Mike Lopresti: Old Oaken Bucket gives teams something to play for

Sports: Mike LoprestiIt was a big year for celebrity births, back in 1925. Paul Newman and Johnny Carson. Richard Burton and Dick Van Dyke and Sammy Davis Jr. and Yogi Berra. On the third Friday of the month, the Kennedy clan in Massachusetts welcomed another son, this one named Robert.

And the next day in Bloomington, who should be introduced to the world but …

An old oaken bucket. That’s what they called it, anyway, borrowing a line from a 19th century poet who was neither born, nor lived, nor died in Indiana. Someone had found the thing on a farm in the southern part of the state and decided it’d make a fine prize for the winner of the Indiana-Purdue football game. The moss and mold had been addressed and the bucket was all set to be gloriously handed to the victor on Nov. 21, 1925, for the first time. Except IU and Purdue tied 0-0. Somehow, that fit.

We’re here today to say happy 97th birthday to the Bucket, and isn’t it a lucky break for both places that somebody came up with the idea in the first place? Or else what would these teams have to be excited about in a good many Novembers? This one, for instance, at IU. No matter how unsatisfactory the record or how deep the disappointment of the customers, no matter how leaky the defense or tame the offense, there is always one last chance to feel good.

Remember when IU was 3-0—same as Georgia? Remember when the Colts were AFC South favorites and Jeff Saturday was a television talking head? Well, never mind that last one. Anyway, the party stopped for the Hoosiers and next came such bad tidings as going down to Ohio State for the 28th consecutive time, an unbroken chain that is now on its sixth president of the United States. And using their fourth different quarterback, including one who had already said he’s transferring. What could lift such dark clouds, if only for a weekend?

And when the Boilers weren’t giving up 24 points to an Iowa team that was 125th out of 131 FBS teams in scoring, the Hoosiers were using their fourth different quarterback, including one who had already said he’s transferring. What could lift such dark clouds, if only for a weekend?

Purdue players lift the Old Oaken Bucket after they defeated Indiana 44-7 on Nov. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

The Bucket! The one chance to make the other side even more miserable. Especially if it would ruin Purdue’s chances at a Big Ten West title, which it conceivably could. Here the Boilermakers are, with visions of a division in their heads after winning another trophy—the Cannon against Illinois—and IU could kill the mood when Purdue comes to Bloomington. The Bucket is at its most treasured when used as a stake through the heart, and both sides have done it.

True. The Old Oaken Bucket might not have the colorful back story of, say, the porker that Iowa and Minnesota fight over. Floyd of Rosedale, once a live pig named after the governor of Minnesota and the farm of his birth, now a trophy. The real Floyd died of hog cholera.

Or match the long history of the Little Brown Jug that get Michigan and Minnesota so exercised. The jug was originally a five-gallon water vessel that Wolverines coach Fielding Yost had his student manager buy for 30 cents at a variety story, since he was a tad concerned that wily Gopher fans might try to poison Michigan’s drinking water on the bench at their 1903 game in Minneapolis. The Jug was inadvertently left behind in the locker room, and later found by a Minnesota equipment manager. The Gophers told Yost he could have it back if the Wolverines won their next meeting. The rest is history, most of it won by Michigan.

The Bucket might not be as eccentric as the old oil can that Fresno State and San Diego State squabble about or the gold-platted egg that brings Ole Miss and Mississippi State facemask-to-facemask. When the idea was discussed in 1927 for a trophy to enrich the Ole Miss-Mississippi State rivalry, someone suggested the winner be given the goal posts. Uh, no. They settled instead on a football-sized creation that looks like an egg.

Leroy Keyes, Purdue’s runnerup for the Heisman Trophy, faces Indiana’s Dave Kornowa in this Nov. 25, 1967, photo in the Old Oaken Bucket game in Bloomington. Indiana won the game 19-14 and also won the team’s first trip to the Rose Bowl.
(AP Photo/Bloomington Herald-Times, Larry Crewell)

The Bucket has not been in combat like the prize that goes to the winner between Wyoming and Colorado State—a bronze boot worn by a captain in Vietnam. It does not represent westward expansion like the Fremont Cannon replica contended between Nevada and UNLV, modeled on a howitzer abandoned in the mountain snow by explorers trying to make their way through the Sierra Nevadas in the 1840s.

It has not been stolen as often as the Stanford Axe, a trophy so coveted between Stanford and California that thieves have used tear gas and a get-away ferry in their heists (it is now protected by motion detectors and surveillance cameras). The Bucket is not always getting paint jobs like the carriage of the UCLA-USC Victory Bell, which goes blue or red, depending upon who wins. The bell itself used to clang in a Southern Pacific freight locomotive.

It might not be as geographically curious as the Paul Bunyan Trophy, an award decided between Michigan and Michigan State, named after a mythical figure who supposedly came from Minnesota.

It’s never been on a Howard Hughes plane like the original jeweled shillelagh, when it was allegedly flown from Ireland to be presented annually to either Notre Dame or USC. it’s not as anatomically significant as the platypus trophy between Oregon and Oregon State. Why the platypus? It’s a mammal from Australia, and that ain’t Oregon. But it has the tail of a beaver and the beak of a duck, and since it’s the Oregon State Beavers vs. the Oregon Ducks, you get the idea.

The Indiana Hoosiers and Purdue Boilermakers met up on Nov. 29, 2014, for the Old Oaken Bucket game. IU won the game at home. (AP photo/AJ Mast)

The Bucket is not even the most screwball trophy on IU’s schedule. This very weekend the Hoosiers take on Michigan State and to the winner goes the spoils—in this case, the Old Brass Spittoon, reportedly used in an 19th century trading post and later found in an antique shop.

But the Bucket is the hot fudge sundae at the end of the season for Indiana and Purdue, even if the regular season meal was Spam and anchovies. When it comes to national attention, the rivalry is not quite Michigan-Ohio State, but the Wolverines and Buckeyes don’t hand out a bucket or a boot or even a platypus.

And something can be said about a game that so often must double as a pain reliever. No matter how sick Indiana or Purdue might be about how they spent some of their autumn weekends, they always have the chance to feel better on the last Saturday. It’s like a bucket of Tylenol.

Lots of left turns in college football in 2022: Alabama and Clemson probably out of the playoff chase by early November, TCU picked seventh in the Big 12, but one of the last four unbeatens in the nation, a good chance that an 11-1 team won’t win the Big Ten East but an 8-4 team will take the Big Ten West. And now the Old Oaken Bucket is around for the 97th time, guaranteeing that no matter how exasperating a season, Indiana and Purdue always have something to play for in the end.

The Colts should be so lucky.•

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Lopresti is a lifelong resident of Richmond and a graduate of Ball State University. He was a columnist for USA Today and Gannett newspapers for 31 years; he covered 34 Final Fours, 30 Super Bowls, 32 World Series and 16 Olympics. He can be reached at mjl5853@aol.com.

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