CHICAGO — University of Minnesota Athletics Director Joel Maturi scoffs at his team’s lack of football success with self-deprecating humor.
The Golden Gophers play for college football’s oldest trophy (Little Brown Jug), most famous trophy (Paul Bunyan’s Axe) and most unique trophy (Floyd of Rosedale). Much of Midwestern college football can be traced to those three trophies.
But where Minnesota football falls short in the trophy department is, well, in the trophy department.
“Certainly we have the most, that’s for sure,” Maturi said. “We don’t have any in our trophy case right now … but we do have some great rivalries.”
While the only trophies visible in Minnesota are those hanging over a fireplace, the Gophers’ league boasts college football’s most eclectic collection of historical artifacts. The Big Ten has 12 trophy rivalries among its 11 rivals. And all have a story to tell.
Minnesota and Michigan have played for the Little Brown Jug since 1903 when legendary Michigan Coach Fielding Yost left his 30-cent, five-gallon jug on the Minneapolis sidelines after the schools’ 1903 game. Yost instead complained that the jug was stolen, so the teams staged another game in 1909 to play for it.
Purdue and Indiana, the nation’s ninth-most played Division I football rivalry, compete for the Old Oaken Bucket, relic dating to the Civil War. The story goes that the bucket was used during a Confederate raid into southern Indiana. The bucket became the rivalry’s symbol in 1925 and the winner attaches a link upon victory.
Ohio State and Illinois play for a turtle. Iowa and Minnesota play for a pig. Some symbols — like Illinois-Northwestern’s Sweet Sioux Tomahawk — were retired in the name of political correctness. Others — like Minnesota-Wisconsin’s Slab of Bacon — were lost and later replaced.
“Traveling trophies are neat because they kind of started what this conference is all about,” Illinois Coach Ron Zook said. “Those are things people hang on to. They’re all a sign of what made this conference what it is.”
“Usually when we sit down and we make team goals, which my players are in charge of, one of them that has been a concept since I’ve came on board is retain all trophies,” Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema said. “That says enough for itself.”
Traveling trophies are integral reminders of college football’s past. Oregon-Oregon State play for an obscure platypus that was lost for 45 years and the Texas-Oklahoma game includes a golden hat for the winner. Even longtime Division II rivals Truman State and Northwest Missouri State play for The Hickory Stick. But no league as a whole embraces traveling trophies like the Big Ten.
The league includes a list of trophies in its annual football media guide, along with the inaugural year and series total. Preserving trophy games and long-standing rivalries are at the forefront of public sentiment as Big Ten officials discuss divisional realignment. Within the next month, the league could cycle out a few trophy games as it determines the Big Ten’s 12-team divisional structure in 2011.
“We need to do everything we can to preserve those,” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said. “Whether or not we’ll be 100 percent able to preserve every trophy game or every rivalry game, I’ll tell you we’ll go to great lengths to make sure that tradition and rivalries are respected.”
But what makes trophies special and unique to the Big Ten? Kansas and Missouri have played 118 times, just one less than Wisconsin-Minnesota. Those schools compete for a drum that’s a mere footnote in their annual border showdown. Auburn-Georgia is the oldest and most-played game in the Deep South, but there’s no trophy. Great rivalries exist throughout the country like Alabama-Auburn and USC-Notre Dame but traveling trophies uniquely are embedded to Big Ten culture.
Zook formerly coached Florida, which participates in long-standing rivalries with Georgia and Florida State. He struggled to describe why trophies developed more relevance in Middle America than in the football-crazy South.
“This conference was started long before any of us were here,” Zook said. “Let me give you an example. Florida didn’t win an SEC championship until 1991. I was there. That’s pretty recent. Now they think they invented football. Football’s been going on here for a hundred years.
“There are so many things that go on outside of a game, it’s unbelievable. I just think it all adds to the pageantry of the Big Ten Conference.”
Nation’s oldest rivalry
The Minnesota-Wisconsin rivalry soared past 100 years 20 years ago. It’s the most-played rivalry in Division I football.
The schools competed for the Slab of Bacon from 1930 through 1943, when it was discontinued out of respect for World War II. It was misplaced in a Wisconsin storage room until 1994. Since 1948, the teams have played for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, maybe the most recognizable trophy in college sports. One side is painted red and white. The other in maroon and gold. The scores from each game are inscribed along the six-foot shaft.
Once the final second ticks away, the game ends in chaos. The winning side rushes to the axe, lofts it to the sky and sprints toward the end zone for a mock chopping of the goal post.
The trophy always had merit between the programs but it was Wisconsin Coach Barry Alvarez who re-emphasized it when he took over the Badgers in 1990.
“I made the game very important,” said Alvarez, now Wisconsin’s athletics director. “I used to give a history lesson every year. Bret does the same thing now to talk about how the rivalry has gone over the years, some of the great players that have played in it, some of the great games. The fact is you’re a part of college history, ongoing history. The winner of that game is going to be etched on that axe. You’re always going to be able to look at it.
“The bottom line, it’s a symbol of victory.”
Perhaps the most memorable recent axe moment came in 2005 when Wisconsin trailed Minnesota by 10 points with less than 3 minutes remaining. After scoring a touchdown to cut their deficit to a field goal, the Badgers blocked a punt with 30 seconds left and recovered the ball in the end zone for a shocking game-winning touchdown.
In 2008, the teams met in ABC’s showcase game. With the backdrop of a potential New Year’s Day bowl for Minnesota on the line, the Badgers stunned the Gophers in a fourth-quarter rally to win 35-32.
“The season can get long, it can get hard and guys can get worn out,” Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber said. “To have those little games along the way that can kind of boost you up again, it can fill you up with energy. If you win those games, that can carry that for the rest of the season. Those are big games for us, not only big for our team but big for our fans and big for our state.”
Losing those games also can have a draining effect. One week after losing the 2008 heartbreaker to Wisconsin, the Gophers came out emotionally flat against Iowa in the annual Floyd of Rosedale game. Iowa promptly trounced the Gophers 55-0.
“It’s tough because when we play Wisconsin, when we play Iowa, we give it our all, both teams do,” Weber said. “You’ve got to be leery because it is like any other game, but you also have to realize that it is a special game for both schools.”
Iowa and Minnesota have played annually since 1930 and 103 times overall. After a racial incident threatened to end the series after the 1934 game, the states’ governors bet prized pigs on the 1935 game. The Hawkeyes lost, and Iowa Gov. Clyde Herring gave Minnesota Gov. Floyd Olson a Hampshire pig. A 98.3-pound bronze pig was sculpted the following year, and the schools have fought for the pig 75 times.
Iowa displays the trophy throughout the year, but it becomes a prominent symbol during game weeks. Team managers wheel it in front of the locker room so the players can touch it, then bring it to practice.
When Iowa plays in Minneapolis, managers load Floyd on a semi-trailer truck, and he’s driven to the team hotel before the players arrive at the game. The pig is locked in a meeting room the night before the game and rides the bus with the team to the stadium. Floyd stays in the locker room during halftime before he’s wheeled behind the bench during the second half.
Floyd has great value to both sides, Brewster said.
“The two trophies that I think are the most meaningful to Minnesotans are the pig and the axe,” Brewster said. “Obviously the Little Brown Jug has been around for a long time, too; it just doesn’t seem to carry the same significance. We’re going to play Iowa. We’re going to play Wisconsin every year.
“It’s significant to our players and to the people in the state of Minnesota and it’s important to go fight and go compete to get those trophies. Right now we don’t have one.”
Maturi said his program struggles to identify one trophy as its most important.
“I would be doing a disservice of saying this one is most important because it might be most important to me personally but it may not be most important to our fans,” Maturi said. “In many ways that may be a healthy thing; it’s not like I can say this one is the one because our fans are really passionate.
“Saying that, Wisconsin and Minnesota’s rivalry is the oldest, longest-continuous rivalry in the nation. So that in itself has some meaning to it, forget the trophy game.”
In many respects, Wisconsin’s rivalry with Iowa resembles Maturi’s remark. Wisconsin and Iowa own the most evenly matched long-standing rivalry in Big Ten history. Through 85 games, Iowa leads 42-41-2. In the last 15 years, Iowa leads 8-7.
In 2004, the schools commissioned the Heartland Trophy, which features a bronze bull mounted to a walnut base. The bull measures 30 inches tall, 36 inches long and 18 inches deep. It was designed by former Iowa player and Des Moines artist Frank Strub.
“Someone came forward to see if we’d be interested in playing since we’re protecting that rivalry did we want to play for a trophy, and we agreed to it,” Alvarez said. “I think it adds a little more to the game.”
As an assistant under Alvarez, Bielema recalled the impact of the Badgers’ rivalries with his players, including former tight end Jason Poclask.
“He raised his hand and quite simple said one of his senior season goals was to beat Iowa,” said Bielema, a former Iowa team captain. “I’m like, if this is a kid from Indiana playing at Wisconsin and one of his season goals was to beat Iowa, that made a huge statement to me about the impact of that rivalry to that young man.”
Illinois’ traveling trophies boast a deep history. In 1905, a group of Purdue students took a cannon to Champaign, Ill., hoping to fire it in victory. The weapon was confiscated in advance by an Illini supporter, who then took it to his Illinois farmhouse. In 1943, after the cannon survived a fire, the Illini supporter donated it back to the schools as a traveling trophy.
After the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk was retired in 2008 after 63 years, Illinois and Northwestern now battle for the newly commissioned Land of Lincoln Trophy. Illinois also plays for the Illibuck, a wooden turtle which is the Big Ten’s second-oldest trophy.
Joining the Illini for the Illibuck is Ohio State in — strangely — that school’s only traveling trophy. It was conceived in 1925 with a real turtle, then transferred to the wooden version in 1927 when the original turtle died.
“It’s a pretty cool trophy if you’ve never seen it,” Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel said. “It’s special to us because it’s our only one.”
Michigan State shares trophies with Indiana (the Old Brass Spittoon), Michigan (Paul Bunyan Trophy) and the obscure Land Grant Trophy with Penn State. The Old Brass Spittoon is nearly 190 years old and came from one of Michigan’s oldest trading posts, according to the school. The Paul Bunyan Trophy was donated by a former Michigan governor. Michigan State and Penn State are two of the nation’s oldest land-grant institutions and initiated the trophy after Penn State joined the league in 1993. Penn State and Minnesota also play for the Governor’s Victory Bell.
Three other traveling trophies exist for Big Ten schools. Michigan State and Purdue compete annually against Notre Dame for trophies, as does Iowa with cross-state rival Iowa State.
Oddly enough, the Big Ten’s greatest rivalry doesn’t have a trophy. Michigan-Ohio State have concluded their regular seasons against one another every year since 1935. Forty-six times the game has determined the Big Ten champion. Yet, no trophy exists.
“Some things don’t need a trophy I guess,” Tressel said. “I guess it’s such a rivalry that you don’t need to inscribe it on something. It’s inscribed in your heart.”
Long live the trophy
Websites already tout the potential trophy games for Nebraska when it joins the league in 2011. Farm machinery has been suggested for a potential Iowa-Nebraska game, while Alvarez’s Nebraska roots have added to name suggestions for a Wisconsin-Nebraska trophy.
“I think everybody’s excited about the addition of Nebraska,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said.
The players say they don’t prepare any differently for trophy games. But the emotion surrounding them changes their attitude and often sharpens their focus.
“Your preparation doesn’t change because when it comes down to it, it’s the same Xs and Os football game,” Weber said. “ But it’s that little extra fuel in the tank for practice.”
Schools display trophies in cases visible to its players. They parade the trophies in public tours and state fairs to conjure good will among the alumni. And they’re rubbed in the face of a defeated opponent seconds after the game is complete.
“Iowa has been unique because this is my fifth year,” Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien said. “We had it the first two years, and the last two years Iowa has had it. So that’s what a rivalry game is. It’s back and forth.
“Hopefully we can get it back this year.”
That’s what traveling trophies are all about.
Little Brown Jug (Michigan-Minnesota)
Illibuck (Illinois-Ohio State)
Old Oaken Bucket (Purdue-Indiana)
Floyd of Rosedale (Iowa-Minnesota)
Purdue Cannon (Purdue-Illinois)
Paul Bunyan’s Axe (Wisconsin-Minnesota)
Old Brass Spittoon (Indiana-Michigan State)
Paul Bunyan’s Trophy (Michigan-Michigan State)
Governor’s Victory Bell (Minnesota-Penn State)
Land Grant Trophy (Michigan State-Penn State)
Heartland Trophy (Iowa-Wisconsin)
Land of Lincoln Trophy (Illinois-Northwestern)
Slab of Bacon (Wisconsin-Minnesota)
Sweet Sioux Tomahawk (Illinois-Northwestern)
Megaphone (Michigan State-Notre Dame)
Shillelagh (Purdue-Notre Dame)
Cy-Hawk (Iowa-Iowa State)