To the victor, they say, goes the spoils. And in college football, after some three physical, grueling hours, maybe some spoils are deserved.
The saying refers to an older time, when a conquering army essentially looted whichever territory it claimed and took what it wanted – be it wealth, food or land. So it might be fair that in the game of football, in which tactics and strategy aren’t entirely unlike ancient warfare, the winner gets to reap some kind of reward – particularly if the two sides have a longstanding rivalry.
Of course in college football, the ultimate goal is the national championship trophy, which consists of a Waterford Crystal football that is valued at roughly $30,000. The trophy is handmade by master craftsmen and takes nearly three months to complete, which created a bit of an inconvenience when Alabama’s 2011 trophy was accidentally shattered by a parent of a Crimson Tide player.
In the regular season, though, the trophies can take a number of different forms. Wisconsin and Minnesota battle for the right to wield an enormous axe (which replaced the previous prize of a giant slab of bacon). Michigan and Minnesota have exchanged the Little Brown Jug for more than 100 years. SMU and TCU essentially battle for a frying pan known as the Iron Skillet.
The BIG EAST’s best-known trophy is at stake this Friday, when Cincinnati visits Louisville. The winner of the game will be presented with the Keg of Nails, which is exactly what the name suggests – a wooden barrel that is filled with nails. Unlike most trophies, on which the winning school’s namesake is carefully engraved, the Keg of Nails history is rather crudely handwritten on the barrel itself.
The schools have met 52 times since 1922, though the origin of the trophy itself is unclear. It is believed to have been introduced by fraternity chapters from the schools to signify that the winning players were as tough as nails. The rivalry itself has spanned three conferences and has been part of the BIG EAST fabric since 2005.
“I think it’s one of the best rivalries in the country,” said Cincinnati coach Butch Jones. “It’s always competitive. It’s a physical football game. I think both universities and both programs respect the heck out of each other and they know what they’re in store for.”
Though the Keg is worth considerably less than $30,000, both teams expect to be relentless in their pursuit of the barrel. Even if both teams were struggling, it’s always fun to defeat a longstanding rival. But Friday’s game figures to have a measurable impact on the BIG EAST championship race.
At 7-0, Louisville is one of 11 unbeaten teams nationally. Cincinnati is 5-1. Neither team has lost a BIG EAST game. The Cardinals will be at home, with a sold-out crowd at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium and a national television audience will be watching on ESPN.
“Our players who have played Louisville before understand the environment they’re going into,” said Jones. “For our 65 first- and second-year players, we have to count on our older players to educate them about this rivalry and what they’re getting themselves into Friday night.”
“We haven’t beaten them in the last four years,” noted Louisville coach Charlie Strong. “Cincinnati’s coming in with one loss; we’re undefeated. We can’t take anyone lightly, so this is a big game for the program.”
Cincinnati, which has sponsored intercollegiate football since 1885, has already added a bell (The Victory Bell) and a paddlewheel (The River City Rivalry trophy) to its goodie bag this season with wins against Miami (Ohio) and Pittsburgh. Louisville opened its season by claiming the Governor’s Cup with a win against Kentucky.
With the volume of teams that have changed conferences in the past two years, some longstanding rivalries have gone by the wayside. Most notably, Texas and Texas A&M have discontinued a series that had been uninterrupted since 1957. Pittsburgh and West Virginia ended the Backyard Brawl, which dates to 1895 and featured some of the best games in BIG EAST history.
But as schools settle into their new conferences, opportunities exist to foster new rivalries, thanks in large part to geographic proximity. USF and UCF, separated by roughly 80 miles on Interstate 4 in Florida, is the most obvious example. Connecticut, Rutgers and Temple are all within a reasonable drive of each other. Cincinnati and Louisville should find a practical rival when Memphis comes aboard. And SMU and Houston will battle annually for BIG EAST bragging rights in Texas.
While many of the best rivalries are borne either from longstanding history or convenient geography, it doesn’t take much for a pair schools to foster a distaste for the other. Connecticut beat USF in back-to-back years on field goals in the final minute in 2009 and 2010. Think the Bulls don’t want to return the favor?
Across the board, college football is reinventing itself. It’s a new day, with new teams. And if two schools wish to put a trophy on the line, it’s not hard to do.
All it takes is a wooden bucket and some nails.