For the first time in three years, Michigan and Minnesota will battle for college football’s oldest trophy – the venerable Little Brown Jug. Yes, it exists and the games used to be the stuff that created legends.
Last year, in discussing the nature of rivalries involving the Wolverines, I related the origin of the Jug and how it came to symbolize the contests between the two U-Ms.
Because of poor scheduling by the Big 10 Conference, a two-year gap was permitted to exist without an appearance by the Jug. Michigan fought like the dickens to maintain an annual dustup with that school in Columbus and no one would have ever thought of stopping a Michigan-Michigan State annual showdown.
However, it was allowed for two schools that have faced off on the gridiron for more than 100 years. That’s shameful for a conference which advertises its link to college football history. So here, again, is the history:
The rivalry dates to Oct. 31, 1903, when an earthenware water jug, first used by Michigan coach Fielding H. Yost, is painted with the victories of each team. The name of the trophy allegedly originated from Joseph Winner’s song in 1869 (not the Glenn Miller tune, which was based on the trophy).
In the turn of the 20th century, both schools had outstanding 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). And starting in 1901, the Wolverines had reeled off 28 straight victories and faced the Golden Gophers, who were seeking to upset Michigan in Minneapolis.
Prior to the contest, Michigan student manager Thomas B. Roberts was told by Yost to purchase a water container, showing a bit of paranoia about possible water contamination by Minnesota fans. Roberts, in turn, bought the five-gallon jug for 30 cents from a local variety store.
On old Northrop Field, before 20,000 hyped-up Gopher fans, Minnesota held Yost’s 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 – ending in a 6-6 deadlock.
According to accepted legend, with two minutes to play, a huge Midwestern thunderstorm downpour cascaded over the field; the fans rushed the turf and the contest was stopped at that point. Michigan exited the field, but the jug remained behind in the University of Minnesota Armory locker room.
The next day, armory custodian Oscar Munson found the crockery and took it to Minnesota athletic director L.J. Cooke; just how Munson obtained the Jug is not officially known. Later in his life, in 1956, Roberts stated the jug was a throwaway and he deliberately abandoned it on the field.
But the Minnesota people were gleeful to have captured something that belonged to Michigan and painted the putty-colored flask Minnesota brown, with the inscription, “Michigan Jug – Captured by Oscar, October 31, 1903” with the score “Michigan 6, Minnesota 6.” Of course, the Minnesota score was several times larger than Michigan’s.
When told of what happened, Yost sought the Jug’s return, and sent a letter to that effect. Cooke responded, “We have your little brown jug; if you want it, you’ll have to win it.”
So in 1904, that’s what Michigan did, again in 1910 and kept the jug as its own trophy.
Michigan did it again 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 Little Brown Jug has not always been treated with such reverence. While I was on the Michigan Daily staff, one of our compadres, who also doubled as a student manager, played some tricks of his own with the trophy.
“Remember the year I kept the Little Brown Jug in my apartment after we got home from Minnesota? Then (Michigan announcer) 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 has sat in Schembechler Hall, in the trophy case, for all the staff and players to see. When I was in Ann Arbor, it sat in the back of the equipment staff’s area in a locked box; it got fished out and dusted off when Minnesota came to town.
But, back in the day, something strange always happened when Minnesota came to town.
On the Friday nights before a home game, the Michigan squad bivouaced at one place; with everything under Bo Schembechler’s control. Bo started that; he wanted everyone to eat together, watched a movie together (a movie Bo ALWAYS selected), hear from the coach one last time and be IN BED by curfew.
Believe it or not, the movie was important. Just ask the Minnesota Golden Gophers in 1974, under poor old Cal Stoll. I guess they were staying at the Ann Arbor Inn because they were close enough to the central campus to decide about GOING to a movie.
So what were his choices? Only THREE at the time – whatever was at the stately old Michigan Theater, the foreign film (or pseudo soft porn) at the Campus Theater, OR ... what was playing at the State Theater.
On the Friday night before the Little Brown Jug battle, what was showing was this new offering apparently NO ONE in Minneapolis had seen, or know a damn thing about ... the original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” Not exactly standard fare for 1974.
Sidenote: The guy who co-wrote the film was a Texan named Kip Henkel. I became good friends with his family when I moved to Texas a few years later; they owned a community newspaper in the island town of Port Aransas, just outside Corpus Christi.
The dad, Cap Henkel, was an old sea-faring man, who ran a newspaper and wrote columns when he wasn’t deep sea fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. His daughter, Mary, and son-in-law, Murray, STILL run it and are as normal as normal can be. Mary became the first elected female president of the Texas Press Association.
Second sidenote: A few years before, in 1970, another visiting team went to The State Theater to see a western, starring Candice Bergen, called “Soldier Blue.” It featured a massacre of Indians by American troops and a brief flash of a pony soldier slicing the breast off an Indian woman. Well, THAT was enough to send many of those players to the toilets to revisit the evening meal on its way back up.
But in 1974, the film was shocking and stomach-turning and churning ... and within the minds’ of each of the Minnesota players leaving the theater were THOSE images (and a few in their stomachs, or what was left of the contents). Well ... the next afternoon, Minnesota was as listless as any squad ever to come to Ann Arbor; lost 49-0 … and it wasn’t THAT close.
Bo heard the “movie” story at the end of the game, and dialed up Stoll the following Monday morning, jokingly telling him he was an idiot for NOT pre-screening the movie.
“You’ve got to control EVERYTHING,” he reportedly said.
Finally, here’s a good trivia question: Name all the football coaches for the Minnesota Golden Gophers since Bo arrived at Michigan in 1969.
Answer: Murray Warmath, Cal Stoll, Joe Salem, Lou Holtz (in 1984-85, where he went a non-illustirous 10-12), John Gutekunst, Jim Wacker, (ex-TCU coach), Glen Mason, Tim Brewster, Jeff Horton, Jerry Kill.
Oh yeah, and who was the Minnesota coach in 1930-31???
A man named Herbert O. Crisler, the person and Hall of Famer Michigan would call “Fritz.”