The first time Michigan won the Paul Bunyan Trophy, the Wolverines cared so little, they didn’t even engrave it. If Michigan had its way, the award probably wouldn’t even exist.
But if you want to hear the story behind the unwanted trophy, don’t ask Michigan coach Lloyd Carr.
“I have no idea,” Carr said when asked why Michigan and Michigan State play for the trophy. “I’ve never researched that, and I don’t think I will.”
By not looking, Carr is missing a history full of controversy, political intrigue and even a little campus mischief dating back to 1953, when the four-foot statue of legendary logger Paul Bunyan standing on a map of Michigan atop a five-foot stand was first conceived. But if you took a trip through The Michigan Daily archives, you would find some fascinating stories surrounding the trophy’s earliest years collected here.
A bumpy start
The trophy’s origins rest with a rivalry just as, if not more, bitter than today’s. Despite playing the Spartans all but two years since 1910, Michigan had fought year after year to keep its intrastate rival out of the Big Ten. But in 1953, Michigan State was finally admitted to the conference.
About a month before that year’s matchup, Gov. G. Mennen Williams took the advice of a reporter and proposed the teams play for the Governor’s Trophy in honor of their first game as Big Ten opponents. He commissioned a Chicago jeweler to carve the $1,400 trophy – designed to symbolize the rivalry – out of wood.
That idea thrilled the Spartans’ athletic department, but not the Wolverines’. Some worried it would reduce the excitement of playing for the Little Brown Jug. Purists in student government and on the football team argued trophies should spring spontaneously and from students.
Politics muddied the trophy, too. State Republicans called it a “typical Williams political trick.” They said Williams’s proposed one-minute unveiling prior to the game was just an excuse to appear in front of the national TV audience. Cameras ended up not showing the trophy before the game.
Although a Fritz Crisler-led Board in Control of Student Athletics suspiciously stalled in holding a vote to approve the trophy, an assistant to the governor said Michigan would accept it if it won the game. To this day, Michigan insists it would have refused. In either case, history will never know the answer. Spartans 14, Wolverines 6.
An unwanted reward
Controversy continued heading into the 1954 game. Crisler refused to say whether Michigan would accept the trophy, claiming there were too many “ifs” in winning. After Michigan won 33-7 in Ann Arbor, it left the trophy on the field for half an hour, apparently not realizing it actually had to keep it.
“We’ll find a place for the trophy,” Crisler told The Michigan Daily after game.
And not much else.
Whereas Michigan State centrally featured the trophy in Jenison Field House, Michigan kept it in the locker room. It said it had no room elsewhere.
Even after winning the trophy the next year, the Wolverines did not engrave their winning scores. So intent to kindle the tradition, in 1956, the victorious Spartans did it for them.
Caught in a tie
Believe it or not, things got worse. In 1958, the teams tied.
Still thumbing its nose at the ugly mass, Michigan refused to take it. The heavily favored Spartans were so embarrassed they didn’t win, they wouldn’t either (eventually they relented). The Daily labeled the trophy a flop.
If a trophy goes missing, will anyone care?
Although the Paul Bunyan Trophy is not as loved as the Brown Jug, the two do have one thing in common: At one time or another, the Michigan Athletic Department lost each of them. No one knows why the Little Brown Jug disappeared for a time in the 1930s. Paul Bunyan was taken as a joke.
On Jan. 10, 1955, Michigan’s equipment manager discovered the trophy missing. In a note sent to Michigan State’s student newspaper, a group of supposed Michigan State (then College) students calling themselves “Operation Rescue” claimed to have taken it to save it from the “shabby” treatment it received in Ann Arbor.
By the end of the week, though, The Michigan Daily uncovered the truth: Michigan students had taken it as a prank.
But even absence could not make the heart grow fonder. As the Daily later quipped, “Fortunately or unfortunately (it is a matter of debate),” the trophy reappeared in time for the game.
A trophy forgotten?
By the early 1960s, contempt for the trophy appeared to die, but no excitement bubbled. For years after, stories in the Daily, even those specifically about the intensity of the rivalry, make no mention of the trophy.
Today, players and coaches say they want to win the trophy even if it is one of the ugliest in college football.
But with the trophy’s checkered past, perhaps it’s no wonder Carr doesn’t (or won’t admit to) know the story behind it.