Utah State’s Old Wagon Wheel Rivalry Reminds Us What’s Good about College Football
Utah State’s Old Wagon Wheel is a great trophy
The Old Wagon Wheel is a one of a kind trophy on the line between Utah State and BYU
It’s one of those passages that, if you stop and think about it, reminds you that college football does indeed make us all a bit crazy. The Daily Herald headline: “It’s Old Wagon Wheel Time Again—Aggies Favored!” A thousand words then followed to explain.
“BYU and Utah State meet tomorrow afternoon in Logan in what is more than a battle for the old Wagon Wheel,” Provo’s Herald breathlessly reminded its readers in 1971. “It is even more than a battle for the Beehive Boot…the outcome of the rest of the season could hang in the balance.” Wagon Wheels, Aggies, and Beehive Boots. Fatalistic predictions about seasons hanging in the balance. Only in college football.
And it’s that time again. The Utah State University Aggies and the Brigham Young University Cougars continue their Old Wagon Wheel rivalry on Friday September 29, 2017. The 87th meeting in the series will take place at USU’s Merlin Olsen Field at Maverik Stadium.
Rivalries like those fought over the Old Wagon Wheel trophy remind us what drives college football.
Kudos for Getting the Trophy just Right
I think it often comes down to the marketing people—the Sports Information Directors, or their de facto predecessors. They’re the ones who have to figure out if a rivalry game might benefit from a trophy.
There are more than 100 rivalry games in college football where a trophy of some sort is traded back and forth. Only a few of these trophy/rivalry games matter each year on a national scale. When the Universities of Texas and Oklahoma battle for the Golden Hat, awarded to the winner of the Red River Rivalry (formerly the Red River Shootout), the national press pays close attention. Similarly the awarding of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy to Air Force, Army or Navy garners widespread interest.
But most of these trophies matter only to the schools involved. The BYU-Utah State tilt falls somewhere in the middle of the rivalry continuum. While the “Holy War” rivalry, BYU-University of Utah, grabs more attention, there’s no signature trophy directly involved. What a shame. Meanwhile, the BYU-Utah State rivalry has nearly as much history anyhow.
And fighting it out for an Old Wagon Wheel? Perfect.
There are some really strange “prizes” out there to be won by defeating one’s rival. Here’s a few: brass spittoon (Indiana v. Michigan State), milk can (Boise State v. Fresno State), keg of nails (Cincinnati v. Louisville), iron skillet (SMU v. TCU), a cannon (ok, that’s pretty cool, Nevada v. UNLV), and a “jeweled shillelagh” (Notre Dame v. USC). I picture some school official telling the victorious team, “No, really. You’re really supposed to celebrate with this.”
The perfectly fitting, perfectly awesome Old Wagon Wheel originated in 1948. It was introduced matter-of-factly in Utah’s newspapers. “To the winner,” reported the Salt Lake Tribune on October 23, 1948, “will go a rustic and soon-to-be-traditional ‘Old Wagon Wheel.” The students of the Blue Key Honors Society had helped pick the prize.
The Best Football is Local Football
The Old Wagon Wheel effectively marked a rivalry and celebrated a shared history. The symbol harkened back to the Mormon pioneers who had migrated west during the mid-19th century. Both schools had, and have, large contingents of LDS students on their campuses. The image fit the task.
As Says BYU:
Today a wagon wheel continues to travel between Provo and Logan, Utah. It doesn’t carry people; it carries the pride of the Cougar and Aggie football faithful.
The USU-BYU rivalry has survived despite the fact that the two schools have played a mismatching conference shell game for the past half century. In fact, to the outsider looking in it appears that BYU has tried to freeze out Utah State—other than their rivalry game.
Everything went smoothly until 1961. For the forty years prior, the two schools had been conference mates, first in the Rocky Mountain and then the Skyline Conference. But in 1961, BYU bolted for newly established Western Athletic Conference (WAC). Utah State was not extended an invitation. Things were said disparaging Utah State’s small stadium, but grumblings about a downstate freeze out ruled the day.
Utah State tried repeatedly to gain admission to the WAC during the decades that followed. Eight times they tried, according to one scorekeeper. To no avail. “USU Aggies Remain WAC Bridesmaid,” read a typical Ogden Standard-Examiner headline.
When Utah State finally gained entry into the WAC, it was because BYU (at Utah) had left. Then the process repeated itself with the Mountain West Conference. BYU and Utah had successful runs in the Mountain West (1999-2010), while USU remained shut out of the new conference. Once BYU left the MWC, Utah State got in. The entire conference saga has been, as one reporter put it, “an in-state elbow slam of long-standing.”
But, and this is the key thing, the Old Wagon Wheel rivalry game has lived on. Often held on LDS General Conference weekend, the Aggies of Logan and the Cougars of Provo continued to bring their teams and fans together for a football game. There have been a few missed years. But 65 times in the past 70 years, the Old Wagon Wheel game has gone off.
And therein is the reason to celebrate. Rivalries matter. In-state and regional connections really matter. As longtime college football writer Ivan Maisel clarified, “When teams are in the same state, there’s always a certain toxicity.” He meant that in a good way. So regardless of who hoists (rolls away?) the Old Wagon Wheel this Friday evening, the fact that the game is being played might just be what matters most.