What Are They Playing For? It’s About More Than A Trophy For Arizona, Arizona State

Written By C.J. Pierre on November 26, 2021 - Last Updated on January 30, 2023
Duel In The Desert Arizona Arizona State College Football

This season, the University of Arizona and Arizona State football teams meet for the 95th time. It is one of the oldest rivalries in college football, dating back to 1899.

Over the years, many of the games have not had championship implications. So those unfamiliar with this feud may wonder why this game is so important to the players, coaches and fans.

The winner will take home the Territorial Cup. The prize the teams will battle over has its own storied history and, in a way, represents the bad blood that has built up over decades between the two schools.

Arizona vs. Arizona State: History of the Territorial Cup

The Territorial Cup has been certified by the NCAA as the oldest rivalry trophy in the United States. What many people may not know is that the actual trophy has a unique history.

For example, the cup’s name refers to the fact that, at the time of the rivalry’s inception over 120 years ago, Arizona was a US territory. Arizona would not become a state until 1912.

The cup, made of solid silver over Britannia base metal, was created by Reed & Barton, a Massachusetts-based silversmith manufacturer. It was originally priced at $20, which would be the equivalent of about $560 in this day and age.

Cup not intended to be used as a rivalry trophy

The Territorial Cup was not originally meant to be used as the prize for the ASU-UArizona winner.

Rather, the trophy was made to crown the champion of the Arizona Territorial Football League. ASU, then called the Normal School, won all three of its games over Phoenix Union High School, Phoenix Indian School and the University of Arizona to earn the title of champion. The inscription on the cup itself reads “Arizona Foot Ball League Championship 1899 Normal.”

Mystery of the missing Territorial Cup

Shortly after the 1899 football season, the cup vanished.

No one seems to know how and why it disappeared, but it was missing for over 80 years. Then, out of nowhere, it was discovered in a church basement in Tempe around 1980 and returned to ASU to be displayed on campus.

ASU-UArizona becomes official trophy game in 2001

In January 1996, ASU put the Territorial Cup on display at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport ahead of Super Bowl XXX, which was being played in Tempe. One day, some Wildcats alumni recognized the cup and reached out to ASU to ask about borrowing it to display on their campus.

This led to discussions between the two schools. Eventually, the presidents of both schools reached an agreement that the winner of the annual “Duel in the Desert” football game would be given the cup to showcase at their university throughout the following year.

The trophy wasn’t shared between the two rival universities until 2001, when the Wildcats defeated ASU 34-21 in Tempe.

Tale of two trophies

The original Territorial Cup is over 100 years old, so as you can imagine it is pretty fragile. A replica was eventually made to be used for on-field celebrations.

In the agreement between the two schools, the original cup must always be handled with white cotton gloves and never be cleaned. Meanwhile, the replica can be cleaned as needed using an appropriate silver cleaner or polish.

ASU-UArizona bad blood goes back decades

Shane Dale, a UArizona alum who authored two books on the rivalry between the Wildcats and the Sun Devils, spoke with PlayAZ about the storied history of the intrastate feud.

Dale’s book — Territorial: The History of the Duel in the Desert, published in 2013 — dives into the on- and off-field drama that makes this rivalry one of the most heated and emotional in the country. No matter if it was for athletic, geographical, political or personal reasons.

“It’s interesting because it’s how personal it is and how a lot of things haven’t changed,” Dale said. “The people I talked to that played in the rivalry in the ’50s and ’60s talk the same way about it as the people who played in it recently.”

Dale also said that the rivalry is as much Phoenix vs. Tucson as it is Sun Devils vs. Wildcats, referencing the efforts made by UArizona to stop ASU from becoming an established university.

“In 1958, when ASU was trying to become ASU through a referendum called Prop 200, U of A tried to prevent that from happening,” said Dale. “They’d be the only university in the state. They even burned the words, ‘No 200,’ in the grass of ASU’s stadium before the big vote in 1958.”

Arizona-Arizona State most intense rivalry in all of sports

Dale’s second book, titled Rich Rod vs Graham: Six Years of America’s Most Intense Rivalry, includes two studies that together found the ASU-UArizona feud as the most intense rivalry in all of sports. Not just in college football. Dale thinks a big reason for that is because the two schools are on an island: They are the only two FBS schools in the state.

“You look at Michigan-Ohio State. Ohio State is not Michigan’s only rival. They also have Michigan State. So the focus is kind of splintered there,” said Dale. “Arizona’s only big rival is Arizona State and vice versa. There are some other big games from time to time. In basketball Arizona-UCLA is big, but in football that is the only big rivalry. The next FBS school is a good five hours away out of state.”

Photo by Courtesy of Arizona State
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C.J. Pierre

CJ Pierre is a multimedia journalist currently residing in the Phoenix-Metro Area in Arizona. He has been covering news and sports for over a decade for both online and TV broadcasts. He was born and raised in Minneapolis and an alum of Minnesota State University: Moorhead. CJ has experience as a reporter and videographer and has covered high school, college and professional sports throughout his career. Most notably following Arizona Cardinals, Phoenix Suns, Minnesota Vikings and North Dakota State University football.

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