In 1937, with a scanty gathering of about 5,000 sodden observers at Moscow’s Neale Stadium, Idaho football might have made history.
Disregard for a moment the expected narrative of this bout, which likely prompted the creation of the new Little Brown Stein — at the time, it was a whole lot more important than the forthcoming wooden, suds-inspired trophy.
Montana was considered “one of the nation’s best” by the Gem of the Mountains UI yearbook, citing the “dreadnaught” Griz rushing attack and their 6-0 record (compared to the Vandals’ 3-3-1 mark).
So when UI handed UM its first and only loss of the year, 6-0, increasing its rivalry stranglehold on the Griz to 18-6-1, it proved something.
It proved that, even against seemingly insuperable odds, the then-34-year-old tilt between two ascending, land-grant institutions in the Inland Northwest — the usually “orphan” members of the Pacific Coast Conference, according to a 1947 edition of the Bend Bulletin — might go either way.
“That’s what you want in a rivalry,” said modern-day UI defensive coordinator Mike Breske, on contested affairs.
All this must have spurred the creation of that aforementioned “jug,” as it’s intermittently been called. Then, none could have foreseen that the mad itch to grasp it would stretch 80 years into the future, past periods without matchups, to the present.
A 1959 Tribune clip sheds a little light on that hankered-after cup, which UI kept the year of its creation before losing for three seasons — the Vandals hold a 55-27-2 all-time advantage, though never possessed the stein for a decade (1951-59 was the longest stretch).
It’s an 18-inch-tall, one-gallon (but very wide) German-esque drinking mug, boasting decals in either Vandal gold or UM silver the victors and years of each contest. It’s hard to gauge how much open space is on its surface.
In bygone days, those numbers were painted on; Breske said “it’s been updated at some point.”
The article reads: “(The stein is) probably worth two or three dollars — if you could buy a counterpart.” But, in fact, the schools had before decided that a stein would be the prize. In the “early 1930s,” there was a different flagon, but “it was held in such little regard that it was finally lost.”
UI and UM officials met before the 1938 campaign, declaring that the Griz would fashion the stein, while the Vandals had the task of engraving lettering onto it.
It was Missoula journalist John T. Campbell who the responsibility fell upon.
“Campbell actually came up with the idea for the name,” said longstanding and now-retired UM sports information director Dave Guffey. “He was an old-school guy. He actually worked over at the Missoulian and was the sports information director for the Griz for a long time.”
Whether Campbell chose to copy a previous design or bank on the simplicity of the project isn’t entirely clear.
Could the concept have materialized via the massive, late-19th-century expansion of western Europeans to Missoula and Moscow for logging and farming prosperity? Perhaps the Missoulian, Scottish “Highlander Beer” mania or German influence played a role. Or maybe Campbell just snagged his favorite lager receptacle, gave it a quick rinse, and turned it in due to procrastination. “Both towns do like their beer,” chipped in UM associate athletic director for internal operations, Chuck Maes, who’s worked at UM for 30 years.
It’s sat undisturbed in UM’s “Hall of Champions” for 18 years, in the “2000s” sector of the football division. With a card commemorating Campbell and its significance balanced against it, the stein collected dust until staffers freshened it up in preparation for the summer’s Big Sky media days.
It’s easily the oldest traveling trophy in the conference, a commemoration returning to life that’s moniker has been featured in nearly every headline relating to a UI/UM clash.
“It’s wooden with a dark stain, but I couldn’t tell you the kind,” said Missoula native and UM sports information director Eric Taber. “It’s such a unique trophy. … The fact it’s remained in one piece and that it’s still around is amazing. We’ve made a point of keeping it because the rivalry means so much.”
Maybe it’s been kept relatively intact because in ’38, the schools made a pact to devise and maintain a “symbol of good will,” wrote the Tribune. It’s probably good that there’s no records of brew being gulped out of it; even in 1959, it was considered a relic.
“Whether the Little Brown Stein has ever actually been filled and quaffed from isn’t known,” the article reads. “Chances are it would leak at the seams today.”
The rivalry, in itself, has sprung a leak in the last decade and a half — UM and UI played five times from 1999-2003, but during the Vandals’ longtime FBS experiment, the football feud died down.
On Saturday at 3:30 p.m., though, any sorts of punctures will begin to mend, as the Vandals and Grizzlies meet in the Kibbie Dome for their first conference scrap since ’95.
“That tradition goes back to being land-grant universities in the states,” said Breske, who coached in two separate stints with UM — at its height in the early 2000s, where he won a national championship (2001), then in the 2010s.
“Being roughly 200 miles apart as the crow flies, it’s always been competitive. Idaho hates Montana; Montana hates Idaho.”
Proximity is one thing, but history (especially in conferences) might spin an illuminating yarn. Sure, UM/Montana State, the “Brawl of the Wild,” is the longest-running (118 meetings) and arguably foremost rivalry in the conference — “That’s a whole different animal,” as Breske put it. “It’s within the culture and the families in the state.”
But the UM/MSU game, years ago, “didn’t have the same intensity,” said Taber. “Generally, in the long run, we beat them pretty handily.”
That was through the ’80s and ’90s (16 straight UM wins from 1986-2001), which featured comparably dastardly results for the Bobcats as earlier in the century, when MSU was more of an afterthought, a target-practice-type of game for UM, while UI offered more contended squabbles.
“(The UI/UM) rivalry goes back to the Skyline Conference, Pacific Coast Conference and the Big Sky,” said Griz coach Don Read in a 1995 Tribune article. “Idaho and Montana are probably more rivals than anyone else in the Big Sky Conference. More than us and Montana State because we’ve only been playing Montana State since the 1940s.”
Not really. See, UM and MSU have been meeting on the gridiron since 1897, (UM holds a 72-39-5 edge, 32-28 in NCAA) but Read does bring up a point there.
UM and MSU never hooked up in a conference until becoming Big Sky charter members in 1963, and similar can be said for UI and Boise State. Just after the turn of the century, MSU was an independent and BSU didn’t exist — BSU’s first game was in 1933 and it didn’t meet UI until ’71 — while UM played in the Northwest Intercollegiate Athletic Association alongside UI, Whitman College and four now-Pac-12 teams.
Following MSU’s move to the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (sort of a predecessor to the Mountain West) in 1917, UM jumped to the Pacific Coast Conference (the Pac-12’s forerunner), and was joined by the Vandals, who often won the stein in mostly competitive games against the Griz, and ran table in the 1950s with Skip Stahley in sideline command and Hall of Famer Jerry Kramer as captain.
“I always see old things, what they call the ‘Idaho Jinx’ back in the ’50s, when Idaho would rattle off several wins in a row,” Taber said. “Yearbooks back then would say, ‘the dreaded Vandals from Moscow.’”
To break it down: MSU was getting its footing in the NAIA. Meanwhile, UM and UI were fashioning an intense disdain for each other, stemming presumably from each’s toil to traverse the college football waters, and a physical token on the line. The Griz and Vandals shared common goals — the jug and to be something in the PCC — but conference success never really surfaced.
Both generally were PCC doormats from 1920s entry to 1950s flight (UM joined the Skyline Conference afterwards and UI went independent).
“I think (sharing time in the PCC) probably did heighten (the rivalry),” said Maes. “Those old-timers, they really pushed it then.”
Additionally, in spite of unmistakable league strains — facility and location issues contributed — newspapers treated UI/UM quarrels like national championships, frequently using the Little Brown Stein as visual enticement in captions and cartoons.
“Little Brown Jug — How I Love Thee,” headlined a 1950 Argonaut cartoon, displaying a ripped Vandal and stout Grizzly at odds while Eastern Washington and Utah mascots watch confoundedly from afar.
Even former employees got in on it. For one, the late athletic trainer Naseby Rhinehart of UM — who played for the Griz in the ’30s — pressed the agenda over his 40-plus years at the school.
“Rhinehart really pushed it with every athlete, ‘You need to beat Idaho,’” Maes said. “Idaho was the rival. It would get drilled in your head. … His successors were disciples, they were always on everybody about Idaho.”
To say the least, it persisted into the Big Sky, especially in the ’90s — one or both were generally ranked, and upsets were in abundance. For example, UI defeated eventual national champion UM 55-43 in 1995, handing three-time league MVP quarterback Dave Dickenson and the Griz their only I-AA loss of the year.
And every once in a while, according to Maes, that coveted gallon-cup up and vanished.
“(Both schools) are pretty keen on keeping it,” Maes said. “Even if you do win, sometimes it wouldn’t get mailed. … Because of that history, we wrote it into the contract (in the early 2000s) that you had to exchange the stein at the game.”