UNIVERSITY PARK - Among the great things about college football are the trophy games. Those contests where the winner has a souvenir from beating its rival always give the game a little something extra.
But the trophy for which Penn State and Michigan State will be playing on Saturday bears only one significant distinction. The Land-Grant Trophy is - beyond the shadow of a doubt - the ugliest trophy in all of sports.
Have you ever seen it? Probably not - because the winner never displays it all that prominantly. It's like that ugly sweater your grandmother gives you for Christmas, that you only wear at Christmas when she's around - and bury it in your closet the rest of the time.
Submitted by Penn State University
The Land-Grant Trophy is awarded to the winner of the annual Penn State-Michigan State football game.
All kidding aside, the trophy looks as though it were designed by some guy they locked in his den, only allowed him to use items he found in the room and gave him just 10 minutes to make something resembling a trophy.
Its base is nothing more than a gigantic hunk of wood with many smaller pieces attached for shelving and "asthetic" reasons. One side has a large plaque that says simply "Land-Grant Trophy Winners" with 76 - yes, 76 even though the trophy has only been played for 16 times previously - small plaques beneath it where the winning team's name and year of victory are etched. This gives it all the attractiveness of one of those wall displays to list the yearly champions of an Elk's Lodge bowling league.
But at least we're good on space for winners' names through the 2068 contest, right?
On one shelf is a miniature replica of the Nittany Lion shrine that you can probably buy for anywhere from $20 to $100 at any store in State College. On the other is a miniature "Sparty" statue that bears a greater resemblance to an Oscar. At the top is a small figurine of a player running while carrying a football that looks just like the adornment on awards most pee-wee football players received this year.
At the bottom are a pair of photographs, one of Penn State's Old Main and the other of Michigan State's Beaumont Tower - the landmark building of each university.
Essentially, you could reasonably build your own life-size replica of the trophy for about $300.
But the whole reason that the Nittany Lions and Spartans play for a trophy in the first place is - the reason for all things in major college football - money.
Once Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, the folks in charge (aka, TV networks) felt as though the Lions needed a conference "rival." Michigan State and Penn State are both land grant colleges, hence the name of the trophy. But five other Big Ten schools also are land grant schools (Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin), so it's not like it's unique only to these two. The two are, however, the oldest land-grant colleges and the two most recent additions to the Big Ten (Michigan State began play in 1949). That's my best guess as to why these two are "rivals."
The only other thing that these two alleged rivals have in common is that they were the first U.S. colleges to be featured on a postage stamp - a lovely 3-cent number in 1955 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the land-grant schools.
The designation of Michigan State as Penn State's "rival" led to a trophy as a means to show the world that this isn't just the last game of the season, but that both teams really do care.
So former Michigan State coach George Perles was tasked with designing the glorious piece of hardware that would be on the line each year. Guess it's a good thing he was a football coach and not an architect, artist or interior decorator.
As ugly as the trophy is, however, both teams still want to win it. Penn State needs a victory to stay in BCS contention and Michigan State needs a good win to get a solid bowl.
But basically - to borrow a turn of phrase from one of my favorite authors of all time, Dr. Seuss - this trophy has all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile.
And given the choice between the two of them, I'd take the seasick crocodile.
Brian Cox is a Sentinel sports reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.