Most people know the basics (or if you read this site, about everything you’d ever want to know) about the story of the Little Brown Jug. To recap, back in 1903, Michigan and Minnesota’s powerful teams played in Minneapolis to a fiercely fought 6-6 tie.
After the game the Wolverines left behind a five gallon stoneware water jug, purchased at a local store before the game. Minnesota equipment manager Oscar Munson found it the following day or two and brought it to Director of Athletics L.J. Cooke. In remembrance of their mighty tie they decided to give the jug its first paint job, scribing, “Michigan Jug – ‘Captured’ by Oscar, October 31, 1903,” on one side. On the opposite face they spelled out, SCORE, “Minnesota 6, Michigan 6,” making the Minnesota “6” three times larger than the Wolverines’ score. Six years later Cooke and Michigan coach Fielding Yost agreed to play for the righteous crockery, something they’ve done 92 times now (if you count that 1903 game).
While the playing for the jug is of course one of the deepest and most replicated college football traditions, painting the jug actually is a practice that started before the teams even agreed to play for the pottery. After Cooke and Munson’s initial handicraft, the scores of the game have been painted on sometime after the game to this day.
The jug was split with two sides (Michigan on one, and Minnesota on the other) sometime after the 1919 contest. The columns of scores were added in the 1920s, and it received a new design in the 1930s including a reformulated Minnesota block ‘M’ that we see today. Eventually the four columns were inserted (two on each side) to hold all the scores of the games.
The Wolverines of course retained the jug this year after the dominant 58-0 triumph over the Gophers in Ann Arbor back in October. As the final seconds ticked off, equipment manager Jon Falk handed the jug to the players who paraded the trophy around the field and over to the student section in the northwest corner of the Big House.
After the game there was still one more bit of work to do before tucking the jug away for another season: the 58-0 score needed to be painted on. For the past several decades, when the Wolverines win the crock, the primary owner of the honor of painting the score on the crock has been Jil Gordon, a local artist.
Gordon was first involved with the football team back when her former husband Larry was a graduate assistant for Bo in the early 1970s. Larry noticed that the team meeting room was bland and suggested to Bo and the other coaches that he had the solution—they agreed to let Jil spice it up.
“In the main meeting room, where they had the 8MM projector, right behind it, always was a theme for the season,” Gordon told me. They asked Gordon to use her skills to decorate a wall each year, but she didn’t stop there.
“I’d do signs, all kinds of motivational posters,” she shared. Gordon was even asked, on occasion, to do a few touch-ups around campus including the block ‘M’ above the tunnel in the Big House.
When it came to updating the score on the Little Brown Jug each season she was the natural choice, and she started after Falk’s first season in Ann Arbor in 1974. After she moved out to California for a few years, Falk quickly restored her old duty she returned to live in Ann Arbor for good.
On the Monday morning following the big win over Minnesota this season Gordon was back at it. In the Schembechler Hall equipment room, Falk placed the jug on a large, well-lit table. Jil carefully etched this year’s score first in a pencil outline.
After an initial coat in black paint was allowed to dry for five minutes, Gordon went over the numbers one last time. Once it was done, Jon Falk tucked it away in a secret location in its specially-designed case for another year.
And for the most part, that’s it. There is the matter of the replica (often mistaken as the real trophy) that’s on display in the museum just inside Schembechler Hall. Gordon also typically paints that jug but this year when she was in doing the job on the official trophy, didn’t have the keys handy to open the display case.
She still does various touch-up jobs around the athletic campus and even paints the occasional honorary game ball for not only Coach Hoke (she did one with the ‘Under the Lights’ logo after the Notre Dame game), but also for Coach Beilein.
There are 92 scores painted on the jug dating back to 1903, including 67 Michigan wins, 22 for the Gophers, three ties (1903, 1933, and 1950) with just one slot remaining in the current four column configuration. So the big question remains: What will happen when we run out of space?
To steal Sam Webb’s phrase, my gut feeling is that if Michigan makes that call, Gordon and Falk will add some scores in the empty space above (and eventually below) the M logos for each team. If anyone deserves to make that call it’s Falk and after all, it is technically Michigan’s jug—I’m sure there’s a receipt from 1903 somewhere. This will cover us for many games to come and push off the big decision for a few decades. We’ll find out what happens soon enough.