 leads to Mordor, where the locals burn couches after losses.

Yes, this is stereotyping, but Maryland fans do it, too. Turtle-philes may slander me, a 1997 Virginia graduate, as a brie-eating, champagne-sipping elitist. U-Va.’s hyper-preppy traditions invite such mockery. Some Cavs fans still wear jackets and ties to football games.

This clash of blue collar vs. blue blood has sustained an off-the-field rivalry. So, too, have comments from both schools’ administrators. In 2003, C.D. Mote Jr., then the university’s president, described U-Va. as “highly overrated.”

Miffed, a U-Va. trustee fired back. “I certainly think a college president should have more class,” William H. Goodwin told Virginia’s student newspaper, “but you have to expect that from Maryland.”

When an inferiority complex collides with a superiority streak, grown men revert to adolescents. But a despised opponent deepens the colors we wear on our backs. (Who are we? Not you!)

Howling in victory, wailing in defeat, I’ve sweated through a zillion Virginia games. The Terps starred in some of the most memorable. As an 8-year-old in 1983, I knelt on the living-room floor with my father, also a Virginia grad, watching basketball star Ralph Sampson play his last home game at U-Va. When the big guy sank the game-winning jumper against Maryland, the two of us hopped around like crazed kangaroos. The thrill hooked me for life.

In 2006, I stood speechless after the final regular-season game played at Virginia’s University Hall, site of many ecstatic moments during my college days. The Terps won after Mike Jones hit a late three-pointer, crushing U-Va. fans, who had wanted to leave the musty old arena happy just once more.

As rivalries go, Maryland-Virginia never had the high voltage of Duke-UNC, Alabama-Auburn or Ohio State-Michigan. Rarely were the two schools’ basketball or football teams good at the same time. Yet somehow the low stakes reduced the border war to its essence, an unencumbered battle between neighbors.

The 1999 football game mattered, though. The 5-5 Terps needed one more win to secure a bowl bid. Listening on the car radio, I heard U-Va.’s Billy McMullen catch an improbable touchdown pass in the final moments, erasing Maryland’s lead. “The worst loss I’ve ever been associated with,” Ron Vanderlinden, then Maryland’s coach, said after the Terps lost. I slapped the steering wheel triumphantly.

Just don’t ask me about Jan. 31, 2002, a basketball fiasco that my friend Shawn and I still call “the Maryland game.”

From the upper deck in Charlottesville we watched the Cavs squander a nine-point lead with 3:22 remaining. The Terps’ Drew Nicholas drilled a pair of three-pointers, shushing the crowd. Afterward, Shawn and I said hardly a word at dinner, sensing the doom ahead. From there the two teams, both highly ranked, sped in opposite directions: Virginia missed the NCAA tournament, and Maryland won the national championship.

That night stands out for another reason. Before the game, I later learned from news reports, some U-Va. students in the stands chanted “crackhead parents, crackhead parents” at Juan Dixon, the fantastic Maryland guard. His mother and father, both heroin addicts, had died of AIDS years earlier. Maybe Dixon, a likable guy, deserved to make the go-ahead shot with about 30 seconds left. My orange-and-blue brethren had crossed a line between spirited loathing and classless cruelty.

On game days, rivals and their fans are enemies to vanquish. Yet under the helmets and face paint, they’re still people. As a higher-education reporter by day, I’ve made pleasant visits to Maryland’s campus, where I’ve met many sharp, thoughtful students, professors and administrators. Not one seemed like the kind who might tell me where to stick my effin’ Virginia cap.

Still, if any of those folks attend Sunday’s basketball game, I hope they go home sad. Depressed, even. The Cavs can send the Terps packing by defeating them for the seventh straight time. Not that anyone’s counting.

So long, turtles. Goodbye to all you low-down, foul-mouthed, frozen-hamburger-throwing knuckleheads. I wish you the worst.

But you know what? I really am going to miss you.

eric.hoover@chronicle.com

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Series record
Football

32-44-2

Cavs - Terps - Tie

Men’s basketball

74-106

Cavs - Terps

Women’s basketball

44-38

Cavs - Terps

Men’s soccer

29-40-9

Cavs - Terps - Tie

Men’s Lacrosse

44-46

Cavs - Terps

NOTE: Records as of Thursday March 6.