Tennessee vs. Kentucky, the Brawl for the Barrel: Flashlight & A Biscuit, No. 29

Every rivalry, even the lopsided ones, is a prized gem

Welcome to Flashlight & A Biscuit, my Southern sports/culture/food offshoot of my work at Yahoo Sports. Thanks for reading, and if you’re new around here, why not subscribe? It’s free and all.

This fall, while we’re in the middle of an unprecedented, all-killer-no-filler SEC season, I’m telling stories based on the matchups ahead for each week. This week, Kentucky travels to Knoxville to take on the Volunteers of Tennessee. Let’s dig in.

There’s nothing quite so fine as the clean, purifying hatred of a rivalry game. This isn’t the kind of deeply dispiriting hatred you see among broken families, or the loud, pointless hatred between differing political ideologies; no, this is a kind of hatred that can only come from admiration. It’s more akin to a sibling rivalry than anything else. Alabama fans may hate Auburn with every fiber of their grain alcohol-soaked souls, but they’re still pulling for Auburn over some outsider like, I don’t know, USC or Michigan State.

Georgia-Florida, Auburn-Alabama, Ole Miss-Mississippi State, plus intra-conference rivalries like South Carolina-Clemson, Georgia-Georgia Tech and Florida-Florida State … these are sacred, with battle lines a mile deep carved between the two. You align with a team at birth, and switching alliances requires months of therapy … for you and for the family you leave behind.

There are magnificent rivalries, rivalries sanctified in song and legend … and then, well, there’s Tennessee-Kentucky.

They’re border states, Volunteer and Bluegrass, so the hate’s there. It’s just that the competitiveness isn’t. Dating all the way back to 1893, it’s one of the oldest rivalries in the South, but it’s been decidedly one-sided. Here’s a color-coded breakdown of how the rivalry has gone over the last 125-plus years:

…yeah. Tennessee vs. Kentucky is a rivalry the way my dog vs. my lawn was a rivalry.

But this is not to take anything away from Kentucky! Yes, even though the Wildcats have only won two football games against the Volunteers since 1984, Kentucky’s record against Tennessee on the hardwood is almost as one-sided.

Plus, the rivalry has (or, at least, had) a trophy! The Barrel, seen above in the hands of some random Vol, was for many decades the symbol that was passed back and forth depending on which school won that year.

Inspired by Big Ten trophies like the Old Oaken Bucket and the Little Brown Jug, the Barrel was the creation of a bunch of Kentucky students back in 1925.

“We decided to come up with something symbolic of both states,” said Rollie Guthrie, one of those students, in “The Wildcats,” a history of Kentucky’s football program. “We immediately thought of moonshine whiskey and started to hunt for a whiskey barrel. When the Women’s Christian Temperance Union got wind of what we were going to do, their protests were vigorous, so we settled for a beer keg.”

The temperance crew wasn’t much for the beer keg either — this was in the middle of Prohibition, after all — the students painted “Ice Water” on the barrel’s side. Because no college student drinks anything harsher than ice water, of course.

The Barrel was the focus of several country-fried Mission: Impossible heists, including one that resulted in Kentucky students dog-napping Smokey, UT’s canine mascot, an escalation of hostilities that sent everyone involved into orbit and made national news. A spate of copycat (copydog?) kidnappings followed, with UT students filching Kentucky’s stuffed wildcat and, for some odd reason, three Vanderbilt students attempting to kidnap Smokey again but grabbing the wrong dog by mistake.

There was also an incident in 1960 when Vanderbilt — them again — glommed onto the UT-UK rivalry, stealing the Barrel from Kentucky in hopes of winning support from the Vols for Vandy’s upcoming basketball game against Kentucky. It didn’t work; Vandy lost the game and meekly returned the Barrel.

Here’s a few demure Kentucky cheerleaders proudly displaying the barrel at some point, probably the 1960s:

(Why do college students from bygone days always look like they’re in their mid-40s?)

The Barrel still exists, but it hasn’t been used as a rivalry symbol since 1998; sadly, a Kentucky player died in an alcohol-related car accident shortly before the game that year, and both schools decided a beer barrel would be an inappropriate symbol to trot out. It’s remained hidden ever since, its location a mystery …

… at least until a Tennessee assistant coach posted its whereabouts on Twitter last year:

Even though the SEC now allows alcohol sales, the Barrel isn’t likely to make a comeback anytime soon; UT athletic director Phil Fulmer said last year it’s pretty far down on his list of priorities.

So these days, Kentucky and Tennessee settle for playing “My Old Kentucky Home” (for now) and “Rocky Top,” and the Barrel sits quietly in the UT athletic offices. That’s fine — like any good rivalry, trophies are merely props; the glorious hatred always stands at center stage.

That’ll do it for this week, friends. Stay safe, remember the cleansing power of a good rivalry, and we’ll see you in a few days with more.


(Sources: UT Football, Kentucky Photo Archive, Vintage Sports Pictures)

This has been issue #29 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. And if you dug this, share it with your friends. Social media reality: Nobody should spend any more time on social media than they have to. Word-of-mouth is how we’re gonna grow this bad boy. Invite others to the party, everybody’s welcome.

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