One of the few, the proud: Dakota Marker is a rare rivalry trophy in FCS football

FARGO — When it comes to two college football teams playing for some sort of trophy, nobody is better at it than the Big Ten Conference. The league has 18 games where some sort of prize is up for grabs.
The University of Minnesota, for instance, plays Nebraska for the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy, Penn State for the Governor’s Victory Bell, Michigan for the Little Brown Jug and Wisconsin for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. It’s getting to the point where almost half of the Gophers’ games are fought for something besides a victory.
North Dakota State, meanwhile, plays South Dakota State Saturday, Nov. 4, for the Dakota Marker. It’s the only trophy game of the season for the Bison — and that’s fine with head coach Chris Klieman.
“I’m glad it’s the only one,” he said. “It does add some importance, but in the same respect, I’m not a fan of multiple trophy games. I’m glad to have just one.”
NDSU is not alone in the FCS of having just one. It just doesn’t seem like the hip thing to do at the subdivision and certainly in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. The Bison and Jackrabbits are the only Valley teams to play for a trophy.
“That does surprise me,” said SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier. “If you have it in your building, it reminds you of a victory over a rival. It’s like getting a trophy at the end of a wrestling match, it’s proof.”
It remains to be seen if NDSU and University of North Dakota find something other than the Nickel Trophy, which was retired after the 2003 game when UND changed its nickname. UND joins the Missouri Valley in 2020. The Nickel had a buffalo on one side and a Native American head on the other and since the Sioux nickname went away in favor of the Fighting Hawks, the Nickel also left the building.
The Sitting Bull Trophy waged between UND and the University of South Dakota also was retired. The trophy was created after a 1950s disagreement on which state was home to the final resting place for the legendary Native American leader.
There was a time when NDSU and UND was the longest-running rivalry in NCAA Division II. Now that both are Division I, the oldest FCS rivalry west of the Mississippi River belongs to Montana State and the University of Montana, with a history dating back to 1897.
The “Brawl of the Wild” game is one that captures the attention of the state of Montana every year. Just ask DJ Colter, a Fargo insurance agent who played for Montana in the late 1990s.
He vividly remembers the 1997 game when the Grizzlies were in danger of losing to MSU for the first time in 13 years.
“I was a sophomore on the sidelines thinking that I wasn’t going home for Christmas to face that ridicule from everyone,” he said. “Thank God we pulled it out and I never lost to them.”
In Colter’s day, the game was played for a trophy with a similar “Brawl of the Wild” name. But in 2001, both sides came up with the Great Divide Trophy. It’s a replica of Bear Mountain in Glacier National Park, with a bobcat going up one side and a grizzly bear on the other with a football at the summit.
Like the Dakota Marker, it’s not light. After the game, the norm is for the winning team to run over to a pickup that has the trophy in the back cab and bring it to their fans.
That’s probably a norm in most trophy games. After the final horn in the Maine and New Hampshire rivalry, the winning team heads right for the Brice-Cowell Musket, an encased gun from the 1720s that’s been fought for on the football field since the 1940s. It’s named after legendary head coaches at both schools.
“It becomes this prominent thing that everybody holds up, like a Stanley Cup,” said Mike Murphy, the associate athletic director for communications at New Hampshire. “It’s a huge deal.”
The game is normally the last one of the year, but a scheduling quirk this season made it the season opener, a 24-23 New Hampshire victory.
The Black Bears haven’t seen much of the musket lately. The Wildcats have won eight straight and 15 of the last 16.
“Traditionally it’s the last game of the year and no matter what each team’s record is, everything is on the line,” Murphy said. “It’s preached that way at both schools.”
UNH’s Colonial Athletic Association is slightly more into the rivalry trophy thing than the Valley. Delaware and Villanova play for the Battle of the Blue Trophy and Richmond and William & Mary play for the Capital Cup.
The Southland Conference is the apparent leader with five trophy games. The Ivy League has its share, although only three are fought within the conference.
“I’m definitely surprised (there aren’t more) because I see how it evokes emotion here,” Murphy said. “There are so many rivalries out there. If you have a border rivalry, you should have something to go along with it. Some concrete thing to earn, whether it’s an axe or a cup. In our case, it’s pretty unique and we’ve gotten some national recognition because of it.”
The Dakota Marker was created in 2004 by student groups from NDSU and SDSU. They kicked it off with a celebration at the site of a real Dakota Marker on the state border near Hankinson, N.D.
“It’s bragging rights, it’s a great rivalry,” Stiegelmeier said. “I think it adds a neat and special meaning to it. I think the whole concept of when we left Division II we went together and created this trophy.”