The Mystery of the Nickel Trophy

For sport fans, there are few items more important than a trophy. A trophy is a sign of winning. But what happens if a trophy disappears?

Bison fans need no reminder of the fierce rivalry with the University of North Dakota. Just waiting in line to get into any game will likely lead to singing about the “old abandon outhouse” to the north. Even if you come late to a football game, any first down serves as a reminder.

Yet, for any new additions to the Bison family, knowledge of the Nickel Trophy may be scarce. Yes, there is (or was) a trophy for the North Dakota State-UND football game. However, with the two teams meeting just twice in the span of 16 years, the trophy is no more.

The 75-pound trophy came into being back in 1938. It is 250 times larger than the coin it is a replica of — the Buffalo Nickel which circulated between 1916 and 1938.

UND gets credit for creating the trophy, their alum Robert Kunkel came up with the idea.

In the first contest, NDSU defeated the Fighting Sioux 17-13 to claim the Nickel. Over the next 26 years, the trophy would only call Fargo home for five.

Out of those 26 years, the Nickel would not leave Grand Forks for 12 years straight. The Bison did not beat UND once between 1953 and 1964. In that time, the Bison would lose by an average 17 points. The biggest losses came in 1954 and 1958, when the Bison trekked up to Grand Forks and lost 40-7 and 36-0, respectively.

Between 1981 and 1992, NDSU would take its turn to hold the trophy for 12 straight years. The largest thumping of the Fighting Sioux would take place in 1986. This time, the Herd would march into Grand Forks and drop 62 points on the home team. This is the second largest offensive explosion is series history, beaten only by the Bison’s 64-point explosion in 1969.

UND would win the last three contests before the series was put on hold due to NDSU moving up to Division I in 2003.

The trophy was not contested for in 2015.

“From the context of the game, you have to have a series then it makes a little more sense,” UND’s Athletics Director Brian Faison said.

Maybe it makes sense for the trophy to be retired, and now hidden in Grand Forks. Prior to the 2003 game, the Nickel was stolen often.

The last attempt by Bison fans came in 2002. As the story goes, a group of four students traveled up to up to Grand Forks, waltzed into Memorial Stadium and just took it.

The history of stealing the trophy goes all the way back to 1938. Only an hour and a half after it was unveiled at UND the trophy was gone, presumably taken by UND students.

That is nothing compared to the heist set up by UND students. Under the disguise of NDSU engineering students in 1998, UND students acquired plans for the NDSU Memorial Union. Armed with those plans and $10,000 worth of radio equipment, a student hid in the air duct before cutting the trophy free and bringing it back to Grand Forks.

Since the final game in 2003, the trophy has gone into hiding. There have been a handful of sightings since. It appeared during UND’s 125th anniversary. Bison Illustrated had a photo shoot with the trophy, but failed to learn of its storage location.

UND’s Randy Magill, the Associate Athletic Director and CFO, said the trophy “doesn’t stay in one place for too long.” Magill is part of a five person group who knows about the location of the trophy.

So somewhere up in Grand Forks, there is a trophy forgotten. One that will likely never be played for again. And also one that is steeped in history.

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