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Explaining the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, one of college football’s unique rivalry trophies

The three-way prize is one of the sport’s more prestigious.

Navy Midshipmen v Army Black Knights Photo by James G. Pinsky/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Army-Navy gets the headlines, as one of the most prestigious games on the schedule every season. But while Air Force might get relegated in status as the “other” service academy in FBS, Air Force is equal to the other two in one big respect: the three-pronged rivalry the teams share.

It’s for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.

And it’s this beauty, which gets awarded to the one service academy that wins the triple-threat match between the schools. If the competition is tied, the previous year’s winner retains it.

Obama Presents Commander-in-Chief Trophy To Air Force Academy football Team Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The rivalry began in 1972, when the three teams started playing annually. Before that, Air Force would alternate playing Navy and Army.

The trophy has been awarded to Air Force [20] times, Navy 15 times, and Army 6 times, with 4 ties. The President of the United States often awards the trophy himself at the White House for its presentation. Air Force currently holds the trophy; Navy’s last win was in 2015 and Army’s last win was in 1996. The 2.5-foot-tall, 170-pound trophy is topped with three footballs that rise above figurines of the mascots of the three academies.

It’s not the only three-team rivalry.

The Florida Cup between Miami, Florida State, and Florida isn’t annual because the Canes and Gators don’t play every year. Neither is the Beehive Boot between BYU, Utah, and Utah State. But the Michigan MAC Trophy between Central, Eastern, and Western Michigans is contested each season by the directional schools.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the winner of the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy got an automatic Liberty Bowl berth, but now it’s just for bragging rights. And those bragging rights are valuable.

Each service academy game has its own distinct place within the ecosystem.

Army-Navy gets most of the attention, and for good reason.

But Air Force-Navy, for example, is arguably more contentious than Army-Navy.

“[Army-Navy is] really for the fans and it’s really for the alumni to get together,” former Navy player JD Gainey told SB Nation in September. “But for the players, you want to beat Air Force and also beat Army. It’s not necessarily for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, but it’s to establish yourself that ‘we are the best school,’ and there’s really not only bragging rights on the football field but it makes a big deal when it comes to recruiting. All three academies recruiting nationally.”

Between 1987 and 2002, Air Force won the trophy outright in 13 of the 15 seasons.

They lead the overall series, were a dominant program overall under legendary coach Fisher DeBerry, and won the trophy in 2016.

Since then, Navy’s taken the rivalry by the throat, winning 11 of 14 times since since 2002.

Army’s recent Commander-in-Chief’s trophy history — much like its football program in general — leaves a lot to be desired. The Black Knights have only won it once since 1988.

But 2017 is a different story.

After Army’s shutout of Air Force and Navy’s win over the Falcons, Army-Navy is a legitimate trophy game, with the Commander-in-Chief’s at stake.