Photos by Paul Flessland
As the unified symbol of statewide dominance in North Dakota, the Nickel Trophy is 75 pounds of pride, glory and bragging rights. Since UND won the last custody battle in 2003, there have been a select few who have laid their eyes on this chunk of aluminum alloy. The mystery of its whereabouts led us to Grand Forks to finally catch a glimpse of history.
Walking into the Hyslop Sports Center in Grand Forks is like striding into a time machine. The double doors are old and heavy, the tile and walls are worn and battered. It reminded me of pacing in the dark hallways of the Bison Sports Arena, minus the crashing of weights coming from the ceiling and gigantic “Snorty” logo painted on the far north wall. Arriving with the title of “NDSU magazine guy” can be intimidating because you’re not only walking into the administrative offices of an in- state rival, you’re walking on their turf, their history and their tradition.
We’d come for the afternoon in hopes of snapping a photo of the famous Nickel Trophy, which no one in our party, consisting of me, a photographer and a sales rep, had seen.
Frankly, it seems like not very many people from NDSU have seen the Nickel Trophy since UND won the last game 28-21 in an overtime thriller in 2003. This majestic piece of football lore in North Dakota has been in Grand Forks, causing a detached Bison fan base to lose an emotional connectivity to the symbol of victory. Out of sight, out of mind seems to be the sentiment around Bison Nation. Today, they’re more worried about a browner trophy the football team has earned in Frisco the past four years.
But back before the FCS championships and national attention, before NDSU was ESPN’s darling and before the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the Nickel had been the goal. No matter your record or what happened a week or month prior, obtaining the Nickel was NDSU’s “Granddaddy of Them All.”
“I made a statement on ‘Football America’ that if you win the game, it’s good. But if you lose the game, it’s 364 days of hell,” Rocky Hager said, recalling his time in the rivalry 19 years after his departure from NDSU. “Because everybody asks you if you’re going to get them this year and all that type of stuff. It’s fun. It’s part of the spirit and camaraderie, and it gets pretty intense in more than a way or two.”
Imagine 365 days of stress, battling for an oversized replica of the buffalo nickel, spanning 22 inches in diameter and two inches thick. The meaning behind bringing back the Nickel to your university has gotten coaches fired. From Pat Behrns in the ‘80s to Bob Babich in the early 2000s, your job, and your livelihood were in the hands of winning that particular game.
The Nickel was introduced to the annual NDSU-UND football game in 1938 when NDSU edged UND 17-13 in Fargo. The trophy is 250 times larger than its inspiration, the buffalo nickel, also known as the Indian Head nickel. Sculpted by James Earle Fraser, the buffalo nickel was produced from 1913 to 1938.
We were finally inside the waiting area of the UND Athletic office when Associate Athletic Director and Chief Financial Officer Randy Magill and New Media Editor Matt Schill met our team. We were instructed to walk through the Hyslop corridors to the gymnasium, ground zero for many great battles between the UND and NDSU women’s basketball teams.
Our photographer and sales rep went with Schill to set up the backdrop for the photo, and I followed Magill out of the gymnasium, deeper inside the Hyslop, near a back room. At the intersection of two long hallways, in the corner of the administrative office wing, we came to a small room. It was an unoccupied office filled with miscellaneous pieces of equipment, some clothing and old UND gear. At the end of the room was a door. Was the Nickel hiding in this abandoned closet the whole time?
The 50-something Magill pressed his glasses against his face and opened the closet door. He left the light off as he peeked his head in, scanning the small closet filled with clutter. “It’s not in here,” Magill said with a look of confusion. “What’s not in here?” I inquired, trying to sound concerned that they’d misplaced the Nickel Trophy prior to our visit. He retorted with a quick grumble, “The stand.”
Discouraged, my fantasy of the Nickel Trophy being held captive in a random closet in the heart of UND territory wasn’t true.
Magill led me out of the corner supply room and back to the gymnasium. We kept walking until we reached the east end of the gymnasium, where the garage door was open with sunshine forcing its way through onto the rubber sport-court material on the surface of the gym. We walked to his light blue Oldsmobile with North Carolina plates. Had the Nickel been inside Magill’s car this whole time and why no North Dakota plates? My anticipation was hitting its climax until small talk about golf and the beginning of football camp softened the tension between eager journalist and buttoned-up administrator.
You see, Magill moved to Grand Forks last December to become the UND Athletics’ CFO. He had been at UND for less than a year and he apparently knew the whereabouts of the 77-year-old Nickel. Or at least I thought he did. Remember, this is the same trophy that has been stolen back and forth between NDSU and UND and they were letting someone who was working at UNC-Wilmington less than a year ago holding it while a staff of journalists from Fargo was in town? The situation seemed off.
“I forgot my keys,” Magill said once we reached the car. He was fishing around his pocket the entire walk out of the Hyslop and had me dangling on a cliff of expectations about to take my first real-life look at the Nickel.
As the temptation built, I followed back into the Hyslop to wait for Magill as he retrieved his keys. While inside, our photographer and Schill were constructing the backdrop. I went to look for a replacement stand for the Nickel to lean on while we took pictures. I retrieved a wooden box the UND athletes left out from an agility workout and carried it over to the corner where the photos would be taken. This side task had pulled me away from Magill for less than two minutes. But once I placed the box on the ground next to our photographer’s feet, I looked up and saw a struggling Magill carrying the 75-pound Nickel through the east garage of the Hyslop before placing it on the ground to roll it over.
How in the devil did he sneak around me? I needed to confirm where the Nickel had come from. Did he suddenly find his keys in his pockets and retrieve the trophy from his car without me knowing? Was it even in his car? Was this all a misdirection plan to confuse me so I couldn’t confirm where the Nickel was coming from? The Nickel was certainly too heavy for him to retrieve safely by himself.
He didn’t want me to know where it came from. I had failed. UND had won. It was 2003 all over again.
I scurried over to him to lend a hand in rolling the beast nickel next to the set. There it was. The 75-pound aluminum alloy oversized 5-cent piece laying in front of me with the Sioux Indian head staring me in the face, smelling like a cup of spare change you’d leave in your car’s cup holder.
Magill said he’s one of the five people who know the whereabouts of the Nickel at all times. This group of trust, or email thread, is the only collection of individuals who can answer the question: where is the Nickel?
“It doesn’t stay in one place for too long,” Magill said. How long had it been in his trunk? Of course, I couldn’t confirm it was in there at all, but I knew it wouldn’t be there for long.
As we shot photos of the trophy – taking a little more time with the Bison side exposed – athletes and young coaches would approach us, take out their smartphones and snap a picture of the chunk of history UND had the everlasting rights to. Who knows when it would see the light of day again?
As quickly as it appeared, the Nickel was rolled away, outside the Hyslop and into, at least I think, Magill’s car.
The secrecy of the Nickels whereabouts is no surprise. The history of the Nickel being stolen from the safeguard of each university is a long and comical one.
“I know my office door in the stadium took a beating in this era due to some people from NDSU coming up to Grand Forks,” said former UND football coach and athletic director Roger Thomas. “They would break in and look around trying to steal the Nickel back. They’d jimmy open the door in my office numerous times, and it looked pretty rough around the lock.”
The most notable act of thievery came when NDSU students dressed as UND janitors, broke into the football offices and stole the Nickel. Thus began a countrywide tour for the Nickel that included trips to Niagara Falls and Mount Rushmore.
“They held it up in front of Mount Rushmore and took a picture of it and sent it to me saying, ‘Hey, we have the Nickel and we’re here in front of Mount Rushmore with it,’” remembers Thomas, chuckling over the phone.
But one astonishing fact about the Nickel hijinks that’s lost within the annals of its theft stories is the fact the Nickel never missed a game. Even more notable, the Nickel was never defaced nor destroyed.
“That tells you something about the quality of the rivalry as well,” said Thomas. “There was the utmost respect from program-to-program despite all the trash talk and everything. That piece of history remained, and wasn’t lost or wasn’t melted down or thrown away. I think everybody on both sides should be proud that that’s a neat piece of history in this thing.”
Through its 65-year history, the trophy has been passed back and forth 23 times with UND leading the trophy series 35-30, including wins in the last three contests. UND and the Bison will not compete for the rights of the Nickel, as the trophy has been retired along with the memories of the North Central Conference and each institution’s Division II football days.
NDSU’s Blue Key Chapter President Jon Lipp said, “There’s a general lack of interest in producing a new trophy” for this year’s game because “the complexity of such an arrangement between organizations, athletic departments and the like.”
And maybe that’s the right call. Let this piece of history live in the past and the stories of it being stolen back and forth from the universities be buried with it, only to come out for a story during dinner parties.
As for the actual Nickel itself? Well, we know it’s still out there. Whether it’s in the trunk of a light blue Oldsmobile or a random supply closet within the depths of the old Hyslop, the 75-pound piece of heritage and tradition is still out there, waiting for the next opportunity to be oo’d and aah’d while on display at some UND alumni party.