A WAR that has been waged from the boardroom down to the basketball court adds color to an already epic rivalry between Ateneo and La Salle as business giants backing the UAAP protagonists also collide for the first time in the collegiate ranks.
On one side is Eduardo ‘Danding’ Cojuangco, the chairman of San Miguel Corp. who is also the biggest backer of La Salle. On the other corner is Manny V. Pangilinan, chairman of various companies like Smart, Meralco, and Metro Pacific Investments Corporation, who is also the chief patron of Ateneo.
The rivalry between the two groups has extended from the business industry to the world of sports, starting in the PBA as both the Cojuangco (San Miguel, Ginebra, Star) and Pangilinan (TNT, NLEX, Meralco) groups each field three clubs in the pro league.
With their drawn-out competition in the PBA, the battle now arrives at the biggest stage of the UAAP as the Ateneo-La Salle championship showdown this year also marks the first meeting between Cojuangco and MVP for college basketball's most coveted title.
Pangilinan, however, has had a head start as he came to back Ateneo in the UAAP before Cojuangco returned to La Salle. The Blue Eagles have won five titles under MVP’s patronage. But looking closely, though, both teams took a similar path prior to their finals meeting in Season 79.
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The last time La Salle and Ateneo met in the UAAP finals was in 2008, with the Blue Eagles prevailing over the Green Archers. After three more years, though, Cojuangco agreed to return to La Salle as the team’s chief backer, a role he once held during the seventies and early eighties.
Since Cojuangco entered the picture, the Green Archers were able to revive their basketball program following lean years in the late 2000s. La Salle was finally getting ahead of the recruitment game, with the likes of blue chip recruits led by Jeron Teng, and the Green Archers were finally rewarded with a title in 2013, their first in six years.
Meanwhile, that 2008 title was the first of five straight crowns for the Blue Eagles under head coach Norman Black, who was hired with backing of Pangilinan. That dynasty was also made possible through the efforts of MVP as the Blue Eagles were able to recruit the likes of Kiefer Ravena and Greg Slaughter.
The Season 79 finals, however, marks the first time La Salle and Ateneo will be meeting for the championship with both Pangilinan and Cojuangco as top patrons.
But not every year was a bright one for both schools that ‘ECJ’ and ‘MVP’ helped rebuild.
Following their 2013 title, the Green Archers appeared headed once again for a title run, only to end up brokenhearted at the hands of Far Eastern University a year later with a buzzer-beating corner triple by Mac Belo in the 2014 Final Four. In Season 78, the Green Archers missed the Final Four altogether with Juno Sauler stepping down after that disappointing campaign.
After the five-peat in 2012, Black moved to the PBA and was replaced by Bo Perasol as head coach. Perasol had a decent run as Blue Eagles coach but his team was eliminated by eventual champion National University in 2014 despite being the first seed. In 2015, the Blue Eagles were eliminated again in the Final Four by, yes, a buzzer-beating tip-in by Belo.
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However, their fortunes changed in 2016.
Season 79 saw La Salle regroup with the recruitments of Ben Mbala, a highly-touted Cameroonian sensation from Cebu, as well as head coach Aldin Ayo. Both major signings were made possible by Cojuangco. To no one’s surprise, La Salle emerged as the top seed in the Final Four after going 13-1 in the eliminations before beating Adamson in the Final Four.
Meantime, Ateneo had an upgrade in the coaching staff with the hiring of Tab Baldwin, then the head coach of Gilas Pilipinas bankrolled by MVP. Baldwin’s impact was immediate as he turned a young team into a championship contender, winning six straight games, even dealing La Salle’s only loss so far this season, entering the Final Four to finish with a 10-4 card.
Who draws first blood in the UAAP in the rivalry between the two biggest sports patrons in the country?
We will soon find out.