Replacing the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk: suggestions for the new Northwestern-Illinois rivalry trophy

    The author, Max Heerman, is a 1993 Weinberg graduate as well as an alumnus of Northwestern’s School of Law. His tenure in Evanston coincided with the playing of some of the most famous games between Northwestern and the University of Illinois, including the 1992 matchup when the Wildcats, led by then first year coach Gary Barnett, scored 21 fourth quarter points and defeated the Illini in Champaign 27-26. Mr. Heerman currently resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

    One of the great things about Big Ten football is the rivalry trophies. There’s the pig named “Floyd of Rosedale” that goes to the winner of the Iowa-Minnesota game, the Old Oaken Bucket exchanged between Indiana and Purdue, and the Old Brass Spittoon awarded to the victor in the Indiana-Michigan State match-up.

    From 1945 to 2008, Northwestern and Illinois played for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk. Fortunately, the SST has been retired. Not only did it conjure up hostile imagery of Native Americans, but also the SST didn’t make any sense. There’s nothing “sweet” about a tomahawk, and the Sioux originate from Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas – not Illinois.

    Worse, the SST wasn’t a very good trophy. A replica of a tomahawk mounted inside a glass case, the SST looked like a museum display, and it made for awkward post-game victory celebrations. A comparable trophy – the Paul Bunyan’s Axe given to the winner of the Wisconsin-Minnesota game – is much more practical. It’s oversized and indestructible — perfect for midfield celebrations by hefty offensive linemen.

    Now that the SST is kaput, Northwestern and Illinois have to come up with a new trophy. Unfortunately, the new trophy has no chance to develop organically, as the best rivalry trophies have. There’s simply no way to create something like “Floyd of Rosedale,” which originated from a bet between the governors of Minnesota and Iowa. When the Hawkeyes lost and Iowa governor Clyde Herring sent a full-blooded champion pig to Minnesota governor Floyd Olson, Iowa social crusader Virgil Case swore out a criminal complaint for violating gambling laws. Cooler heads prevailed, and the U.S. Attorney declined to prosecute. Olson asked a St. Paul sculptor to capture Floyd’s image, and the original sculpture remains the trophy to this day.

    There’s also no way to create something like the Purdue Cannon, awarded to the Purdue-Illinois winner. Boilermaker students brought the cannon to the 1905 game at Illinois to fire after their victory, but an Illinois student confiscated it. Thirty-eight years later – in 1943 – the Illinois alumnus suggested that it be used as a rivalry trophy.

    While the new Northwestern-Illinois trophy won’t develop the way those classics did, it’s still possible to create something with pizazz. The Wildcats and Illini can do a lot better than the humdrum Heartland Trophy, which was created by Wisconsin and Iowa in 2004. Northwestern and Illinois can also top than the Land Grant Trophy, which has been exchanged since 1993 in an attempt to manufacture a rivalry between Michigan State and Penn State. The Land Grant Trophy is nothing more than cheap knickknacks glued to a wood veneer cabinet.

    Here are a few ideas for the new Illinois-Northwestern trophy.

    The Grange-Graham Award (nickname: the Red Otto)
    Why not name the new trophy after the two greatest legends of Illinois and Northwestern football – Red Grange and Otto Graham?

    Red Grange became the first national sensation in college football history when he scored four touchdowns, covering 262 total yards, in the first 12 minutes of Illinois’ 1924 upset victory over Michigan. As a Chicago Bear, the “Galloping Ghost” breathed life into the struggling National Football League, selling out 65,000 seat stadiums in New York and Los Angeles.

    “Automatic” Otto Graham was plucked off the Wildcat basketball team by football coach Pappy Waldorf, and went on to break Big Ten records in passing from 1941-1943. After whipping Illinois 53-6 in his final Big Ten rivalry game, Graham turned pro and won seven championships quarterbacking the Cleveland Browns.

    The names Red Grange and Otto Graham are timeless – affixing them to a trophy would give it instant credibility. Paying homage to great players of yesteryear would give both schools’ coaches an annual opportunity to remind players and fans of the tradition of their respective football programs. And television audiences would be treated to mini-history lessens, as announcers would surely explain the Grange-Graham award during the game.

    The Grange-Graham Award (or the Graham-Grange, as suggested) also has alliteration. And while it might not be as folksy as Floyd of Rosedale or the Old Brass Spittoon, that could be fixed, in part, by giving the trophy a good nickname – like the Red Otto (get it? Red Grange and Otto Graham). And the trophy itself could be a classic statuette of an old-school footballer with a leather helmet, in the same vein as the Heisman Trophy.

    The Rail-Splitter Trophy

    A second approach — more closely in line with the other classic Big Ten rivalry trophies — is to evoke the history and mythology of Illinois. The most recognizable figure to call upon is Abraham Lincoln, who was called the “Rail-Splitter” because as a young man he chopped timber for split-rail fences. Split-rails were common in areas of Illinois where wood was abundant, because they were simple to construct and could be built without nails or hardware.

    The name “the Rail-Splitter Trophy” is catchy, and it would be easy to come up with a suitable award for post-game celebrations, such as an axe with its blade sinking into timber. But it’s unclear whether the Rail-Splitter’s similarity to the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk would be a good thing. While naming another award after a handle and blade might provide continuity, Northwestern and Illinois might not want to evoke the memory of the trophy that is being retired. The Rail-Splitter might also be too similar to Paul Bunyan’s Axe.

    The Lincoln Award

    A more direct way to evoke Lincoln is to put his name right on the trophy. Yet a name like “the Lincoln Award” or the “Land of Lincoln Trophy” is pretty plain vanilla. (Almost as boring as the Heartland Trophy.) Here’s a way to have fun with Honest Abe: use a replica of the statue of Lincoln that sits in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC as the trophy, but put a half purple, half orange football helmet on Lincoln’s head.

    Mrs. O’Leary’s Lantern

    Another way to conjure up state mythology is to name the trophy after the legendary (and fictional) lantern that started the Great Chicago Fire in October 1871. By traditional account, the fire spread after a cow kicked over a lantern in a barn owned by Patrick and Catherine O’Leary. Never mind that the reporter who reported the lantern story later admitted that he made it up; the legend is still repeated today.

    “Mrs. O’Leary’s Lantern” has the kind of folksy charm of other Big Ten football trophies, and it conjures up an image that could translate easily into a trophy. But again, there are downsides. First, the Great Chicago Fire was a tragic event –- not something to be celebrated. Second, a down-state institution like the University of Illinois may not want a trophy that evokes Chicago to the exclusion of the rest of the state.


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