Michigan yearns to lug the Jug again

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Minnesota offensive linesman Josh Campion, left, and defensive lineman Michael Amaefula celebrate with the fans and the Little Brown Jug after last year's game.

It had happened only three times since 1986, so when the Minnesota Golden Gophers dominated Michigan last season and took home the Little Brown Jug, they wanted to commemorate it.

Replicas were made of the Jug, the oldest trophy in college football, and each player received one.

There was one left.

Former Michigan equipment manager Jon Falk spent 40 years at Michigan, and for 37 of those years, the Wolverines won the game and retained the Jug, which he was charged with handling. It seemed only fitting when Minnesota equipment manager Kyle Gergely realized there was one replica remaining that Falk should be the recipient.

“He told me, ‘We had one extra, and we talked about who should get it,” Falk said of his conversation with Gergely. “They said there’s only one person, and it was me, for taking care of the Jug for 40 years.”

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The Little Brown Jug will be on the line Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium when 15th-ranked Michigan (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) faces Minnesota (4-3, 1-2). The Jug has resided in Minneapolis and been on display at the football building. It has been requested for events and selfies.

And now Michigan wants it back.

“It’s an important part of history at Michigan and Minnesota,” Falk said. “It means something, yes it does. To Michigan, the meaning is we get a trophy, we come home and work toward our common goals.”

This will be the 95th game Minnesota and Michigan have played for the trophy and their 102nd meeting overall. A nondescript piece of old earthenware, featuring the painted scores of all the games, still means something to players today?

“I stopped by and saw the team (Friday) in the locker room and the players walked by and said, ‘Hey Big Jon, Little Brown Jug, Little Brown Jug,’” Falk said. “It still means something.”

The game on Saturday has taken on a new complexion with the sudden retirement of Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, who made the announcement Wednesday morning, citing health reasons related to epilepsy. Tracy Claeys, the associate head coach/defensive coordinator is now the interim head coach.

“There’s no question it got tougher for us with the announcement this week,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said Thursday on the “Stoney and Bill” radio show. “I’m sure that the Minnesota team will come with their bionic effort. Probably the great compliment to coach Kill is that’s how they always play.

“They’ll play the way they always play. That’s how they’ve been trained, that’s how they’ve been coached. That’s their football team. So same challenge for us – we’ve got to come with that kind of effort, and we will. It’s going to be what it was always going to be, a fair, healthy, honest competition between two teams.”

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Michigan hasn’t played a game since the stunning loss to Michigan State two weeks ago. In its aftermath, Harbaugh said the team has responded well. They had two long practices last week before returning last Sunday.

“It was very sharp, guys were mentally on it,” Harbaugh said of last week after the MSU game.

Running back Drake Johnson is expected to be full-go for the Wolverines against the Gophers. The Wolverines had established their running game since the season-opening loss at Utah when they gained 76 yards rushing and after rushing for 200 yards or more in four of five games — they had 198 at Maryland in the Big Ten opener without lead back De’Veon Smith.  But in the game against Michigan State in which neither team ran the ball well, Michigan had 62 yards.

Harbaugh this week took exception to any suggestion that lackluster output meant the offensive line was regressing.

“Those yards were hard-fought in the running game on both sides, so I wouldn’t categorize it as regressing,” Harbaugh said.

Harbaugh understands the Gophers will have added incentive with the retirement of Kill. Claeys also has made clear he wants to be the next Minnesota head coach, and upsetting ranked Michigan likely would go a long way toward building his case.

“I want to be the next head football coach here, that’s all there is to it,” Claeys told TwinCities.com on Wednesday after practice. “I believe I can do it and our staff can do it. I want to be considered. I’ve been told I will be considered, so that’s what we’re telling recruits.”

Claeys will use and build on the blueprint Kill created.

“Everything we do is going to have the same principles with a different personality,” he told reporters. “Same principles we build on everything. We’re going to give it our best shot and see what happens. Until I’m told differently, I’m going to approach it as I’m going to run the Gophers football program.”

Meanwhile, the Wolverines, who missed a bowl game last season under former coach Brady Hoke, hope to earn their sixth victory of the season and become bowl eligible. This game begins a final five-game regular-season stretch that includes three on the road. Their final game, of course, is against Ohio State, the defending national champion  ranked No. 1 nationally.

Harbaugh said this season is like a book and the prologue has been written.

“If it’s going to be a great book, then it’s got to have one heck of a conclusion,” Harbaugh said.

And the next chapter includes trying to return the Little Brown Jug to Ann Arbor.