Wednesday, September 29, 2010

You cannot contract a rivalry

Here’s a hard-and-fast rule in life and college football: a contract does NOT make a football rivalry. It MUST come naturally and exist for multiple decades, usually through conference alliances, or traditions that stretch back to when football fields actually LOOKED like gridirons.
Michigan has held its 38th meeting with Notre Dame in what is considered a “storied” rivalry. In truth, however, it is NOT all that “storied” – the contract to play Notre Dame didn’t begin until 1978 after a 34-year absence. What you have are marquee matchups involving two major Midwestern schools.
Michigan and Notre Dame only played 11 times up to 1943 when the two institutions contracted to face each other, starting in 1978. And … there have been periods since then when the game wasn’t played (1983-84, 1995-96, 2000-01). Rivalries don’t take that many games off.
Each school will point fingers at the other as the reason for the prolonged gap in between encounters, but it doesn’t matter. A rivalry might have developed but there’s no guarantee it will continue far into the future (pending on upcoming expanded conference scheduling and the uncertainty of the Irish’s TV contract).
Still, these schools should have met on an annual basis throughout the ages, and the truth is that Michigan and Notre Dame did NOT play each other for decades.
Michigan has three natural “rivals” – Ohio State, Michigan and Minnesota. All are long-time members of the Big 10/12 conference and these teams have been playing each other since nearly 100 years.
Ohio State is obvious as is Michigan State (do they still call the school in East Lansing “Moo U”). They are on-field challengers as well as recruiting rivals.
But … Minnesota??? You might not realize it, but Minnesota and Michigan contest the oldest football trophies in NCAA history – a piece of crockery affectionately called the Little Brown Jug.
Sadly, this is the second year in a row – thanks to the non-wisdom of the Big 10’s unbalanced conference scheduling – that the Gophers and Wolverines will NOT play one another.
The rivalry was created on Oct. 31, 1903, when an earthenware water jug, originally used by Michigan coach Fielding H. Yost, is painted with the victories of each team.
It is speculated that the name of the trophy originated from Joseph Winner’s song in 1869 (not the Glenn Miller tune which was probably based on the trophy).
In the turn of the century, both schools had great football programs – Michigan was led by legendary coach Fielding H. Yost, the architect of the modern Michigan sports program (construction of Michigan Stadium and Yost Fieldhouse – the first indoor facility for football). Starting in 1901, the Wolverines reeled off 28 straight victories and face the Golden Gophers, who were seeking to upset Michigan in Minneapolis.
Prior to the contest, Michigan student manager Thomas B. Roberts was instructed by Yost to purchase a water container, showing a tad amount of paranoia about possible water contamination by Minnesota fans. So Roberts bought the five-gallon jug for 30¢ from a local variety store.
On old Northrop Field, before 20,000 rabid Gopher fans, Minnesota stopped Yost renowned “point-a-minute” team to just a single touchdown (back then you scored by “touching down” the ball in the end zone) but did not score a touchdown of its own until late in the contest – which ended in a 6-6 deadlock.
According to legend, with two minutes to play, a thunderstorm exploded over the field, the fans rush the turf and the contest was halted at that point. Michigan left the field, and the jug behind in the University of Minnesota Armory locker room.
The next day, armory custodian Oscar Munson found the darn thing and took it to Minnesota athletic director L.J. Cooke. No one knows for sure what happened, who got it and how. In 1956, Roberts wrote that the jug was a throwaway and he deliberately left it on the field (so much for recycling in 1903).
But the Minnesota people were happy to have something that belonged to Michigan and went ahead painting the putty-colored flask Minnesota brown, with the inscription, “Michigan Jug – Captured by Oscar, October 31, 1903” with the score “Michigan 6, Minnesota 6.” Since possession was still 90 percent of the law, the Minnesota score was several times larger than Michigan’s.
Learning of this, Yost, never one of waste anything, wanted the thing returned back, and sent a letter to that effect. In response, Cooke wrote, “We have your little brown jug; if you want it, you’ll have to win it.”
So in 1904, that is what Michigan went and did, again in 1910 and kept the jug as its trophy.
Michigan did exactly that when the teams met up again in 1909, and repeated the performance in 1910. Oddly, in 1919 when Michigan rejoined the Big Ten Conference, it was the first time Minnesota won the Jug outright.
The Jug has not always been treated with such reverence. While I was on the Daily staff, one of our co-horts (nameless to protect the innocent), who also doubled as a student manager, played some tricks of his own with the trophy, as he reminisced with me recently.
“Remember the year I kept the Little Brown Jug in my apartment after we got home from Minnesota? Then Bob Ufer came over one night with a tape for me and just looked at the Jug and said, ‘What the hell is that doing here?’ We (my roommate and I) just laughed and kept it until the end of the semester.”
It sits today, I’m sure, in Schembechler Hall, in a trophy case, for all the world to see. When I was in school, it sat in the back of the equipment staff’s area in a locked box; it was just something else to haul out when Minnesota came to town. Such are the things of rivalries; at least it’s better than playing for some metal pig.
When the new Big 10/12 alignment takes place, most of Michigan’s rivalries will be preserved (unlike the current unbalanced scheduling which has Michigan and Minnesota bypassing each other for the second year in a row).
Nebraska was been a red-headed stepchild for the longest time since the Big 8 ceased to exist 16 years ago. The people in Lincoln have never been comfortable playing second-fiddle in the Big 12 to Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma.
But exactly WHAT does it bring to the new Big 10/12? What automatic rivalry is sparked by having the Cornhuskers on anyone’s schedule? The college football world is not clamoring to see Iowa-Nebraska, Minnesota-Nebraska or even Ohio State-Nebraska.
For U-M, I’m not sure losing 32-28 in the 2006 Alamo Bowl is a major revenge factor when Nebraska travels to Ann Arbor (when the first visit will BE the first visit).
Missouri, I believe, would’ve been a wiser choice as the 12th conference institution. There is already an instant, intense rivalry with Illinois and Mizzou would have been a major competitive plus in other sports (basketball, baseball). Besides, St. Louis is a better media market to add than Omaha.
It also has a larger enrollment than Nebraska; only Oklahoma State and Kansas State (by a few hundred students) are smaller public Big 12 schools than Nebraska.
One thought on the alignment: In the Big 12-minus 2 (they are going to have to arrange for new conference names to accurately reflect the movement), the football divisions were grouped geographically. The Big 12 South has the four Texas schools plus the two Oklahoma universities. The North division consisted of the remnants of the old Big 8 (Iowa State, Nebraska, Kansas, Kansas State, Colorado, Missouri) and with a few exceptions, the South was ALWAYS superior to the little sisters of the north. That’s one of the reasons Colorado AND Nebraska boot-scooted as fast as they could to “greener” pastures.
The Big 10 followed no similar pattern and what has resulted doesn’t make much sense… at least to me.
Having written ALL of the above, the best part of playing a team like Notre Dame is beating a team like Notre Dame – rival or not. Can’t say the same about UMass or Bowling Green or even Indiana or Northwestern. Hopefully it will continue.

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