How Tortillas Highlight the Highs and Lows of One of College Soccer’s Best Rivalries

(This was originally an article written for JOUR 203)

It’s a typical San Luis Obispo afternoon, and as the sun begins to drape behind Bishop Peak, over 11,000 soccer fans file into Cal Poly’s Spanos Stadium to watch the central coast’s biggest soccer game: Cal Poly vs UC Santa Barbara, otherwise known as the Blue-Green game. Although the sheer attendance of these games makes this one of the most significant collegiate rivalries, anyone familiar with these match-ups knows that what really makes it stand out is in the bleachers, hidden from the security staff: tortillas!

(Flickr)

On Nov. 2, thousands of tortillas littered the field, and dozens of fans were escorted out as UCSB defeated Cal Poly at home 2-0 in their second match-up of the year. Such has been the tradition for years, but as Cal Poly continues to crack down on tortilla throwing, the future of the flour-based rivalry looks increasingly unsustainable.

Recorded incidents of tortilla throwing between the schools have been reported since the 1990s, but it hardly took off overnight. Over the years, Cal Poly became increasingly involved in tortilla throwing during UCSB games, although it wasn’t a staple of the rivalry at first, mostly because there wasn’t one.

This began to change and starting in 2001, UC Santa Barbara won twelve straight games against Cal Poly, showing unadulterated dominance on the soccer field. Much like those games, Nov. 2 wasn’t the close match that many people anticipated. Despite only giving up three shots to UC Santa Barbara all game, they still scored two goals, giving Cal Poly an abysmal save percentage of 33%. Cal Poly had 19 shots, none of which went in. 

It wasn’t much prettier in the first game of the year either, as UCSB won 3-1 on October 5. Fittingly, this is the first time that UC Santa Barbara swept the season series against Cal Poly since 2006, the last year of UCSB’s 12 game win streak. Additionally, it marked the last year of UC Santa Barbara dominance over their central coast counterparts and the induction of the house that Spanos built.

Flickr

In 2007, Cal Poly finished construction on Spanos Stadium, and had their first winning season this century. They even split the season series, finally ending UCSB’s win streak. The rivalry was starting to take shape, and in 2008 it would solidify.

Its October 17, 2008, and a sold out crowd of 11,075 fill Spanos Stadium. It’s the highest selling regular season college soccer game of it’s decade. This is the teams first meeting of the year, and looks like an instant classic, still scoreless going into double overtime. Suddenly, a vodka bottle is thrown in the direction of UCSB’s goaltender from the south bleachers, several more bottles follow. The goaltender is ok but a delay of game is called by the referee, which kills Cal Poly’s momentum, and leads to a UCSB goal only a few moments after play resumes to end the game. An otherwise fantastic game became overshadowed by the projectiles that determined it. 

But how do we get to tortillas? In basketball, UCSB’s opponents shot technical free throws in multiple games because of tortillas thrown onto the court mid-game, including an incident (Feb. 13, 1997, against Pacific) where head coach Jerry Pimm pleaded with the fans mid-game to stop throwing them. The fans responded to his outcry by hitting him in the head with a tortilla. 

Cal Poly’s former head coach Paul Holocher also described the tradition as “stupid” and “not apart of being a fan of the game” in a press conference following a Blue-Green game. In terms of on the field play, it’s hard to argue that the act of throwing tortillas doesn’t dilute the on field product.

Even if the field conditions aren’t ideal, tortilla throwing has become so integrated in the Blue-Green rivalry it could be too late to turn back now. That bottle thrown in 2008 introduced thousands of college students to the rowdy, rambunctious atmosphere that makes soccer such a global force. The rivalry injected life into two otherwise insignificant NCAA programs.

In the years following 2008, Cal Poly and UCSB officially formalized and embraced the rivalry, even creating a website in 2012 showcasing the match-ups between the two teams in every collegiate sport.  Without a doubt, the Blue-Green rivalry had been established as one of the fastest growing in all of collegiate sports.

wayback machine

Since 2011, every single Blue-Green soccer game has sold out in Spanos Stadium. According to the NCAA, 17 of the 25 highest attendance non-tournament collegiate soccer games are Blue-Green rivalry games.

Despite this astounding attendance record accompanying the rivalry, there are signs of fatigue, with the last two Blue-Green games in Santa Barbara not cracking 10,000 in attendance for the first time since 2010. Around 2016 the website for the rivalry was deleted, and all the photos of the vodka incident were deleted too. Cal Poly also has increased the cohesion of their pat-downs, and number of security guards in the student section.

Kaitlyn Robles, a third-year student at Cal Poly, believes that the primary factor behind the crackdown is the cultural appropriation associated with throwing tortillas. “Cal Poly has been insisting for a few years since I got here that throwing tortillas is insensitive.” Robles also sees the lack of UCSB representation as a factor behind the accusation, saying “UCSB students don’t really come to the games in SLO as much, so probably not a good look for Cal Poly to throw most of [the tortillas, UCSB] are the Gauchos after all.” 

As Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara prepare for the next chapter of their rivalry, plenty of uncertainty about its future still remains. UCSB has been debating the retirement of their Gaucho mascot for something less insensitive, while Cal Poly has been making extremely concerted efforts to increase inclusivity following recent scandals. 

While the Blue-Green rivalry was once certainly a priority for both schools, the lower than average attendance and lack of parity between the two teams this season could spell the beginning of the end. Of course, tortilla throwing remains common practice at schools such as Texas Tech and there will likely always be people in support of the tradition. However, in an age where sports rivalries are becoming increasingly trivialized by students, tortillas might just have to stay in the grocery store.

On my way home from the Blue-Green game last Saturday, I met Hatim, an Uber driver who went to school at UCSB, but now lives in SLO. “I used to watch the games all the time, not much any more,” Hatim said. He was disappointed to hear that both of the Blue-Green games this year were quite one-sided. “You can’t always win everything.”