The sports phrase "traveling trophy" is cool. No trophy has more frequent flyer miles in its account than the Stanley Cup. The Old Oaken Bucket has its charm, however.
Even if its miles are on the ground and it never leaves Indiana highways connecting Indiana University in Bloomington and Purdue University in West Lafayette. Where else would it go?
This year it is going nowhere. Earlier this week, IU and Purdue announced the cancellation of Saturday’s football game in Bloomington because of the coronavirus.
For the time being, this is the Old Oaken Empty Bucket. Major bummer.
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Granted, a team rivalry trophy doesn’t carry the same cache as a world championship trophy, but if you build up enough history, Hoosiers of every stripe start to think it would be pretty neat to gain possession for a year at a time.
Saturday would have marked the 96th time in the rivalry between IU and Purdue the winners got to skate around with the bucket raised over their heads. There are buckets and there are buckets. There are bucket lists written by any old someone every day. There are buckets to carry milk from cow to kitchen.
And there is this one. Indiana and Purdue fight for the right to cuddle the bucket. The closer they are to the football teams, the more people care about the bucket. The rivalry on the gridiron considerably predates the bucket, dating to 1897. The next time the teams play, presumably in December 2021 now, will be the 123rd meeting.
The football goes back to when the pigskin really was a pigskin and the forward pass was not yet practiced. The trophy made its debut in 1925 after a confab in Chicago that included Windy City chapters of the Purdue and Indiana alumni groups. They apparently wanted something substantial to fight over.
This was part of the memo declaration for creation of the trophy: "An old oaken bucket as the most typical Hoosier form of trophy, that the bucket should be taken from some well in Indiana and that a chain to be made of bronze block ‘I’ and ‘P’ letters should be provided for the bucket."
Each victory is supposed to bring another notch on the I’s and P’s, but if new metal letters were chinked out each year, the sucker would probably weigh 1,000 pounds by now.
A search for a proper bucket to serve as trophy brought investigators to the Bruner family farm between Hanover and Kent. The farm was settled in the 1840s, so presumably the bucket really was old.
Indiana football has been big-game hunting this season, beating Michigan for the first time in eons and Wisconsin for the first time in a decade en route to a No. 8 national ranking.
Although the Hoosiers took control of the bucket with a 44-41 double overtime win last fall, they still owe payback to the currently 2-4 Boilermakers. Overall, Purdue leads the series 74-42-6 overall, and Purdue’s bucket series lead is 60-32-3.
IU coach Tom Allen does not think the bucket is a mere trinket. He dubbed this "Bucket Week" and made it clear to his players more than once this season he likes these trophy games and wants all relevant hardware to reside in Bloomington.
Allen was born in New Castle, attended Maranatha Baptist University-Indiana University and coached at Indiana high schools before coming to IU. He said he always watched the game.
"You throw out the records," which is a cliche coaches use when they stress not overlooking opponents. "Sometimes, you have high school teammates (on both sides). You’ve got families divided. It’s personal. In-state rivalry games…it just means a lot. It can change your whole season. It means a whole bunch to me."
Over time, replica trophies of the Old Oaken Bucket have sold as souvenirs, even a puny, 2-inch-tall version (though that would not even make a respectable tree ornament).
In the absence of a game this year, IU gets to keep the genuine bucket for another year. This is not the same thing, though. In a COVID-19 world, this is the kind of stuff we get stuck with, buckets half full.