Power Ranking The Big Ten’s Strange And Awesome Rivalry Trophies
The Big Ten is home to a rich football tradition that dates back more than 100 years. Although perennial powers like Ohio State and Michigan have stood on the national stage for decades, the conference’s true character is reflected through the unique trophies exchanged annually by good teams, bad teams, and good teams that always beat up on bad teams yet still consider the whole ordeal a “rivalry.”
From turtles to Paul Bunyan to one tiny cannon, we power ranked the conference’s “rivalry” game trophies.
1. Land-Grant Trophy — Penn State and Michigan State
Although Penn State lacks the time-honored legacies and rivalries of some of its Big Ten peers, the Land-Grant Trophy is
God’s George Perles’ gift to college football.
Find me another trophy that incorporates: a) both teams’ mascots b) both universities’ iconic buildings c) a figurine that you’d find on top of a Pop Warner participation trophy, celebrates one of the single greatest pieces of legislation in American history, is made of wood, weighs enough that linebackers think it’s heavy, AND has its own snarky Twitter account?
The Land-Grant Trophy recognizes the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, which granted states federal land to be used for institutions that would teach students about agriculture and engineering. Penn State and Michigan State were two of the universities aided by the passage of the act, along with Cornell, MIT, Iowa State, and Kansas State.
Now, every year, when Penn State and Michigan State play each other, we aren’t just watching a football game. We’re celebrating American history and the greatness achieved by Penn State, Michigan State, and all the other institutions created by the government’s investment in education.
Pour one out for state funding, the setting of Good Will Hunting, and the most worthwhile thing you talked about in APUSH.
2. Floyd of Rosedale — Iowa and Minnesota
What makes the Big Ten’s rivalry trophies great is the perspective they offer on American history and Midwestern culture.
Iowa and Minnesota have exchanged (of all things) a pig statue for 83 years. Floyd of Rosedale represents the changing tides of racism and integration in the United States and in sports during the 20th century.
The New York Times published a thorough history of Floyd in 2010, but its story boils down to:
- Minnesota players had allegedly targeted and injured Iowa star Ozzie Simmons, one of the few black players in the Big Ten, during the 1934 game.
- In an effort to build goodwill between two teams, the governors of the two states agreed to wager a Minnesota pig against one from Iowa for the 1935 game.
- When Minnesota won, the pig from Iowa, named for Minnesota Gov. Floyd B. Olson, was presented to the Golden Gophers.
- Floyd lived in a barn on campus until he was sold and later died of cholera the next year.
- Floyd was immortalized as a statue to be exchanged every year.
At the end of the day, though, let’s not forget that this a statue of a pig — a pig named after one of the governors who thought exchanging a live hog would be a good way to fight racism.
This is truly the Big Ten at its finest, folks.
3. Little Brown Jug — Minnesota and Michigan
Although the jug is neither entirely brown nor little, the Little Brown Jug is a Big Ten icon. It was first presented in 1903 and is the most regularly exchanged rivalry trophy in college football.
The 126-year series history might heavily favor Michigan, but the hand-painted jug, with every game’s results on it, is a classic look and something that is authentically Big Ten. Plus, it’s the only trophy Jim Harbaugh can bank on hoisting.
4. Paul Bunyan Trophy — Michigan and Michigan State
5. Paul Bunyan’s Axe — Wisconsin and Minnesota
How much does the Midwest idolize Paul Bunyan? Enough to name not one, but two trophies after him. Both trophies memorably celebrate the Heartland’s folklore through its proudest son and his herculean strength. But their lack of originality (and any reference to Babe the Blue Oxen, who is the real star of the lore…don’t @ me) hurts both trophies’ running for the best Big Ten trophy.
For the record, Wisconsin and Minnesota honored Bunyan first in 1948, five years before Michigan and Michigan State did so. However, the fact that they felt the need to replace a trophy known as The Slab of Bacon, even to honor Bunyan, hurts it in our power rankings.
6. Old Oaken Bucket — Purdue and Indiana
Big Ten teams have a knack for turning meaningless items and meaningless games into coveted prizes and notable rivalries.
The Old Oaken Bucket is the epitome of that.
Somehow, there’s a reason to care about a game between Purdue and Indiana. Somehow, someone decided “an old oaken bucket would be a most typical trophy from this state and should be taken from a well somewhere in Indiana” and made it work. Somehow, chaining together Ps and Is is aesthetically pleasing. Somehow, it all works, and we’re strangely here for it.
7. Land of Lincoln Trophy — Illinois and Northwestern
This trophy isn’t even ten years old (it replaced the 64-year old Sweet Sioux Tomahawk, which was retired out of sensitivity to Native Americans) and celebrates a matchup between programs with winning percentages hovering around .500. Yet, the fact that it honors the man who signed the Morrill Land Grant Act gives it some serious pull and carries it into the top half of Big Ten trophies.
Also, the masterminds behind the Land of Lincoln Trophy made a tree trunk look like Abe Lincoln’s top hat. Let me know when a turtle trophy doubles as one of the classiest pieces of headwear of American history.
8. Purdue Cannon — Purdue and Illinois
Although it’s shared by teams with two of the five lowest all-time winning percentages in the Big Ten and is smaller than a football, the Purdue Cannon has one of the more interesting backstories.
According to Purdue Athletics, in 1905, students brought a mini cannon to Champaign and tried to hide it outside the stadium for a postgame celebration. One Illinois alumnus found it, brought it to his farmhouse, and suggested students exchange it after each matchup about 25 years later.
9. Old Brass Spittoon — Michigan State and Indiana
According to Michigan State’s student newspaper, two student leaders bought the spittoon at an East Lansing antique shop and challenged Indiana’s student government via a telegram to have the upcoming game decide who would keep it. As the legend goes, hunters from both Michigan and Indiana spit into the spittoon while passing through the trading post in the 1800s. Now, players do so after winning the game.
Sure, the back story is cool and all, but let’s not forget that people actually spit into this thing. Perhaps a more sanitary way to honor the history of this “rivalry” would be to open bars named the Old Brass Spittoon in both East Lansing and Bloomington and have patrons convince the bouncers to let them in, based on how tough they are.
“How tough am I? I re-watched the 2016 NCAA Tournament game against Middle Tennessee State and only cried for ten minutes.”
10. Illibuck — Ohio State and Illinois
Along with having a name that looks like a tabloid trying to name a celebrity couple, Illibuck represents countless missed opportunities.
First, unlike almost every other “rivalry” trophy, Illibuck doesn’t have every single outcome on it. Instead, there are 11 different ones, and a new trophy is introduced every time the old one runs out of space. Additionally, the turtle was chosen because of its long lifespan, symbolic of the eternal rivalry between the two teams. Fast forward 90+ years and this matchup is anything but a rivalry. Ohio State has won 68 of the 102 match-ups, including 16 of the last 19.
This trophy also could’ve been a good enough reason to prevent Maryland from joining the Big Ten, because eleven turtles are more than enough for one conference.
Worth sharing: Before the statues were adopted, students originally exchanged a live turtle after the game until he tragically died by allegedly escaping a bathtub at an Illinois fraternity.
11. Heartland Trophy — Wisconsin and Iowa
I’ve gotta say…I’m kind of disappointed that, until 2004, there wasn’t a trophy exchanged in one of college football’s most competitive and oldest rivalries, which dates back to 1894.
However, the bull on the Heartland Trophy is one of the coolest looking trophies in the Big Ten (and the closest thing to Babe the Blue Oxen). Also, it’s so large that players look like pallbearers while carrying it.
Had there been more history behind the bull or had its testicles never been removed, it would’ve landed higher up on our list.
12. Governor’s Victory Bell — Penn State and Minnesota
The Governor’s Victory Bell commemorates Penn State’s first Big Ten game, which was played against Minnesota. There isn’t much else to note about the matchup or trophy, other than its unique look. This is more of a discussion of a meaningless trophy being so much “less bad” than some of the others near the bottom of the list.
13. $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy — Minnesota and Nebraska
Unfortunately, this trophy doesn’t trace its roots back to the heyday of the Big Ten when coaches could throw chairs and get away with it or some story about a fan falling breaking a stadium seat and somehow affecting the outcome of a de facto conference championship game.
All you need to know about this trophy is that it was inspired by a Twitter feud between Minnesota’s mascot and the fake Bo Pellini account in 2014. Since then, players have forgotten it’s at stake and even misplaced it.
14. Heroes Trophy — Iowa and Nebraska
The only reason the Heroes Trophy finishes ahead of the Freedom Trophy is because it could pass as a great national championship trophy. However, it withers in a league where history and country-strong characters are valued over big, shiny things.
15. Freedom Trophy — Nebraska and Wisconsin
Lessons learned from Nebraska? If you joined the Big Ten during the last decade, don’t try to force it and come up with something cool. There’s something that even Rutgers and Maryland have figured out.
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