Gopher tradition has roots in Watertown

By Tom Schmidt

On different occasions recently I had conversations with three members of the Strandquist family — Bill, Betty and Jane. During one of those encounters, one of the family members shared an interesting family story that connects our little community with one of the most cherished rivalries in college football history!

The Strandquists (some of the nicest folks you could meet, by the way), all grew up in Watertown. All three siblings graduated from Watertown High School: Jane (1948), Bill (1954) and Betty (1955). All of them were active in school activities such as sports, homecoming, and/or cheerleading, etc. The gals would both marry Watertown graduates, Betty married Robert Van Tassel, Jane married Ralph Pysick.

Bill especially, was interested and active in sports, whether as a player for the Royals or as a contributing sports writer for the Carver County News. When we visited, I especially enjoyed a story I had never heard before, about their senior class trip to Chicago in 1954.

The class had decided to go as a group to the Chicago Zoo. But instead of joining the class, he and a fellow classmate (my dad, Elmer) snuck out to Wrigley field catch the Cubs in a doubleheader. That day, they got to see Warren Spahn of the Milwaukee Braves face off against newcomer Ernie Banks. The Braves’ roster that year included the legendary Bobby Thomson, who’s ninth inning home run just three years prior sent the Giants to the world series. Their ’54 roster also included a rookie by the name of Hank Aaron. Knowing Bill, it’s no surprise that a trip to Wriggly would take precedence over a trip to the zoo, and it’s clear that sports have been an enjoyable pasttime for the entire family for decades.

But it would be their great Uncle Oscar Munson who would forever link the family and our little community of Watertown with Minnesota Gopher football.

For over 40 years, “Uncle Oscar” worked as equipment manager for the Minnesota Gophers. Oscar’s nephew Gunny Holmgren, coached the Watertown town team for years, and was a regular fixture in Watertown baseball in the 30s and 40s. (Gunny’s brother Milton Holmgren would later replace Oscar at the U of M when Oscar retired).

Oscar was born in Watertown, was baptized at Gotaholm Lutheran Church (now Trinity Lutheran Church) and attended school in Watertown.

As a result of Oscar’s occupation, the Watertown sports programs would benefit from time to time. Once, when the Gophers purchased new uniforms, Oscar gave the old ones to his nephew Donald Holmgren (brother to Gunny and Milton). Donald, who played football for the Royals during the 1930’s,  gave the former Gopher uniforms to the team to use as the official Royal game jerseys.

As a result of this family/Gopher connection, Jane was a loyal Gopher fan from the time she was a young girl. While growing up, she kept in touch with uncle Oscar, and had regular conversations about the games and players. Oscar was well aware that she was particularly fond of 1941’s All-American, Bruce Smith. One day Oscar brought her some team photographs, including an autographed photo from Bruce, and a team jersey.

But it was an event early in Oscar’s career that would forever make him a part of Minnesota Gopher football folklore.

The year was 1903, the Gophers were playing host to the Michigan Wolverines. Legendary Michigan coach Fielding Yost, who took over the reigns in 1901, had lead his team to an unprecedented 28 game winning streak by the time they matched up with the Gophers that year.

Earlier in the year, Yost’s team played a heavily favored Buffalo team and scored 22 touchdowns in 38 minutes. (Buffalo quit the game, and left the field with 15 minutes left on the clock).

To say that Michigan was heavily favored would be an understatement. In the first seven games that year, Michigan outscored its opponents 437-0. But as Game 8 approached, the Gophers, who had put together one of the best teams in the school’s history, were determined to end their beloved 28 game streak.

Approximately 30,000 were on hand that day to watch the Davy vs. Goliath match up. One can only imagine the feeling of dread amongst Wolverine fans who dared to look up at the scoreboard late in the fourth quarter to see their team on the ropes in a 6 – 6 tie.

But there’s an old saying in sports, that “luck is often underrated.” Arguably, this would apply to Yost’s 1903 Wolverines. With only two minutes remaining in the game, mother nature would intervene, and make playing conditions unplayable. The game would not resume, and the score ended in a 6 – 6 tie. Yost hadn’t won, but he also hadn’t lost, and his teams streak had been serendipitously salvaged.

Michigan won the national championship that year. Their wining streak would finally come to end, but not until years later after picking up 56 straight victories.

It was customary in those days for teams to bring their own water when traveling to the opponents site. At some point after Michigan departed in 1903, Munson went into the dressing room and noticed that they had left behind a “Little Brown Jug”.

Upon seizing the jug, instead of returning it, Munson painted the following “Michigan Jug – captured by Oscar October 31, 1903, Minnesota 6 – Michigan 6.

The jug was suspended from the ceiling, above the desk of Gopher coach L.J. Cooke. Coach Yost would be informed that if he wanted his team’s little brown jug back, they would have to beat the Gopher’s to get it.

It would be six more years before the Gophers would again match up with the Wolverines. At a rally before the big game, Cooke would reiterate his challenge to Yost stating that he could have his jug back, but only if they defeated the Gophers!

As a general rule, it’s not a good idea to give your opponent any additional incentive to strive for victory. In hind site, the Gophers might question the wisdom of making such a challenge as Michigan would win the next matchup, 15-6.

As the Michigan team celebrated its victory that year, they proudly raised their new trophy, “A Little Brown Water Jug”, high into the air, for all to see.

We’ll never know if the added incentive provided by the Gophers helped motivate the Wolverines to victory, but we do know that as a result of their unique challenge, a new tradition was born.

The “Little Brown Jug” rivalry is one of the oldest, if not “THE oldest” rivalry games, in college football. And its roots can be traced back to a family whose roots are well grounded in the fertile soil of Watertown.

Tom Schmidt’s column is an occasional feature of the Carver County News.