ANN ARBOR — Schembechler Hall is under renovation, and one of the Michigan football team’s prized possessions isn’t on display for the public to see. Instead, the Little Brown Jug is tucked away, somewhere under the watch of longtime Wolverines equipment manager Jon Falk.
About 650 miles away, Jerry Kill has his own copy of the talisman, a miniature version of the clay flagon that he said sits on his desk in Minneapolis. But it’s not the real thing. Michigan has monopolized the rivalry between two of the conference’s traditional teams.
Minnesota has beaten Michigan only three times since 1968, the last coming in 2005, when Jason Giannini’s field goal with one second left lifted the Golden Gophers to a 23-20 win in Ann Arbor.
Minnesota and Michigan meet at 3:30 p.m. today at Michigan Stadium, and they’ll play for the jug under different auspices.
Michigan is in search of an emphatic win that would put to rest any doubts surrounding its 4-0 start, with one goal in mind for a rivalry game.
“You don’t want them to come over to your sideline and take it back,” Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. “I think that’s very important.”
On the other hand, Kill said his team is in search of a defining win after Saturday’s loss to Iowa.
“One thing I said at the beginning of the year is that you’ve got to have one of those significant wins, one that you’re not supposed to win,” the third-year Golden Gophers coach said. “Everywhere I’ve been, when we’ve turned programs around, there’s been a defining moment. It’s winning a game you’re not supposed to win, or an upset. Any of those situations would be significant.”
The Little Brown Jug is the oldest of 16 rivalry trophies up for grabs in the Big Ten, and it’s the second trophy in as many weeks that Minnesota will play for. Iowa beat the Gophers 23-7 last week in Minneapolis for the Floyd of Rosedale, a bronze pig perched on a pedestal that was first awarded to the series winner in 1935.
Kill last week compared the Floyd of Rosedale game to a bowl game. What does he compare the Little Brown Jug game to?
“The same thing,” said Kill, whose team will host Penn State on Nov. 9 for the Governor’s Victory Bell, then host Wisconsin a week later for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. “Any time you’re in the Big Ten and you have all the great traditions we have, they’re all like that. They’re special games. Bowl games are special, traditional games are special.”
The Minnesota-Michigan rivalry began in 1892, but the jug became a staple in the rivalry 11 years later. Purchased in 1903 on a command by Michigan coach Fielding Yost, who suspected that the locals might poison Michigan’s drinking water on a trip to Minneapolis, the Wolverines left the jug in the visiting locker room at the Minnesota Armory after playing to a 6-6 tie.
The story varies as to how a water jug became a trophy six years later. One version says the coaches at Minnesota and Michigan agreed to make the nondescript jug into a prize. Another version says Yost sent a letter to Minnesota athletic director L.J. Cooke after the 1903 game, requesting that the jug be returned to Michigan.
Cooke’s retort? Come back and win it.
Michigan has won the jug 72 times to Minnesota’s 24, with three ties. The series comes with a few notable benchmarks.
In 1971, Sports Illustrated reporter Dan Jenkins named Minnesota’s 7-6 win over Michigan in 1940 as one of 25 college football games in a span of 65 years that “were perhaps the most publicized in the history of the sport, both before and after they were played.” Minnesota handed Michigan its only loss of the season and finished No. 1 in the country.
In a rare Friday night game in 2003 in Minneapolis — moved to avoid a conflict with a Minnesota Twins playoff game at the Metrodome — Garrett Rivas’ 33-yard field goal with 47 seconds left in the fourth quarter lifted No. 22 Michigan to a 38-35 win against No. 17 Minnesota on the 100th anniversary of the rivalry.
“This was a devastating loss,” Minnesota running back Laurence Maroney told reporters after the loss.
Last year, Devin Gardner made his first start at quarterback to help the Wolverines to a 35-13 win at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Gardner finished with 234 yards passing and three touchdowns. While he’ll start this weekend against the Gophers, both he and the Wolverines look to right their play at the start of the Big Ten schedule.
They’ll also look to be a part of one of college football’s traditions, something that’s disappearing with the recent changes in college football’s landscape; conference realignment has wiped out some traditional rivalry games, including Kansas-Missouri, Colorado-Nebraska, Pittsburgh-West Virginia, and Texas-Texas A&M.
Hoke believes that maintaining the lore that comes with playing in a trophy game is significant.
“I do believe that those games that you have the privilege to play in, because of the history and tradition that’s been there — and this is a personal opinion — I think it’s very important,” Hoke said. “So for us and the way we do things, we want to make sure we educate them on the significance of it.”