College football trophies are wonderful
Trophy games are one of the most beloved aspects of college football. The trophies themselves are as varied and unique as the schools and rivalries that spawned them. The trophies and the hype that surrounds the battles for them differentiate the college football experience from the more corporate "NFL Shield" brand.
Trophies matter to schools for different reasons depending on the opponent. In some cases, the trophy is a symbol of a passionate rivalry. In other cases, both schools may care deeply about the trophy itself because of its history even though both schools have more immediate/important rivalry games on the calendar each year. Unsurprisingly, the history of the trophy can have a great impact on its importance to the schools that battle for it. Age is not the only perquisite for importance when it comes to trophy games. Perhaps more important is the story behind the trophy, the reason for its existence.
The Little Brown Jug exists because Michigan left the early 1900's equivalent of a Gatorade jug behind at Minnesota. That's a pretty easy summary of the trophy, but it's one that also fails to account for all the other oddities that transpired to make the Jug a thing we all love. Fielding Yost only brought the Jug to Minnesota because he didn't trust the Gophers not to mess with his team's water supply. The Michigan team forgot about the Jug and left it behind. Fielding was particular about keeping his equipment and wrote a letter asking for it back. And Minnesota's AD, possessing a strong troll game, told him Michigan had to win it back. It's a trophy that exists because of conspiracy minded and hyper-competitive leaders at each school. It's awesome. Can you imagine anyone caring about a Gatorade jug like that? Of course not. But the relatively benign origin of the Jug is actually a big part of what Minnesota, Michigan, and college football fans love about it today.
The "new trophy" problem
This is where the college football trophy game has started to falter. More and more trophy games are being created. There is nothing inherently bad about this. There's no "magic number" of trophy games that can never be surpassed. The problem is that most of the newest trophy games revolve around a prize that didn't evolve organically. These new college football trophies don't have a unique story behind them.
This is the problem with the Governor's Victory Bell, the Heartland Trophy, the Heroes Game trophy presented by Hy-Vee, and the Freedom Trophy. These trophies exist for the sake of existing or to legitimize a new "rivalry" that lacks an actual history. Would anyone really care about the Little Brown Jug if Minnesota and Michigan had simply decided a couple of years after the formation of the Big Ten that they would have a trophy simply because they wanted one and they chose a brand new jug off the shelf of a local general store? I doubt it. Why? Replace "brand new jug from a general store" with "shop class looking generic bell" and you've got the Governor's Victory Bell trophy.
Existing for the sake of existing is not the only problem with new trophy games. Corporate sponsorship and the replacement of uniqueness with focus group style branding are the others. Consider the following:
- The Heroes Game randomly exists both to honor Iowa and Nebraska heroes (a term that is nebulously defined but is supposed to make us all feel good) while also offering a grocery chain the chance to market itself as a supporter of local heroes.
- The Heartland Trophy was created for the sake of a trophy, but it also fails because instead of trying to find something unique about the Iowa/Wisconsin rivalry and using that as a starting point they chose a completely inoffensive name that could apply to pretty much any pair of states located in the Midwest or Great Plains. Oh, and they stuck a ball-less bull on there because LIVESTOCK = HEARTLAND.
- The Freedom Trophy exists because no one is allowed to hate Freedom and because Barry really wanted to formalize a "rivalry" that has only been played 10 times with paperweight you'd by at a cheap Washington DC gift shop.
Why the Broken Chair is better than the average new trophy
Broken Chair, An Origin Story
Broken Chair, An Origin Story
Laying out the reasons why some rivalry trophies matter and others are terrible is important. Why? Because Minnesota and Nebraska have the chance to play for a new trophy that came to be through the same sort of serendipitous series of events that created the Little Brown Jug. The Broken Chair trophy is a worthy modern heir to the great college football trophies from the last century. This is a trophy that should be talked about on ESPN2 this week. It's a trophy that should have a case at each school. It's a trophy that should be officially recognized.
The easy thing to do is to dismiss the $5 Bits of Broken Chair trophy as silly creation of Twitter. If that's your stance, I'd like to envision a scenario with me:
- Minnesota and Nebraska just resumed their series in the 1950's following a 2 decade absence. The match up is not a rivalry in the traditional sense, but the yearly game is enjoyable for what it is - a battle between two Midwestern schools with plenty in common.
- In advance of the 4th match-up in the renewed series, a widely known Nebraska supporter and a prominent member of the Minnesota athletic department engage in a friendly "Letter to the Editor" battle with each other. A challenge/bet between these two individuals for a small sum of money or the breaking of a chair based on the outcome of that season's game is publicly announced. Additionally, the Minnesota representative suggests turning the outcome of the bet into a trophy for future games.
- Fans of the two schools and fans of college football on a national scale enjoy the public sparring in the newspapers. Potential versions of this trophy are drafted and published in college football newsletters. The Minnesota athletics department representative is so excited by the possibilities that he creates a trophy from scratch that very week, has a picture published in the newspaper, and announces he'll bring it to Lincoln with him for the game.
- Minnesota wins and a popular player is photographed celebrating with the trophy. A vocal portion of both the Nebraska and Minnesota fanbases clamor for this to become an official trophy, but the future of the prize remains in doubt.
This is the sort of history we all love in a college football trophy. While the public media sources that spawned the creation of the trophy are very 21st century, the underlying story contains the same key elements as the Little Brown Jug. Just like the Jug, the Broken Chair exists because of a series of random events, the passion of school affiliated public figures, and an unexpected challenge related to a game of football.
It's time to recognize the Broken Chair
The Little Brown Jug
Floyd of Rosedale
Paul Bunyan's Axe
The Broken Chair is a worthy addition to the unique histories of these trophies. The University of Minnesota and the University of Nebraska should make the #BattleForBrokenChair a reality.