The University of Arizona says the Territorial Cup, its rivalry trophy with Arizona State, is the oldest such trophy in college football. Arizona claims NCAA certification to that point, though none’s publicly available that I could find.
The rationale for the claim: The Cup made its debut in November 1899, when the Tempe Normal School beat Arizona 11-2 at the Carrillo Gardens in Tucson.
That puts its birth well ahead of both the Michigan-Minnesota Little Brown Jug (1903) and the Indiana-Purdue Old Oaken Bucket (1925). In the years since, the Tempe Normal School has become Arizona State, the chief rival to Arizona.
The Cup is on the line Saturday, when the Wildcats visit the Sun Devils in Tempe (4:30 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network).
Just keep a few things in mind about the Cup.
The Cup was born before any other current rivalry trophy, so it gets to be called the oldest in the country. That part’s fine and good.
1. The Cup wasn’t initially a prize for winning any specific game.
In 2014, AZCentral.com dropped this bombshell:
It's true that the trophy — now certified to be the oldest rivalry trophy in college football — was awarded to the Territorial Normal School, at the time a teachers college in Tempe. And it's true that Normal beat UA in 1899.
But the trophy was awarded for having the best record in the inaugural season of the Territorial Foot Ball League — not for winning the UA game. The trophy wasn't presented after the game in 1899.
Research by the archivist at Arizona State University, Rob Spindler, showed that the silver-plated cup was awarded to the Territorial Normal School in Tempe two months later, well into January of 1900.
Arizona State didn’t even get the Cup because it beat Arizona. It just happened to win its conference that year.
One could easily make the argument that this wasn’t a rivalry trophy in the first place, so it shouldn’t get to claim the mantle of “oldest rivalry trophy,” regardless of what happened after.
2. The trophy got lost for about eight decades after that.
Really! Nobody knows for sure how, but the trophy wound up in a Tempe church. Someone found it in the basement of that church in 1983.
3. It’s only been given annually to the ASU-Zona winner since 2001.
Then-Arizona State president Lattie Coor led the drive to make that happen. In the years since the trophy’s re-introduction, Arizona State is 9-7. The all-time series is 49-40-1 in Arizona’s favor, mainly because of a 20-1 Wildcats run from 1902-48.
During the 80-some years the trophy was missing, various other items went to the winner of this game: the Governor’s Trophy (1953-79) and something called a “Victory” sculpture (1979-97). The Territorial Cup wasn’t even on the radar.
The Cup might only be the oldest trophy because of a technicality.
But the debate gives us the most college football thing of all: Something to argue about.
All that stuff helps make it a really cool trophy.
The two FBS programs from Arizona should play each other every year, and they should have a trophy on the line.
The Territorial Cup makes sense as a name (Arizona was a territory at the time, not a state). Arizona’s sports information office explains the rivalry was a rivalry from the very beginning:
The games themselves are not atypical of a state where the Territorial Legislature awarded one city (Phoenix) the initial economic prize, the state hospital, while the other town (Tucson) got the fledgling first state university. The games are competitive, territorial and a distinct matter of pride.
Arizona State owns the actual Territorial Cup, which isn’t the one you see on the field after the teams play. A replica goes to the winner. The protocols for the handling of the actual Cup are hilariously detailed, right down to the school presidents in 2001 designating rules for who takes questions about the Cup, how it travels, how it’s displayed, and who gets to keep it if there’s a tie. (That’s Arizona State.)
“The TC should always be handled with white cotton cloves and should never be cleaned,” the schools’ agreement reads.
But then it gets confusing, in the same little pargraph: “The TCR may be handled with gloves to preserve the finish and may be cleaned as needed using an appropriate silver cleaner or polish.” So the Cup should never be cleaned, except as needed.