It sits in a place of honor now, encased in glass and frozen in time, regal in its surroundings yet somehow sad and forlorn.
The Old Mountain Jug is a prisoner.
I held it myself once, felt its impressive weight, ice cold from the elements, dinged and worn from being passed from hand to hand, fought over on bitter Saturdays on cold gridirons and transported through mountain passes, usually in the backseat of a car.
Through the years, the old moonshine jug was hauled from Cullowhee to Boone, the symbol of a doomed rivalry that was never all that heated, a kind of lukewarm rivalry between a couple of colleges shrouded in clouds.
But to the schools themselves, and the alumni scattered in and around the hollers of North Carolina, the “Battle for the Old Mountain Jug” was more than a quaint tradition. It was a reunion of kin and a football game played for bragging rights and little else.
“I miss it,” Jerry Moore, the former football coach at Appalachian State, said last month. “I wish we still played Western Carolina.”
There’s a wistfulness in the memory of a rivalry that ended abruptly in 2013, and for old Catamounts like myself, something closer to wrath wells up inside when we imagine that jug displayed in a trophy case, pointed in the wrong direction, held hostage by a school that won’t play us anymore.
But I digress.
The history of the jug is more interesting than the series between Western and App. The truth is, we didn’t see that jug all that often to start with.
It has its own history. The rivalry itself became a bit one-sided.
This the time of year when schools all over the country play their biggest antagonist, often with some sort of relic, some trophy or some weird object passed back and forth over time.
Colleges play for buckets or bells, urns or axes, statues and boots and kegs and wooden shoes. One series passes a bronze pig back and forth. Another rivalry features a platypus. In the most crass rivalries, the trophies are sponsored.
When two old sports information directors got together in the early '70s, one from Western and the other from Appalachian, they decided they needed to do something to make the annual late-November game between the Catamounts and the Mountaineers more interesting.
Steve White at Western and Rick Layton at App passed ideas back and forth before settling on some type of feud between mountain families, a kind of Hatfields vs. McCoys type feud.
Up until then, the two schools separated by miles of mountains and little else, were both old teachers colleges. In fact, there was a time when just about every single teacher in western North Carolina had graduated from either Appalachian State Teachers College or Western Carolina Teachers College.
The rivalry existed in classrooms, from kindergarten to high school, and mountain kids through the ages were asked to choose sides.
And then in the mid-70s, Roby Triplett, the old student bookstore manager at App State, found a moonshine jug on his father’s land in Caldwell County, had his wife, Dee, paint it in garish gold then etched a Mountaineer smoking a corncob pipe on one side and the face of a Catamount on the other.
A trophy was born.
To this day, the original cork is in the jug, which still smells like moonshine if you were to pop it. It’s authentic as all get out.
For a generation, that jug went back and forth, sometimes kept in Bob Waters’ office when he coached at Western and sometimes in the App State office of Rick Covington, the SID that followed Layton.
“I used it as a door-stop,” Covington told me, knowing it would rile me.
Waters didn’t like anybody messing with it. He didn’t quite know what to make of it, so he eventually just made White keep up with it.
Western kept it for a few years, then Appalachian kept it for a few years. Then in 1985, App State just sort of kept it for good, winning 27 of the next 29 games of a series that Sports Illustrated had once called “the best rivalry you’ve never heard of.”
There was a reason for that.
I was there for the last two WCU wins, once in 1998 and again in 2004. I was in the post-game interviews, and the jug was on this table with the Mountaineer facing us, and I stood up, walked to the table and turned the jug around so the Catamount was facing us.
That might’ve been the last time anyone ever did that.
It sits wrong-sided now in the trophy case on the fourth floor of the Appalachian Athletics Center, the Catamount forced to face a blank wall as onlookers gaze at the jug and wonder what in the world they’re looking at.
They’re looking at history and a rivalry lost to progress. App State now plays schools such as Texas State, La-Lafayette and something called South Alabama. Western played the real Alabama last weekend, by the way. I forget what the score was.
After 2013, when App State bolted the Southern Conference for the Sun Belt Conference, the schools ended the series, possibly forever. And for the first time in a long time, the bitterness in a rivalry no one had ever heard of rose to the tip of the jug. App State suggested it would be willing to play Western again some day but it would never go to Cullowhee. That means App State would actually have to pay Western to come to Boone.
Those are fighting words.
There was a time when words went back and forth in the days leading up to the big game, and then we’d all go our separate ways and celebrate Thanksgiving with our families, the Hatfields and the McCoys, staring at each other across the hollers.
That’s all gone now. They took our jug and locked it in a glass cell, forcing it to celebrate Thanksgiving alone and in silence.
If only we could pop that cork one more time, for the good times.
Nah, they weren’t that good to begin with.
Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.
You too, App.