Vandals set to play for Little Brown Stein again

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In 1937, with a scanty gathering of about 5,000 sodden observers at Moscow’s Neale Stadium, Idaho football might have made history.

Disregard for a moment the expected narrative of this bout, which likely prompted the creation of the new Little Brown Stein — at the time, it was a whole lot more important than the forthcoming wooden, suds-inspired trophy.

Montana was considered “one of the nation’s best” by the Gem of the Mountains Idaho yearbook, citing the “dreadnaught” Griz rushing attack and their 6-0 record, compared to the Vandals’ 3-3-1 mark.

So when Idaho handed Montana its first and only loss of the year, 6-0, it proved something.

It proved that, even against seemingly insuperable odds, the then-34-year-old tilt between two ascending, land-grant institutions in the Inland Northwest — the usually “orphan” members of the Pacific Coast Conference, according to a 1947 edition of the Bend Bulletin — might go either way.

“That’s what you want in a rivalry,” said modern-day UI defensive coordinator Mike Breske, on contested affairs.

All this must have spurred the creation of that aforementioned “jug,” as it’s intermittently been called. Then, none could have foreseen that the mad itch to grasp it would stretch 80 years into the future, past periods without matchups, to the present.

A 1959 Tribune clip sheds a little light on that hankered-after cup, which UI kept the year of its creation before losing for three seasons — the Vandals hold a 55-27-2 all-time advantage, though never possessed the stein for a full decade.

It’s an 18-inch-tall, one-gallon German-esque drinking mug, boasting decals in either Vandal gold or UM silver the victors and years of each contest. It’s hard to gauge how much open space is on its surface.

In bygone days, those numbers were painted on; Breske said “it’s been updated at some point.”

Idaho and Montana officials met before the 1938 campaign, declaring that the Griz would fashion the stein, while the Vandals had the task of engraving lettering onto it.

It was Missoula journalist John T. Campbell who the responsibility fell upon.

“Campbell actually came up with the idea for the name,” said longstanding and now-retired UM sports information director Dave Guffey. “He was an old-school guy. He actually worked over at the Missoulian and was the sports information director for the Griz for a long time.”

Whether Campbell chose to copy a previous design or bank on the simplicity of the project isn’t entirely clear.

Could the concept have materialized via the massive, late-19th-century expansion of western Europeans to Missoula and Moscow for logging and farming prosperity? Perhaps the Missoulian, Scottish “Highlander Beer” mania or German influence played a role. Or maybe Campbell just snagged his favorite lager receptacle, gave it a quick rinse, and turned it in due to procrastination. “Both towns do like their beer,” chipped in Montana associate athletic director for internal operations, Chuck Maes, who’s worked at Montana for 30 years.

It’s sat undisturbed in Montana’s “Hall of Champions” for 18 years, in the “2000s” sector of the football division. With a card commemorating Campbell and its significance balanced against it, the stein collected dust until staffers freshened it up in preparation for the summer’s Big Sky media days.

It’s easily the oldest traveling trophy in the conference, a commemoration returning to life that’s moniker has been featured in nearly every headline relating to a Idaho/Montana clash.

“It’s wooden with a dark stain, but I couldn’t tell you the kind,” said Missoula native and Montana sports information director Eric Taber. “It’s such a unique trophy. … The fact it’s remained in one piece and that it’s still around is amazing. We’ve made a point of keeping it because the rivalry means so much.”

Maybe it’s been kept relatively intact because in 1938, the schools made a pact to devise and maintain a “symbol of good will,” wrote the Tribune. It’s probably good that there’s no records of brew being gulped out of it; even in 1959, it was considered a relic.

“Whether the Little Brown Stein has ever actually been filled and quaffed from isn’t known,” the article reads. “Chances are it would leak at the seams today.”

The rivalry, in itself, has sprung a leak in the last decade and a half — Montana and Idaho played five times from 1999-2003, but during the Vandals’ longtime FBS experiment, the football feud died down.

On Saturday, though, any sorts of punctures will begin to mend, as the Vandals and Grizzlies meet in the Kibbie Dome for their first conference scrap since ’95.

“That tradition goes back to being land-grant universities in the states,” said Breske, who coached in two separate stints with UM — at its height in the early 2000s, where he won a national championship (2001), then in the 2010s.

“Being roughly 200 miles apart as the crow flies, it’s always been competitive. Idaho hates Montana; Montana hates Idaho.”

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