Back when I covered Utah football, I was in the head coach's office one day when I noticed something odd. The door to his office was being held open by a big bronze shoe.
Turns out, it was the Beehive Boot, the trophy awarded each year to the winner of in-state football games between Utah, Utah State and BYU. Beating the other two teams was a big deal in the state, but the boot itself -- estimated to be over a century old -- took awhile to catch on (though I understand it's a bigger deal now, as are most college traditions). There were few of those scenes of racing across the field to claim the trophy, like the Gophers' joyful romp last November to grab Floyd, when someone won the boot, and it was commonly "displayed" on the coach's coffee table, closet, or even doorstop.
So I guess I didn't really get the importance of trophies to Gopher players and fans, at least until that Iowa game. And I was reminded of that scene today when native Minnesotan Ryan Wynn, and even newcomer Tracy Claeys, talked about how much it would mean to them to bring home the Little Brown Jug, a trophy that has more or less spent the past 30 years in Michigan.
Make no mistake, even a native Kansan like Claeys, and especially his players, regard the trophies with reverence. The jug will never be a doorstop.
"The brown jug, it's big," Claeys said. "Anytime you play the trophy games, they're important to the kids, so they're important to the coaches and the fans."
The five-gallon earthenware jug, which originally cost 30 cents and is now the oldest trophy in college football after being "captured" by the Gophers in 1903, did spend one year in Minnesota, after the Gophers won in Ann Arbor in 2005. And Wynn, an offensive lineman at Maple Grove High who was being recruited by Minnesota, remembers his emotion after sitting in the Metrodome stands the following September, when the Wolverines reclaimed it.
"I remember seeing that go away. I was at the game," a 28-24 Gophers loss, Wynn said. "You see that and, oh man, it's tough."
But he was also there for that regular season's final game, a Gopher victory over Iowa that reclaimed Floyd of Rosedale, which once again sits in a trophy case in the Gophers' football headquarters, next to currently vacant spots reserved for the Little Brown Jug, the Governor's Victory Bell, and Paul Bunyan's Axe. "We got the pig back, and that was awesome to see," Wynn said.
So what's the big deal about a jug? "It's a physical representation of what we accomplished," Wynn said, and of course it would be even sweeter now, considering Michigan has kept it for 36 of the last 39 meetings. "You want that hardware."
In fact, Wynn said, "If you win all your trophy games, but lose all your other games ... "
I thought he was about to say he could live with that situation, and maybe he was. But the senior thought better of it, continuing, "well, it's still a tough year. But at least you've got all the trophies."