The Little Brown Jug: History of the Michigan-Minnesota rivalry

File Photo/Daily
Buy this photo

By Alejandro Zúñiga, Managing Sports Editor
Published September 25, 2014

This is the trophy game that started them all.

And, unlike the Heroes Trophy (Iowa vs. Nebraska, if anyone’s curious), this one wasn’t crafted by a graphic design company, nor was its beginning marked with a press release.

No, this one began organically in 1903, and it has endured ever since.

That October, legendary Michigan coach Fielding H. Yost’s squad ventured west for what was billed as the biggest game in years against Minnesota. The Wolverines had never lost under Yost, and, at that point in the 1903 season, were undefeated and hadn’t conceded a point.

Concerned that the Gophers might taint the water supply to gain a competitive advantage, Yost instructed student manager Tommy Roberts to travel into Minneapolis and purchase a jug for the game.

Roberts spent 30 cents on the container, which at five gallons wasn’t exactly little and hadn’t yet been painted brown.

That afternoon, Greater Northrop Field was packed to capacity in expectation of the clash. Fans who couldn’t purchase tickets even took to climbing trees and telephone poles to watch the game.

Clean water or not, Yost’s Wolverines were statistically dominated by Minnesota. But the Golden Gophers still trailed throughout much of the game, and ultimately scored a game-tying touchdown with about two minutes remaining.

Then all hell broke loose. The fans stormed the field, the referees deemed it impossible to resume play before sundown, and the game ended early in a 6-6 tie.

“Minnesota supreme in Western football,” blared the headline in the next day’s Sunday Tribune. “Yost and Michigan practically beaten.”

In their haste to leave Greater Northrop Field, Yost’s squad had left the water jug in the visitors’ locker room. The morning after the game, custodian Oscar Munson found it and brought it to Minnesota Athletic Director Dr. Louis J. Cooke, who had it hung it in his office.

But before then, Cooke and Munson inscribed it: “Michigan jug. Captured by Oscar, October 31, 1903.” Then, they wrote the final score: “Minnesota 6,” in large letters, and in much smaller type, “Michigan 6.”

The teams didn’t meet again until 1909, but the incident wasn’t forgotten. In a pep rally before the game, Minnesota’s captain told Michigan’s players that they could earn their jug back with a win.

The Wolverines agreed, and they triumphed, 15-6, finally returning their container to Ann Arbor.

Upon reclaiming it from the Golden Gophers in 1920, Michigan painted the schools’ block ‘M’s’ onto the trophy and created columns so that each years’ result could be recorded. Including a victory in 1920, Michigan won 12 of the next 14 matchups.

The rest of the rivalry has proceeded in much the same fashion. The Wolverines lead the series, 73-24, with three ties.

So if Michigan wins Saturday and parades the jug to the student section, or if the Gophers win and snatch the trophy from the Wolverine sideline, take note. It’s another chapter in a story 111 years in the making.

For more, the Daily recommends The Little Brown Jug: The Michigan-Minnesota Football Rivalry by Ken Magee and Jon M. Stevens. The book, produced by Arcadia Publishing, is available at local retailers, online and at arcadiapublishing.com.