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The Prestige of an Old Oil Can

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SDSU and Fresno State have been football rivals since 1923.  In 2011, alumni from both universities joined forces to create a trophy to enhance the legacy.

The old oil can

I still recall the second leg of that New York to San Diego flight in April, 2015. My connection was through Phoenix Sky Harbor, and the layover was short. I visit San Diego regularly to see friends and unwind. It’s like coming home.

I found my seat in business class right next to an elderly woman, likely in her late seventies, returning to her home in La Jolla. A polite, gracious (and talkative) woman, she told me all about the growth of Scottsdale, and how wonderful her grandchildren were. She was a widow, and at one point told me to “savor every moment with your spouse- because you never know.” She asked about the nature of my trip to San Diego, and I said visiting, with business at my alma mater, San Diego State.

“So you’re an Aztec are you?” she queried. I noted an immediate, startling transformation. Her sweet demeanor twisted into a sardonic smirk. That little old lady leaned toward me and slowly said, “Well, I'm a Fresno State graduate and we kicked your asses AGAIN in football last year.” She then said, “we’ve had the oil can for nearly three years, my dear. ”

The old oil can.

Realizing I was seated next to a frenetic Bulldog in the form of a little old lady, I chose my next words carefully, saying, “I, uh, have friends who attended Fresno State.” She leaned in again saying sarcastically, “Is that so? Well, I don’t know what THEY would want to do with an Aztec.” She didn’t let up. It was ridiculous- and it got old very quickly. She taunted and trash talked until we landed. I grabbed my bag, high tailing it out of the airplane, and as I jogged up the jetway, I heard her cackle “we’re going to beat you again this year, my dear!”

Lord almighty, this was a deep-seeded rivalry.

The Old Oil Can is actually a newer phenomenon in the history of Fresno State and San Diego State football. Alumni from both universities got together to create a token of prestige to be coveted by the active defending winner of the long-term rivalry that has existed between the Aztecs and Bulldogs. The trophy was unveiled in 2011 for the first “Battle for the Oil Can.” The Aztecs won first, and the Bulldogs then took it back winning three in a row, before the Aztecs regained custody. It’s likely that the Aztecs will keep it for at least another year.

In seven years, the SDSU - Fresno State rivalry will reach the century mark.

But why an oil can? While any Aztec who has witnessed a Bulldog partying knows that Fresno State students are not above drinking kerosene for a buzz, the “canned” explanation is as such:

During a San Diego State campus building project, an oil can from Fresno (circa 1935) was discovered in the foundation. According to Jim Herrick, executive director of the SDSU Alumni Association, “Cars in those days carried extra oil and water to be sure they could make it through difficult trips- especially in the challenging mountainous regions of highway found in certain parts of Southern California.”

“The oil can came from a time when Aztec and Bulldog fans traveled to football games between the schools via the old, twisting, precipitous Grapevine section of Highway 99 over Tejon Pass,” said Jacquelyn K. Glasener, executive director of the Fresno State Alumni Association.

So there you have it. The oil can is a symbolic representation of the journey between the two universities, reminiscent of the era when the first games were waged.

The SDSU-Fresno State rivalry dates to 1923. In their first game, the Aztecs claimed a 12-2 victory over the Bulldogs. Results from each of the 55 games between the teams — SDSU leads the series 28-23-4 — have been recorded on the oil can.

“We have it right now so we’ll take it with us,” said SDSU head coach Rocky Long, whose players took possession of the trophy after last year’s 21-7 win over the Bulldogs. “I’m sure it’ll be some place on the sideline and the team that wins it will pick it up."

“It’s a trophy,” SDSU junior cornerback Derek Babiash said, “and we love competing for trophies out here.”

Without question, the old oil can is now a highly coveted prize. As for Fresno State and San Diego State, the rivalry is a multi-generational affair.