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The Duel in the Desert: The history and tradition of the Territorial Cup®

November 21, 2018

Arizona State University and the University of Arizona have one of the longest-standing rivalries between two colleges in the United States, but how many know how it started? With the big 2018 Territorial Cup® football game coming up on Nov. 24 at 1:30 p.m. at University of Arizona, it’s the perfect time to clear up some of the dust surrounding the Duel in the Desert.

Back in 1885, before Arizona was even a state, the University of Arizona and the Territorial Normal School — the original name of ASU — were founded and placed in their respective cities: Tucson and Tempe. By both being legislatively founded on the same day, the competition between the two has gone back to day one, fighting for funding, boosters and public support.

The rivalry came to a head during the Arizona Territorial Football League Championship Cup on Thanksgiving Day 119 years ago — the first-ever Territorial Cup Game. The Normal School defeated U of A 11–2, awarding the Normal School the prize of the original Territorial Cup®.

Students in yellow No Pity for the Kitty shirts at the 2015 Territorial Cup

The cup was presented to the team in January 1900. Then for 83 years, it disappeared.

It was found again in the closet of the First Congregational Church of Tempe in 1983 and returned to what was now called Arizona State University.

Now each year, in the culminating game of ASU’s and U of A’s football season, the two teams fight for the oldest trophy in NCAA history. Since ASU won the cup last year, it was driven up from Tucson to Tempe by Rob Spindler, ASU’s archivist, and has been kept in Hayden Library since for safekeeping and display. For Spindler, winning the Territorial Cup ® is more than just about the bragging rights.

“When we win I don't have to go to Tucson!” Spindler explained. “But ultimately I feel like we have always been the underdog, and I like underdogs. U of A was a university from the start. ASU had to build one from a tiny normal school!”

Spindler said the tradition of the Territorial Cup® is important for students to keep because it reminds us of our roots as a school.

“I think this serves as an annual reminder that the two institutions have more in common than we have differences, that history is relevant to who we are today, and that this story originated in collegiality rather than anger and jealousy,” Spindler said. “The Territorial Cup story reminds us of our responsibilities in the areas of sportsmanship, leadership, honor and memory if we can get past the hype and immerse ourselves in the history of our respective institutions and this great football rivalry.”

Many Sun Devils fans will be at the big game to make sure we keep the cup here in Tempe. Jacob Phillabaum, an ASU senior studying business, is the president of the Poly Inferno Insiders, a student club dedicated to promoting schoolwide spirit and tradition by informing students about athletic events on all campuses. He’ll be heading down to watch the game in the Arizona Stadium and wants his fellow Sun Devils to join him.

We are going down there trying to negate the home-field advantage U of A might have and really show up and prove this is our state!” Phillabaum said.

His one request to students: “Show that Arizona is our state and that it bleeds maroon and gold!”

Be a part of history this year at Arizona Stadium for the Territorial Cup® game at 1:30 p.m. on Nov. 24. #ForksUp, Devils!