It wasn’t originally little or brown.
It was a five-gallon jug, 16 inches tall with a 37-inch circumference. It weighed more than 20 pounds and was putty-colored.
The Michigan and Minnesota football teams have played each other on-and-off since 1892. But in October 1903, the stakes were higher for both squads — and the first college football trophy, the Little Brown Jug, was born.
Just two seasons into his head coaching tenure, Fielding Yost led the Wolverines to 29 straight victories and had yet to give up a single point in the 1903 season. The Golden Gophers, also undefeated at 10-0, were looking to knock off Michigan and become the “Champions of the West.”
The stage was set for a showdown in front of 20,000 fans at sold-out Northrup Field in Minneapolis. In a tower 45 feet above the stadium sat Michigan student Jack Mattice, whose play-by-play calls back to more than 3,000 people in Ann Arbor’s University Hall Auditorium by voice transmitter made him one of the first-ever sports broadcasters.
Suspicious that Minnesota might taint the water supply, Yost ordered student manager Tommy Roberts to purchase a jug for water from a local store before the game. He bought the five-gallon Red Wing Pottery jug for 30 cents.
After a scoreless first half, Michigan captured the lead with a touchdown halfway through the second. But with just two minutes remaining, the Golden Gophers stormed back and punched it in from the goal line to knot the game up.
Minnesota fans stormed the field to celebrate, with the referees unable to resume play before sundown. The game was called early, resulting in a 6-6 tie and the only blemish on Yost’s sterling record from 1901-04.
Hurrying to catch the train home, Yost forgot the jug in the visitors’ locker room. The next morning, Golden Gopher equipment manager Oscar Munson found the jug and brought it to Minnesota’s athletic director, L.J. Cooke. The two decided to decorate the jug, painting the score — Minnesota’s “6” deliberately larger than Michigan’s — and the caption, “Michigan Jug Captured by Oscar, October 31, 1903.”
With the two teams facing off again five years later, Cooke decided to put the jug on the line, giving Yost and the Wolverines the opportunity to win it back.
And after a 15-6 Michigan victory, Yost returned home with the Little Brown Jug and a new tradition that continues to this day.
In 103 matchups since, the Wolverines lead the series, 75-25 with three ties, including 41 wins in the last 45 contests.
Big games against Ohio State, Michigan State and Notre Dame have overshadowed this once-fierce rivalry. Trophies like Paul Bunyan, a golden egg and a keg of nails — yes, Cincinnati and Louisville have quite a strange prize for the winner — have all been fought over throughout college football. But the fact remains:
A 30-cent jug, neither little nor brown and bought of pure paranoia, became a symbol of excellence. And, residing with the “Champions of the West,” the Little Brown Jug continues to reign as the oldest trophy in FBS college football history.