UCF and UConn help usher in the first full weekend of the 2018 college football season on Thursday, and sadly these American Athletic Conference counterparts — do not call them rivals — will not have a trophy at stake.
Introduced by former UConn head coach Bob Diaco in 2015 to commemorate a win in the '14 season, the trophy went underneath a towel when UCF refused to accept in '16 and has never been seen since. Truly, a disappearing act worthy of an overpriced Vegas stage show.
While the Civil ConFLiCT Trophy may have been poorly executed, one can at least understand why a coach looking to instill excitement and build tradition might seek to start a trophy game. Rivalry trophies contribute to the overall fabric of college football in a manner comparable to marching bands and spirit squads.
Hundreds of rivalry trophies are at stake in games each season, throughout the season.
At the same time UCF-UConn kicks off in East Hartford, some 300 miles northeast in Orono, Maine and New Hampshire meet for the 109th time in history. At stake is the Brice-Cowell Musket, an award very much coveted in both sides of the 115-year rivalry.
“When you play the University of Maine, no matter if it’s first, middle or last [game of the season], this is your archrival. It’s for the Musket. It’s a huge game,” said New Hampshire head coach Sean McDonnell.
One need look no further than recent scores, and rewatch some of those contests to witness the intensity, to understand just how huge the Battle for the Brice-Cowell Musket is for these programs.
New Hampshire’s 24-23 win a season ago to kick off 2017 marked the Wildcats’ eighth consecutive claim to the Musket, but also the fifth decision of eight points or fewer in that time.
If the Wildcats retain the Musket for another season, it will return to the prominent place it resides within the UNH football facility.
“When UNH wins, it hangs on the wall in the locker room in the most visible location for anyone entering,” explained New Hampshire Associate Athletic Director for Communications Mike Murphy. “It is that important to the program.”
Should Maine reclaim the Brice-Cowell Musket for the first time since 2010 — when current Black Bears head coach Joe Harasymiak was all of 22 years old — a designated location isn’t set. Rest assured, though, it will be placed prominently.
“We haven’t even discussed [where it would be displayed] yet. It’s hard enough preparing them for being disciplined in the game,” Harasymiak said. “But if it happens, we’ll put [the Brice-Cowell Musket] wherever it wants to go.”
For a second consecutive season, the Brice-Cowell Musket is the first among dozens of rivalry-game trophies across all levels of college football to be awarded throughout the 2018 campaign.
The Battle for the Brice-Cowell Musket returns to the final week of the regular season next year, when most rivalry contests are played. For the Football Bowl Subdivision, that’s Thanksgiving weekend, and one weekend earlier for the Football Championship Subdivision.
That doesn’t relegate rivalry-trophy games exclusively to the end of the season, of course. Such contests are played throughout the football calendar for a variety of reasons: tradition, non-conference scheduling limitations, broadcasting demands.
Likewise, rivalry trophies come in a variety of styles. Dating back to the first such instance of a winner receiving a traveling prize in a college football rivalry — the silver Territorial Cup, for which Arizona and Arizona State have played since 1899 — most are your typical, classic statuette or cup.
Most trophies, anyway. From the Brice-Cowell Musket, to The Belt, to Chief Caddo, an assortment of college football rivalry trophies are wholly unique, reflective of the diverse nature of the game itself. Each has its own, fascinating story.
The Bronze Stalk
Mid-American Conference opponents Ball State and Northern Illinois meet annually in a rivalry that dates back to 1941, but only in 2008 did it gain a trophy.
What came to be the physical representation of this almost eight-decade rivalry began with a statement made in jest.
"[Northern Illinois athletic department officials] told me they wanted to commission me to do a rivalry trophy, and I joked — because [the universities] were raised in the corn fields — 'What do you want, a corn stalk?'" recounts sculptor Renee Bemis. "And they go, 'YES! A bronze stalk!'"
The Bronze Stalk Trophy is exactly as its name suggests, with tall, bronze-sculpted stalks sitting atop a base. Bemis explained the base intentionally features the Ball State Cardinals logo on one side and the Northern Illinois Huskies logo on the other for the winning team to be able to prominently display in its trophy case. The Huskies has spent the majority of time facing outward. The 2018 season marks its 10-year anniversary, and Ball State's only win came in the Bronze Stalk's 2008 inaugural campaign.
The Bronze Stalk represents the place universities have within their communities. Save for the stretch through Chicago, the Bronze Stalk represents the vast stretches of corn fields that connect Northern Illinois' home in DeKalb from Ball State over in Muncie.
Bemis has left a lasting imprint on Northern Illinois athletics in more ways than one. She sculpted two life-size Husky statues that reside outside the university’s York Center, and last year, her sculpture of the famous image of mascot Diesel giving a high-five was unveiled before a Mid-American Conference game against Eastern Michigan.
Creating a work of art that will endure through generations is a weighty proposition. In the same vein that a decades-old trophy has such significance in 2018 — like, say, the Territorial Cup of 1899 — a newer trophy such as the Bronze Stalk represents the early stages of a living history.
"Long after you're gone ... they may not know who the artist is; some of the researchers will know, but it's not like someone's going to go, 'Oh, Renee Bemis made the Bronze Stalk,'" she said. "It's more the fact that you've created say that will be around — forever, hopefully — is really amazing."
Today, in the creator's own lifetime, the Bronze Stalk Trophy has great value to the players.
"It's awesome," said Northern Illinois defensive end Sutton Smith of the trophy. "You're playing for something, and that's what guys like to see...It's a good experience."
Hail to the Chief
Unique representation of the area in which two rivals play makes for a great trophy; bonus points for a trophy that tells a historic tale and uses the actual surrounding area to forge the trophy. Such is the case for Chief Caddo.
The 7-foot-6-inch tall wooden sculpture, awarded to the winner of the annual Northwestern State-Stephen F. Austin winner, depicts the titular patriarch of the nearby Caddo Nation. The story goes that in 1961, the two schools agreed that the loser would fashion an award from a tree picked from the neighboring woodlands in either Nacogdoches, Texas, home of Stephen F. Austin; or Natchitoches, Louisiana, where Northwestern State calls home.
As for Chief Caddo, he, too, calls Natchitoches home at present. The Demons beat the Lumberjacks last season, 38-21, continuing a recent trend of the programs exchanging wins.
"Chief Caddo currently stands in the foyer of our athletic fieldhouse, facing the front door, with a banner explaining the origin and paying tribute to the Native American heritage of both involved communities, Natchitoches and Nacogdoches," NSU Assistant Athletic Director/Media Relations Doug Ireland wrote in an email.
Honoring the history of the Caddo Nation is a central part of the trophy's existence — and with good reason. The legend of Chief Caddo is a living history of the two communities, with their very names — Nacogdoches and Natchitoches — representing Chief Caddo's two sons.
Another legend offers that Chief Caddo's sons, one walking east and the other west from sunrise to sunset, were to build villages upon reaching their destination. Those destinations were Nacogdoches and Natchitoches.
Other Big Ten honors include Paul Bunyan, his mythical ax, and a living embodiment of Fielding Yost’s paranoia.
If the Big Ten has any competition in the unusual rivalry trophy department, it’s from nearby Div. II counterpart, the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
Northern Sun rivalry trophies include a giant, wooden key; a boat paddle; a hubcap; a dog bone; a sledgehammer; and a medical trainer’s toolbox.
The winner between St. Cloud State and Minnesota State each year takes home the Traveling Training Kit. An actual, old-school trainer’s box, the Traveling Training Kit is painted Huskies red on one side, and Mavericks purple on the other.
The Traveling Training Kit dates back to 1978, making it one of the older Northern Sun rivalry trophies. The conference's oldest is the Battle Axe, presented to the winner of the Bemidji State-Minnesota State University Moorhead winner.
These original spins on the rivalry trophy concept set the tone, with many of the Northern Sun's rivalry games adopting their own official trophies in the 21st century. Augustana and Sioux Falls, for example, introduced The Key to the City in 2012 when the two programs played for the first time in almost three decades.
Battle for the Belt
Indeed, not all rivalry trophies represent decades-old rivalries; nor must they in order to have special significance.
South Alabama played its first season in 2009, eight years after Troy (then as Troy State) transitioned from the former Div. I-AA. The Trojans arrived in the Sun Belt with a rich history, boasting a pair of Div. II national championships won in the 1980s. Because of its quick rise through the ranks, however, Troy did not have a historic rival in Div. I-A.
No, Troy and South Alabama did not have the opportunity to build a generations-long grudge steeped in hard feelings over nail-biting finishes or conference championships. Still, the geographic proximity between the two universities — their campuses are separated by a mere two-and-a-half-hour car ride — made introducing a rivalry trophy natural.
“Many of us had friends that went to the ‘other’ school. With only a little over 150 miles separating our schools, this was always a game that was well travelled — again, by both fan bases,” wrote South Alabama then-student body president Ravi Rajendra in an email. “Yes, as Jags, we cared (and still do care) about having winning seasons and being at the top of the Sun Belt, but what we really cared about was winning the big game against Troy. We’d heard similar sentiments from those over at Troy.”
The initial logic behind South Alabama and Troy adopting a rivalry trophy is pretty standard. The prize itself is anything but.
“The Battle for the Belt” is a moniker that works three-fold: First, as a representation of the two program’s shared membership in the Sun Belt Conference. South Alabama is a charter member since 1976, long before the university explored having a football program. Troy joined almost 30 years later, but filled an immediate gap that had been vacant since UAB’s departure in 1991 as an in-state counterpart to South Alabama.
Second, The Battle for the Belt is literally just that: South Alabama and Troy play for an actual pro wrestling-inspired championship belt.
On the bands of the belt sit engraved plates, one side for the addition of a new year etched for each Jaguars win, the other side designated for Troy. Since the Belt’s debut in 2015, each program has had the opportunity to engrave its name. The 2018 edition takes center stage in the college football spotlight with an ESPN2 telecast on Tuesday, Oct. 23.
It’s an attention-grabbing trophy, to be sure, and the Sun Belt Conference office apparently agrees. This summer, it introduced its own title belt to commemorate the Most Valuable Players in each year of the new SBC Championship Game.
Rajendra isn’t surprised.
“We believe that the rivalry between South Alabama and Troy is the quintessential rivalry in the Sun Belt Conference. In a way, this game is a battle for it all — a battle for the Sun Belt,” he wrote.
In addition to this conference representation and the actual trophy itself, the “Belt” in Battle for the Belt is meant to symbolize the essence of the member institutions.
“The belt is a simple metaphor,” explained Rajendra. “Think of the belt you put on every morning. It supports you. It helps your outfit stay together. Yes, aesthetically, it divides your body in half, but functionally, it holds your outfit together.
“Similarly, on the outset, it seems like South and Troy are a house divided. However, what unites both South and Troy is how each of our schools build citizens that then go on to make the State of Alabama a better place,” Rajendra continued. “It’s always easy to be against something — to be against a rival. What we wanted for our fans through this rivalry was the continuous opportunity to be FOR something.”
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In college football’s newest rivalry trophy, The Belt, is explained the significance of their spirit. A rivalry need not have a century-plus of stockpiled history and animus — it helps, certainly, but rivalries and thus rivalry trophies represent so much more.
Rivalry trophies represent the universities themselves; their fan and alumni bases, and the communities the schools call home. They’re cultural, and culture cannot be manufactured.
That’s why attempts like former Texas governor Rick Perry bringing a statuette of Alamo hero James Bonham to South Carolina in 2014, ostensibly on Texas A&M’s behalf, or the Civil ConFLiCT never quite stuck.
In contrast, Minnesota students did not steal Fielding Yost’s Little Brown Jug anticipating it would be a fixture of the football calendar more than a century later. But that one otherwise insignificant moment became something monumental for the game.
Each authentic rivalry trophy tells a story that serves as a testament to the very spirit of college football. Whether formed in a brief moment, or over years of competition, the sport would not be the same without them.