The story of “The Little Brown Jug,” neither little nor brown, began at the turn of the century. The fabled “point-a-minute” Michigan football squads, coached by Fielding Yost, were destroying everyone in the nation, and had won 28 straight games heading into Minneapolis in 1903.
The pregame revelry pulsed through the campus. Minnesota had one of its best teams in school history and expected to give Yost’s squad a run for their money. Before the game, students paraded across the field with various painted livestock, while fans filtered into the stadium from a constant stream of arriving streetcars. The 20,000 fans, positioned in bleachers, as well as atop trees and telephone poles, remained civil until the Gophers scored a second-half touchdown that tied the score at 6-6. At this point, fans stormed the field in celebration, causing pandemonium so great that the game had to be called with two minutes remaining on the clock.
On the morning following the contest, Minnesota custodian Oscar Munson carried an earthenware water jug to the office of L. J. Cooke, head of the athletics department. Munson pronounced in a heavy Scandinavian accent, “Jost left his yug.” Still giddy from the tie, they decided to keep the prize, and painted on its side “Michigan Jug - Captured by Oscar, October 31, 1903,” and the score, “Minnesota 6, Michigan 6.” The Minnesota score appeared comically “as big as a house,” dwarfing the Michigan score beside it. Yost sent a letter asking Minnesota to return the jug. Cooke wrote back “if you want it, you’ll have to win it.”
Oscar Munson updates the results on the Little Brown Jug.
The two teams didn’t play again until 1909. Michigan won the game that year, and Minnesota dutifully returned the jug. In 1910, Michigan left the conference, and Minnesota didn’t have a chance to win it back until 1919. That year the Gophers, led by their star Arnie Oss, stormed into Ann Arbor and pounded the Wolverines 34-7 on their own Ferry Field. When Minnesota asked for the symbolic trophy at the end of the game, their rivals couldn’t find it. But the Gopher players persisted, and Wolverine equipment man Henry Hatch came up with it after a short time, saying that he found it “overgrown behind a clump of shrubbery near the gym.” Later, Minnesota historians said, “...but most likely it was found in a trophy case inside the gymnasium, easily dusted off and proudly brought back to Minnesota.”
Cooke took out his paint brush again to paint that year’s result. In the end, his two artistic attempts had taken up the whole surface of the five gallon jug, so when Michigan took it back the next year, the two schools decided to give the entire jug a colorful gloss. Now, the results of 86 games — including two in one season (1926) are embossed on on its sides: 63 won by Michigan, 22 by Minnesota, and three ties. Due to the Big Ten’s unbalanced schedule, Minnesota and Michigan did not face each other in either 1999 or 2000, breaking a consecutive streak of annual contests that dated back to the 1929 season.
After a 20-year absence, Minnesota returned the jug to its original home with a last-second victory over Michigan in 2005 in Ann Arbor. Set up by a 61-yard run from Gary Russell with just over a minute remaining, Jason Giannini hit a 30-yard field goal as time expired, giving the Gophers the 23-20 victory. In jubilation of their first win over the Wolverines since 1986, the Gopher players stormed the Michigan sideline to secure the prodigious prize.
Cooke once mused on the strange power within the stonewear crock, “I sometimes think that the jug has been filled with spirits, not alcoholic, but the disembodied spirits of the countless players who have fought for it on the gridiron...”
In many ways, the jug represents the history of college football. It overflows with historic battles for national and conference championships, and may indeed be filled with the spirits of gridiron men who went on to win Heisman Trophies and Hall of Fame honors. It is the most famous of all college rivalry trophies, and no other inanimate object comes close to the aura of tradition like the Little Brown Jug.