In 1949 Michigan voters elected Gerhard Mennen Williams as the state’s 41st governor. Williams would serve a then record six two-year terms before choosing not to seek re-election in 1960. During his 12 years in office, Williams improved the state’s educational programs, school facilities and teachers’ salaries. But his two most notable accomplishments were the construction of Mackinac Bridge, connecting the Upper Peninsula with the southern half of the state and the creation of the Paul Bunyan – Governor of Michigan Trophy.
Donated by Governor Williams in 1953 to honor Michigan State’s entry into the Big Ten, the trophy has been awarded to the winner of the Michigan versus Michigan State game each season ever since.
Depicting the legendary Paul Bunyan, standing astride an axe with full beard and plaid flannel shirt, the trophy stands at four feet high with feet planted on a map of the state and school flags on each side laying claim to their half. As if a four foot wooden lumberjack wasn’t large enough for a trophy, the figure is mounted on top of a five foot wooden stand, making it one of the largest trophies in all sports.
The Paul Bunyan Trophy on display at Michigan State in 2009
However in the weeks leading up to November 14, 1953 game, there was quite a bit of criticism surrounding the trophy. MSU was excited about the trophy and looked forward to its on-field presentation. However Michigan didn’t see much point to it, and even felt any trophy being presented should be more student-driven. Local pundits cynically believed Williams was presenting the trophy as a publicity stunt because the game was going to be broadcast on NBC.
The trophy was shown during pre-game, the Spartans won the game and were happy to keep the trophy in East Lansing.
Not too long ago, the Spartan equipment managers thought the game was pretty much over, with the Spartans trailing 23-21 with less than a minute to go. Hoping for a quick get-a-way, they had already turned over the Paul Bunyan trophy. But the Wolverines botched their final punt, the Spartans recovered the football, and ran it in for the winning score as time expired. The equipment managers had to scramble to get it back! A classic example of it ain’t over ’til it’s over.
More Fun Facts
- Governor G. Mennen Williams was nicknamed “Soapy” because his grandfather founded the Mennen brand of deodorant and grooming products.
- It cost $1400 to make the trophy. Williams paid for this out of his own pocket.
- A handful of Spartan fans were so happy with the trophy that they offered to contribute money to offset the trophy’s cost.
A Few Other Trophies That MSU Has Fought For over the Years
• Megaphone Trophy: Michigan State vs. Notre Dame (1949)
• Old Brass Spittoon: Michigan State vs. Indiana (1950)
• Land Grant Trophy: Michigan State vs. Penn State (1993)
Michigan Has Its Own Game Trophies:
- Little Brown Jug: Michigan vs. Minnesota (1903)
Paul Bunyan Trophy Article courtesy of Rivalry Trophy.
Doug Hills, ” Through the Years: The Paul Bunyan Trophy “, Maize and Blue News.com.
Gray Papke, “Michigan State equipment staff left Michigan rivalry trophy before final play“, October 18, 2015.