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Family Stories and The Territorial Cup: The Oldest Intercollegiate Rivalry Trophy in the US

Every year an intense rivalry football game takes place between Arizona State University and the University of Arizona. As the game gets closer, I tend to remember an awesome picture of my 2nd great-grandfather on my mom’s side of the family named Alma Morgan Davis. The mentioned picture is one of Alma and the rest of the Tempe Normal School (now known as Arizona State University) 1899-1900 football team posing with the silver Territorial Cup. This territorial cup, we now know, is actually the oldest intercollegiate rivalry trophy in the United States; and before I dive in, I want to give a bit of background information about my family connection.

For context, Alma Morgan Davis, again my 2nd great grandfather on my mom’s side of the family, was born on March 21, 1883 in Utah to William George Davies and Esther Harrison. At a young age his mother passed away and he moved to Arizona along with his father. Alma’s father was not very formally educated, but valued education and higher thinking, so when the time came, he always encouraged his children to continue their education. During Alma’s final years of grade school, his school principal also talked often of higher education, specifically of Tempe Normal School, which today is known as Arizona State University. With these encouragements and planted seeds, Alma decided that he was going to attend Normal School when the time came; and when Alma was 13 years old, he graduated school.

At this time, William, Alma’s father, had just purchased a large portion of land for farming and all the siblings were expected to help out to some extent. Alma writes however “because I was so large for my age, I was expected to do a man’s work; but Father felt that I should go on to school.” With his father’s blessing, Alma enrolled in Tempe Normal School at the age of 13. In reality, you had to be at least 15 years old to enroll, but Alma was a big kid and never mentioned his age because no one asked!

When Alma was a Junior, his friends convinced him to join the football team where he later became captain at some point. He much enjoyed football and fully embraced the sport. It was the 1899 season that he was a part of that became famous, especially because there is a surviving photograph of the entire team with the won territorial cup.

Up to this point, football had only started to make its way to the Phoenix Valley in the 1890’s. It was still very young and is quite different than how we know the game today. A handful of news stories from the 1890’s depicts few friendly games between different local schools throughout the territory of Arizona starting to set the groundwork for future organization. Tempe Normal School’s football team was more or less unofficially organized in 1896 when professor Frederick Irish put together a practice squad to learn and play the sport. As a side note, Professor Irish was a prolific science teacher and military science commander and was my 2nd great grandfather Alma’s favorite teacher. One of the oldest photographs in the University’s archives is one of professor Irish’s chemistry class, where if you look carefully, you can see Alma standing on the right!

So Frederick Irish lead the practice squad and the team grew, eventually playing their first competitive game in 1897 against Phoenix Indian School, where they lost 38 to 20. That happened to be the only game they played in 1897 and the following year of 1898 they did not play any games at all. But when 1899 rolled around, they were prepared with a fuller season scheduled and it was this season that would go down in the history books.

The Normals were relatively new to the scene, getting their start in football a few years later than some of the other schools in the region, but nonetheless, they were about to prove their worth. The famous 1899 season started out with a game against the Phoenix Indian School. The “clean hard-fought game” ended in a 6-0 win for the Normal School. There was a rematch of this game that was more contested, with both teams claiming victory. The next game was against Phoenix High School. News coverage stated that the high school was “outclassed and out played at every point” and this game also ended in a 6-0 win for the Normals.

The season pinnacled in a game against the University of Arizona located in Tucson, Arizona. By this time in history, a rivalry had already been established mainly between the cities of Tucson and Phoenix with its surrounding cities. Both the Tempe Normal School and the University of Arizona were legislatively founded on the same day in 1885 and both began to compete for boosters and other funding. One of the first recorded feuds was a substantial project eventually awarded to Normal School that included funding for a mental institution and “insane asylum”. Also, Tucson had recently lost its status as the capitol of the Territory of Arizona to Phoenix, and the people there were definitely disappointed. All this provided fuel to the competition and rivalry that has lasted to this day.

This first “Big Game” took place on a sunny Thanksgiving Day in Tucson in 1899. The Normals took a train to Tucson and were greeted royally by the students at the University of Arizona. The game started and both teams fought hard to score points. At half time, neither team had scored, but the Normals kicked it into gear and started scoring in the second half. At the end of the game, the score held 11-2 favoring the Normals, after which all the players on both teams came together and had a Thanksgiving dinner. The Normals went on to play a few more games and ended their season with a record of 5 wins, 1 loss and 1 tie.

On Friday January 26th, 1900, the team gathered together with many fans, students, and faculty to celebrate and participate in an award ceremony. Professor F. M. Irish, a science and military professor as well as the football coach and great friend to Alma, presented the team with the silver Territorial Cup. The team also posed on the steps of Old Main where their team picture was taken in full uniform. Seen in the picture are the players as well as the cup and a leashed owl, which was the school’s first mascot before Sparky. (I also had this picture colorized a few years ago!)

Interestingly enough, the journey of the territorial cup after the award ceremony is largely a mystery. One newspaper column reported that the cup would be placed in the normal halls along with other trophies of the school, but the actual whereabouts were a mystery. Though the cup represented the winners of the rivalry, the physical cup itself actually mysteriously disappeared and slipped into myth. In 1983, at the First Congregational Church of Tempe on Sixth Street, Minister Ken Falk and ASU Professor Mac Bohlman discovered the cup just sitting there in a closet at the church. No evidence has emerged about how the cup got there, but upon discovery, the cup was returned to ASU and since has done its rounds being displayed between ASU and U of A. Since the rediscovery, much research has been done determining that this cup is indeed the oldest such collegiate rivalry cup in the United States.

So much history is preserved from this day and so much can be learned! A lasting competitive rival was formed between the University of Arizona and the Normals (now ASU). A territorial cup was established thereby making it the oldest such cup in the United States.

Additionally, some family history is learned! Investigating and reading these facts sheds light into daily life and celebratory life for an ancestor of mine, Alma Morgan Davis. I learn of his heart and love for sport and also can deduce that he was a rather good athlete! These kinds of facts about his character are cherished because he has passed on long ago. For me and future generations, this is how we can learn about him, who he was, and what he stood for.

So, what sports did your ancestors play, and what can you learn about it??

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