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Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Updated: September 29, 5:25 PM ET
Little Brown Jug means little to U-M

By Michael Rothstein
WolverineNation

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Glen Mason boarded Minnesota's chartered flight in 2005, settled into his first-class seat and glanced next to him. The Minnesota coach expected to see another coach or perhaps an empty seat. Having just beaten Michigan -- the Gophers' first win against the Wolverines since 1986 -- he found something else.

Safely buckled in like a small child was the Little Brown Jug.

One of the oldest trophies in college football, the Jug has rarely been in Minnesota's possession during the past three decades. The Gophers, with Mason, came close in 2003, but the Wolverines scored 31 points to pull out a miracle 38-35 comeback win. Two years later, here it was.

Michigan equipment manager Jon Falk
Longtime Michigan equipment manager Jon Falk is the keeper of the Little Brown Jug when it's in Ann Arbor, which is to say most of the time.
When the Gophers landed in Minnesota, the team took the bus home, leaving the jug with the coach, who suddenly wasn't sure what he should do with it. Mason carried the Jug from the plane to his car in airport parking, placed it in the front passenger seat and buckled it in again.

Mason, with the Jug, had to meet his wife, Kate, at Manny's Steakhouse for dinner. He called Kate on the way to the restaurant and told her he had the Jug. Then he pulled up at Manny's valet parking.

"She was like, 'Are you going to take the Jug in?' I said, 'I'm not taking the Jug in the restaurant.'

"She said, 'You have to take the Jug in.' I said, 'I am not taking it.'

"She said, 'Well, you can't leave it in the car. What if somebody steals it?' So the valet says, 'Go, take it in with you,' " Mason said. "So I took the Jug in and I'm walking into the restaurant and thinking, 'This is the dumbest thing I've ever done in my life.'

"I said, 'Kate, let's eat fast.' When we walked in the restaurant, the whole place went wild, and during dinner people were coming up and wanting their picture taken with it or to touch it. It was a circus."

When Minnesota won, Mason saw the power of the Jug. At Michigan, it usually goes back into its case and is brought out the next year -- this week it is sitting in the Wolverines' team room.

At Minnesota it is different. Mason said the athletic department fielded requests for pictures with the Jug the next year. But the question remains: Is the Brown Jug game a rivalry or a neat tradition between schools?

Both schools have bigger rivals -- Michigan with Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan State; Minnesota with Wisconsin and Iowa. Plus, Michigan has dominated the rivalry, going 66-22-3 since the teams started playing for the Jug in 1909.

"There are so many important games to us that that's not really a big rivalry game," former Michigan running back Mike Hart said. "It's more or less just another game to us that has a trophy involved.

"It's not like, 'Oh, we're getting the Jug.' I personally never saw it as that. I saw it as another Big Ten team we were playing."

This game and its trophy are more about tradition. The players aren't from neighboring states and often don't know each other. Many, including former Minnesota quarterback Rickey Foggie, knew little about the Jug before arriving in Minneapolis.

But they learn, and it turns into this: Michigan treats it as a game it shouldn't lose. Minnesota treats it as a game it has to win.

"You don't want to be the ones to give it up after you held on to it for a long time," former Michigan tight end Bennie Joppru said. "They won it a couple years back, and you don't want to be the class that gives up the Jug."

"I don't know what the numbers are since we got the Little Brown Jug back in '86, but it's been pretty one-sided," said Foggie, the Minnesota quarterback that day. "Michigan has been whipping our butts for a little while now, and so we are trying to grasp on to any type of hope, any type of win, so we can get our program back in the right direction. It's not even a rivalry now."

It once was something much more heated.

In the early 20th century, this was one of Michigan's biggest games. Minnesota gave former Michigan coach Fielding Yost his only non-win, a 6-6 tie in 1903, in his first four years at the school. After that game, Michigan left behind a jug found by Minnesota custodian Oscar Munson.

The story, from here, is murky. Greg Dooley, a Michigan historian who runs the website MVictors.com and has done extensive research on the Jug, believes the trophy game began six years later, in 1909, when Minnesota athletic director L.J. Cooke threw out an idea to Yost.

"He had it kind of as a keepsake in his office and he pulled it down before a pep rally," Dooley said of Cooke. "He pulled it out and said 'This is from the great game in 1903.' When Yost came to town, he said 'Hey, wouldn't it be fun if we played for this?'

"That's how it happened."

Michigan and Minnesota, in the 1930s and 1940s, were two of the best programs in the country. The Wolverines won national titles in 1932 and 1933. The Gophers won national titles in 1936, 1940 and 1941.

"Up through, certainly, like, 1940, the Michigan-Minnesota game in many cases settled the national championship," Dooley said. "Especially the late '20s through 1940 -- that game was off-the-charts huge."

So what has happened?

Bo Schembechler
Once Bo Schembechler arrived in Ann Arbor the rivalry with Minnesota became a one-sided affair.
Minnesota dominated the series in the 1960s, at one point winning six of eight games. Then Michigan hired Bo Schembechler in 1969.

Schembechler won 19 of 21 games against Minnesota, losing only in 1977 and 1986. Since then, Minnesota has won once -- in 2005.

Up until this season, Michigan and Minnesota didn't play every year. Saturday marks the first Jug game since 2008. With the Big Ten's divisional split, the two schools now will play annually.

This might help renew the tradition of the game. It won't help build a rivalry, though. Only one thing will.

Minnesota winning.

"That would be a natural reaction," Mason said. "All of a sudden, if Minnesota won it a couple years in a row, the importance of winning that Jug would be amplified."

The game seems to mean more to the Gophers' players and fans as well. Twenty-one years after he beat Michigan, Foggie is still known around Minneapolis as the quarterback who beat the Wolverines in Ann Arbor.

And six years ago, Mason could barely eat his postgame dinner.

As he sat with Kate, well-wishers continually came up to take pictures with the Jug and revel in Minnesota's win, including one man who concerned the Minnesota coach more than any Michigan player.

"I looked up and fear flashed across my face because there was a guy standing there with the Jug in one hand and a martini in the other," Mason said. "Posing for a picture. I thought, 'Oh, my God, if he drops that, I really will be famous.'

"It's a bigger thing than I realized until I got my hands on it."

Mason found out the next day that it mattered to Michigan, too -- when the Wolverines lost it.

Longtime Michigan equipment manager Jon Falk called Mason the next day after hearing about the Jug's journey and told him to take care of it because Michigan would be reclaiming it in 2006.

Michigan did. And it hasn't lost it since.

Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at michaelrothsteinespn@gmail.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.