Little Brown Jug carries big history

Fred McCormick

The long-defunct rivalry between Warren Wilson and Montreat College men’s basketball may have been rekindled in conversations that preceded the teams’ thrilling game last Thursday in Swannanoa.

Winning the hard-fought match-up 101-87, the Warren Wilson College Owls wowed the hometown crowd in DeVreis Gym. The noise from screaming fans from both Valley schools recalled the rivalry that used to exist between the two team, one that began with a game nearly 41 years ago to decide what was promoted as the “Swannanoa Valley Champs.”

The annual game was a prime-time affair so big that it had to be played in the large gym of the old Owen High School, now Owen Middle School. The winner of the heated rivalry would take home a trophy called “The Little Brown Jug.”

From 1975-1991, until it drifted into obscurity, the rivalry for the jug was intense. Now a small piece of the schools’ shared history may make a comeback - athletic directors at both schools plan to discuss renewing the tradition.

In January 1975, Warren Wilson and Montreat-Anderson College, as it was known as then, met for an exhibition game, organized by the Black Mountain-Swannanoa Rotary Club. The club staged the game to raise money for a scholarship benefiting students from Owen High School.

The Sid Croy Scholarship Fund, named in honor of the Rotarian and former longtime Beacon Manufacturing paymaster, enabled Owen students to attend one of the two local colleges.

The then-Owen High gym was selected as the neutral site for the first game, which lived up to the pre-game hype. On that Saturday night, the Cavaliers carried a 44-39 lead into the half. But led by Stinson Lawyer’s 31 points, the Owls stormed back. Warren Wilson - and Swannanoa - became the jug’s first stop.

Current Rotary Club member Roger Hibbard learned of the rivalry game and jug when he joined the Black Mountain-Swannanoa chapter in 1976.

“Ben Holden was president of Warren Wilson and a member of our club. Si Vaughn, president of Montreat, was an inactive honorary member of Black Mountain Rotary,” Hibbard said via email. “In its last few years, the game was played at alternating schools. At the conclusion of each game, the Brown Jug – filled with Swannanoa River water - was awarded the winner.”

The Owls and Cavaliers met on Valentine’s Day in 1976 for the second Swannanoa Valley Championship. In its advance story, The Black Mountain News promised “there’ll be no hearts and flowers.”

But there was a new home for the jug at the conclusion of the game - Montreat-Anderson brought the prize eight miles east to McAlister Gymnasium.

Warren Wilson reclaimed the jug the next game. Head coach Dick Franklin relied on a physical brand of basketball to overcome his team’s shortcomings.

“We don’t have height,” Franklin told The Black Mountain News prior to the game. “We have to run and scrape.”

A Cavalier coaching change prior the 1978 season led to the first back-to-back Brown Jug victories of the series. Going into the annual match-up with Warren Wilson, Norm Wilhelmi led Montreat to its best record in nine seasons.

The 1978 game brought in more money of any the prior games - $750 raised for the scholarship fund (a feat made even more impressive by the fact that tickets were $1.50-$2.50).

The Brown Jug remained at the heart of the series throughout the 1980s and into 1991, when it remained in Montreat for a fourth consecutive year.

Jesse Gardner, a former Owen High School standout and one of the Montreat Cavaliers’ all-time leading scorers, recalls the game lost some of its appeal while he was on campus.

“I know things in the series had really swung Montreat’s way in my time up at school,” he said.

“We won all of our games against Warren Wilson when I played, but I know they got plenty of great ‘home-cooking calls’ whenever we went there to play,” Gardner quipped, recalling the officiating at DeVries Gym.

Gardner remembers seeing the jug in the Montreat College trophy case, where it currently resides.

Inscribed on the back of the trophy are the game scores from the final 17 seasons, revealing that Montreat leads the series 10-7. The tradition of playing for the jug died after 1991, but the two schools continued to play each other until the 2001-02 season (they resumed the annual matchup in 2007).

Montreat’s Cavaliers have prevailed in most matchups over the years. But Warren Wilson’s Owls have won five of the last seven meetings between the schools, qualifying for the postseason in three consecutive years.

According to Larry Wilson, who served as the dean of students at Montreat and a member of the Rotary Club during the rivalry, the tradition was well-received by all parties involved.

The Rotary Club began the cross-Valley game in order to get the community interested in attending the games. Wilson, inducted in Montreat’s athletic hall of fame in 2000, has always been fond of the tradition.

“We just set it up, and it was neat,” he said. “I think it would be a great thing to bring back.’