Well, it's specifically about Big Ten football rivalries, so some of you might argue that it is only football-ish.
Anyway, before the last decade or so ruined all of our lives with Alabama and Auburn and SEC, SEC, SEC hegemony, the Big Ten was the bastion of footballness. It was Midwestern and it was the keeper of sacred tradition.
And fewer things illustrate that better than the Big Ten rivalries that are tied to Trophies. If you aren't familiar with these things-as I wasn't before I moved up here, most Big Ten (or as we must now call them, B1G rivalries are centered around which winning team gets to lay claim to some object or trophy or (frankly) made up thing that is the central totem upon which hatreds are laid year after year.
The best things about these rivalries is that many, if not most of them stretch back for more than a century now. And these trophies were devised in frontier times or in days when radio was the most exciting thing that anyone had ever thought to experience. And so it made perfect sense to devise a sporting contest around who would get to hoist the Old Oaken Bucket over the recently vanquished team while basking in gridiron glory. (The Old Oaken Bucket, by the way, is the rivalry trophy between Purdue and Indiana.)
Other examples? Well, there is the Old Brass Spittoon that focuses the rivalry between Indiana and Michigan State. And the Little Brown Jug that is the goal of the game between Minnesota and Michigan.
But one of my favorites is the Illibuck--a trophy featuring a mythical creature that is the focal point of the Illinois/Ohio State game. What is an Illibuck? The trophy is a wooden turtle, but it was once an actual turtle.(Can you imagine handing over the care of a live turtle to a bunch of rowdy college football players year after year? I know that turtles are hearty creatures that are long-lived, but I wonder how much continuity there was between one year and the next. How many turtles survived on a yearly basis?) And according to my (brief) research, this Illinois/Ohio State rivalry also used to feature the smoking of a peace pipe as part of the pregame ceremonies?!!! (Can you imagine how such things might be viewed now? Traditions are good, but it is also good to know when traditions needs to be modified.)
Surprisingly, one of the oldest, most storied rivalries in the B1G has no trophy associated with it. The Ohio State/Michigan game is hyped every year, regardless of the relative strengths of the two teams meeting for that contest. And there is no trophy as stake--which is even more surprising in that this is also a border contest. Both teams have terrible songs to sing about the other (such as Ohio State's "We Don't Give a Damn for the Whole State of Michigan".) And, even more recent--and maybe most infamously, given the Terrelle Pryor debacle, there are the Gold Pants which are given to tOSU teams that best the Michiganders.
But, don't forget that even century old traditions have room for expansion. As the conferences change and grow, traditions change and grow as well. When the B1G added Maryland and Rutgers recently, not to mention adding Nebraska prior to that, the opportunity for new hatred appeared.
But how do you create traditions like the Floyd of Rosedale when you have only been blood rivals for three years? And within what vessel do you pour all of your bile and your despair?
These were the issues considered when Nebraska and Wisconsin decided to inaugurate their new conference rivalry. Even though they first played back in 1891, they were not part of the same conferences for almost all of that time and so rivalries are diluted and not as intense. But now . . . now they are regular combatants. And to celebrate that disdain, they have created the FREEDOM TROPHY!
Yes, in this new era, new trophies are forged. But is this the best totem? Might it not have been better for Nebraska and Wisconsin to fight over the CheeseHusker--which is maybe a trophy in the shape of cheddar flavored popcorn? Or maybe they could have fought over the Internet Dial Up Modem? This would simultaneously give the appearance of battling to win a hoary old thing, while also reminding us of the cyberspace world within which we live? No matter what, I think we can agree that the Freedom Trophy is exactly what we would expect to come out of a focus-group session on creating some new rivalry trophy.
The Illibuck is NOT impressed.