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Snapshots of U-M History

The Origins of the Little Brown Jug

How a five-gallon water jug became a much-coveted trophy in a fierce football rivalry.

By Rachel Reed, Brian Williams, and Greg Kinney

To help celebrate U-M’s Bicentennial, the Bentley continues its series of stories about “firsts” in Michigan’s history, including the first time U-M played for the Little Brown Jug.

It was 1903, and after just two seasons as head coach, Fielding Yost had already assembled a powerhouse University of Michigan football team. Michigan’s Wolverines had been playing Minnesota’s Golden Gophers off and on since 1892, but this year was different. With 29 straight victories under its belt, “Yost’s machine” prepared to take on “Doc” Williams’ veteran, 10-0 squad at Northrop Field for the “Championship of the West.”

As the Wolverines arrived in Minneapolis for the big game, Yost had a moment of paranoia. Fearing shenanigans or tampering by their rivals, he ordered Tommy Roberts, a student manager, to purchase a jug for water for his team at a local shop. A five-gallon Red Wing Pottery jug was purchased for 30 cents, and the much-anticipated game began. The teams battled fiercely through a scoreless first half. Michigan scored first, taking a 6-0 lead midway through the second half. With two minutes left in the game, the Gophers crossed the goal line to even the score. Minnesota fans erupted in celebration and rushed the field, which forced referees to call the game—at a tie.

Little Brown JugThanks to the chaos on the field and Michigan’s scramble to catch their train home, Yost’s jug was forgotten, abandoned in Minneapolis. That could have been the end of the jug’s story, had the Gophers’ equipment manager Oscar Munson not found it. Munson and Minnesota’s athletic director, L.J. Cooke, decided to decorate it to commemorate the results of the game. They painted the evening’s score (6-6), cheekily making Minnesota’s “6” larger than Michigan’s, with the caption “Michigan Jug Captured by Oscar, October 31, 1903.” The 1903 game was so physical and brutal that the two teams would not agree to play each other again for another six years.

For Michigan (and Yost’s) part, the inexpensive jug’s loss went unnoticed until, just before the 1909 game, Cooke suggested the teams play for its return. Yost agreed that playing for the jug could make a fine tradition, and the teams and prepared for a rematch in Minneapolis on November 20, 1909.

Once again, both teams had excellent records. Michigan’s only loss had been to Notre Dame earlier in the season. Minnesota was undefeated and the reigning Western Conference champion. With 22,000 Michigan and Minnesota fans buzzing in the stands at Northrop Field, Michigan opened the scoring with a “peculiar shift play” that had the Gophers “completely baffled” as captain Dave Allerdice crossed the goal line. Minnesota responded with a touchdown to tie the game at halftime.

Midway through the second half, Minnesota attempted a forward pass from its own 25-yard line. Michigan’s Joe Magidson leapt in front of the intended receiver to intercept and raced 35-yards for a touchdown. Allerdice later added a field goal for a 15-6 Michigan victory. Cooke would be forced to turn over the jug.

Michigan had their jug back, but more importantly, one of college sports’ greatest traditions had been born.

The Michigan Alumnus, in a summary of the game, noted “To show that pleasant relations still existed between the two teams, the Minnesota squad presented the Michigan team with the large water jug, which they had taken in 1903 after the 6 to 6 tie at Minnesota, and which was marked with the score of that year. If Minnesota wins next year, the jug will be returned.”