When the No. 21-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers take on the No. 18-ranked Michigan Wolverines in primetime at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, much will be at stake. Both teams have aspirations of winning their respective divisions, and starting the season 1-0 would certainly bolster their chances. And in an even abbreviated season that could be further truncated by COVID-related postponements, every game matters.
But the biggest prize for Saturday’s season-opening victor will be the Little Brown Jug.
The Little Brown Jug was born from a bout of paranoia
The first football contest between the University of Minnesota and the University of Michigan was played on October 17, 1892, in Minneapolis, but the game that changed the rivalry forever was played on October 31, 1903. The Wolverines, coached by Fielding Yost, were the defending national champions and had won 29 straight games, and the Dr. Henry “Doc” Williams-led Golden Gophers were 7-0, having outscored their opponents 506-6 that season.
Fearing that Minnesota might tamper with their water, Yost instructed a student manager, Tommy Roberts, to purchase a jug of water for the team. Roberts purchased a Red Wing jug for 30 cents, oblivious to the place it would come to hold in college football lore.
Both teams were held scoreless in the first half, before the Wolverines took a 6-0 lead midway through the second half. With two minutes left in the game, the Gophers scored to tie it up, but the crowd stormed the field and the officiating crew declared the game a tie. In the ensuing chaos, Michigan left the jug behind, and it was eventually found by Minnesota equipment manager Oscar Munson. He brought it to Minnesota athletic director Louis Cooke, who inscribed it with the score of the game and added “Michigan Jug captured by Oscar October 31, 1903” as a footnote.
Here it is hanging from the ceiling in Cooke’s office:
The two teams would not play again until 1909. Prior to the game, Cooke issued instructions to Minnesota’s All-American captain, John McGovern, at a pep rally: “You tell that Michigan captain they can have their jug back if the beat us tomorrow.” The Wolverines proceeded to defeat the Gophers, 15-6, and returned to Ann Arbor with the Little Brown Jug in tow.
The case of the missing Jug
In September of 1931, the Little Brown Jug disappeared from the Michigan Athletic Administration Building trophy case. One month later, the New York Times reported that the Jug had been recovered before retracting their story a day later, reporting that instead a “poor imitation” had been found. The mystery only gets more bizarre from there.
In November of 1931, four men disguised in “dark goggles” pulled up to the Tuomy Hills service station in Ann Arbor and rolled onto the pavement a freshly painted Jug that was then scooped up by a befuddled gas station attendant. Michigan officials would in short order declare this Jug authentic — despite members of the press expressing skepticism — and retained it with a 6-0 win over Minnesota at home the following Saturday.
The following year, reporters again pressed Michigan head coach Fielding Yost about the authenticity of the Jug in their possession. Yost assured them that it was in fact the real Jug, citing the fact that it had been recently painted as the cause for their skepticism. But few were convinced, including the University of Minnesota equipment manager who had collected the original Jug from the Michigan sideline in 1903. He even had a theory:
The man who found the jug in 1903, Oscar Munson, was unimpressed with Michigan’s assurances. “They’ve been passing a phony off on us since 1927,” he snarled. Munson also thought he knew the one responsible for the crock’s disappearance: Yost himself. “He wanted the jug for himself and he took it. It was never lost.”
The real Jug would eventually turn up in August of 1933, found in a clump of bushes near the medical building on the University of Michigan campus. Yost confessed that he had lied to the media about the authenticity of the Jug that the Wolverines had been toting around since the original’s disappearance. The Gophers re-claimed it with a 34-0 win in 1934 and accepted it as the real deal, although no one ever came forth and took credit for having stolen it.
If you are interested in delving deeper into the history of the Little Brown Jug, MVictors’ Greg Dooley has conducted exhaustive research on the trophy and written a collection of posts that provides fascinating reading for Michigan and Minnesota fans alike.
A tale of two very different programs
The Little Brown Jug is the oldest trophy in college football, but you rarely hear it mentioned in the same breath as Paul Bunyan’s Axe or the Floyd of Rosedale. There are a couple reasons for that. For one, both teams have more heated rivalries — Wisconsin and Iowa for Minnesota, and Ohio State and Michigan State for Michigan. The battle for the Little Brown Jug has also been a lopsided affair for decades now, with the Wolverines holding a 75-25-3 advantage in the series.
Minnesota has not led the all-time series since claiming back-to-back wins in their first two meetings in 1892-93. Bernie Bierman’s teams mounted a nine-game winning streak in the 1930s, but the Gophers were last consistently competitive with Michigan in the 1960s, holding a 6-4 record against their rival during that decade. The Wolverines are 41-4 against the Gophers since 1968. When you look at their respective winning perspectives over that span, it is not difficult to understand why:
Michigan: .713 (461-183-8)
Minnesota: .457 (274-326-5)
In the 21-year stretch that Bo Schembechler coached at Michigan, during which he racked up at least a share of 13 Big Ten Conference titles, the Gophers cycled through Murray Warmath, Cal Stoll, Joe Salem, Lou Holtz, and John Gutekunst.
And I’ll let you guess how many conference titles Minnesota had over that span.
Saturday is the biggest Jug game in years
Minnesota has only beaten Michigan twice since 1986, once in 2005 and again in 2014. But both victories came in Ann Arbor. The Gophers have not defeated the Wolverines in Minneapolis since blanking them, 16-0, in 1977 — a game that was dubbed “Minnesota’s Miracle” by Sports Illustrated. And the last time these two rival programs met as ranked teams was in 2004, when the Gophers were ranked No. 13 and the Wolverines were No. 14. Minnesota held a 24-17 lead in the fourth quarter, before Michigan scored 10 unanswered points in the final 10 minutes to rally past the Gophers and retain the Little Brown Jug.
The hype is real for Saturday’s season opener. Minnesota is coming off its first 11-win season since 1904 and the program’s first Top 10 finish since 1962. Head coach P.J. Fleck’s squad defied the program’s history books much of last year, and a primetime matchup with Michigan to kick off the 2020 season will give them a chance to do it again this year.