The Buffalo Nickel was issued from 1913 to 1938. It was part of an attempt to “beautify” coinage by the U.S. Mint. There was the face of an American Indian male on one side and an American bison on the other.
Robert Kunkel, a University of North Dakota alumnus, saw this as the perfect design for a football trophy with rival North Dakota State. He commissioned a 75-pound replica and the North Dakota Sioux and NDSU Bison started playing for the Nickel Trophy in 1938.
Quite a coincidence that it was the same year the U.S. Mint gave up on the complicated design.
The first football game between the schools was played in 1894, and the rivalry ran through 2003. North Dakota held a 62-45-3 advantage in the all-time series, a 35-30 advantage in Nickel Trophy games and won 28-21 in overtime in 2003.
Clearly, the Nickel Trophy belongs to North Dakota — and it’s now permanent.
The Sioux nickname became “Fighting Sioux” through popular usage in the 1970s. Now, it has been deemed offensive and dropped, amid ongoing controversy in Grand Forks and around the state.
If you’re no longer the Sioux, with or without Fighting, you can’t play for the Nickel Trophy. And that means when the still-unnamed UND squad travels to Fargo on Saturday, there will be no 66th postgame claim of the Nickel Trophy by the winners.
North Dakota had to swallow some pride in search of profit to get NDSU back on the schedule. Right now, there are only two games scheduled — Saturday and in 2019, with both in Fargo.
North Dakota will be paid $125,000 for this visit and $140,000 in 2019, and was allotted a mere 500 tickets to sell directly to its fans.
“I’ve been talking about it this week, the excitement that the North Dakota-NDSU game brought to the whole state,” Jim Kleinsasser said. “The North Dakota kids on the teams … we had played against each other since high school.”
Kleinsasser had one of the most famous plays in Nickel Trophy history as a UND senior in October 1998: a 77-yard burst on a quick slant that broke a 25-25 tie and vaulted his team to a 39-25 upset.
Bob Babich, then the NDSU coach, said postgame that Kleinsasser made himself “a lot of money today” with NFL scouts watching. He was right. Kleinsasser was drafted in the second round and played tight end from 1999 to 2011 for the Vikings.
NDSU had the powerhouse label in D-II, although North Dakota won five of the last six in the Nickel Trophy and a national championship in 2001. Bubba Schweigert was the much-revered defensive coordinator for that team. He’s back now as the head coach — and UND needs him.
North Dakota State upgraded from Division II to Division I in 2004. It was Division I-AA (now FCS) and was initially a member of the Great West, a scattered conference for football orphans.
North Dakota, still Division II, refused to fill a spot on the schedule, when NDSU could have used the game and the crowd. Then the Bison found happiness in the potent Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2008, and are now riding a streak of four consecutive FCS national titles.
As it gained status, NDSU made North Dakota pay for its sin of refusing to give the Bison a game when needed. North Dakota went to Division I in 2008 and found itself in the Great West orphanage.
“Would you please play us?,” North Dakota asked.
“Enjoy the trip to New Jersey Tech,” NDSU responded.
North Dakota finally landed in the Big Sky in 2012. It didn’t land softly. Chris Mussman was fired after two losing years in that salty league and Schweigert was hired from Southern Illinois, where he was defensive coordinator.
“Bubba is definitely the right guy,” Kleinsasser said. “He’s a terrific coach and he understands that we do have a football tradition at UND. He’s going to get it done.”
North Dakota had its best Division I victory ever when it opened with a 24-13 upset of Wyoming (and former NDSU coach Craig Bohl) two weeks ago. John Santiago, a true freshman tailback from the Minneapolis suburb of St. Francis, was the offensive star with 148 yards and two touchdowns.
Reality returned with a narrow victory over Drake, a nonscholarship football program, last Saturday in Grand Forks.
NDSU lost its opener at Montana, came back to clobber Weber State, and is a lopsided favorite over its former fierce rival Saturday afternoon.
Even if it works out that way, the Bison won’t be collecting the Nickel Trophy. That 75-pound coin is permanently flipped to the other side.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.