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‘The Battle for the Barrel’: a famous tradition of the past for Tennessee and Kentucky Football

By: Rachel Ward The All Vol Call in Show

November 7, 2019

When thinking about Tennessee football and the most prominent college football rivalries today, the annual matchup between Tennessee and Kentucky might not be the first one that comes to mind. As the Vols head into Lexington this weekend to face off against the Wildcats, the teams share a history that spans back 115 years—making this rivalry the 3rd oldest in the SEC. 


While this matchup might not be thought of as a strong rivalry today, it was once one of the most famous rivalries in the nation. For over 70 years, the prize for winning was more than just a “W” to add to the season. It was a barrel full of beer—a barrel that became one of the most famous and unique prizes in college football rivalry games. 


After the Wildcats defeated the Vols two years in a row in 1924 and 1925, a group of Kentucky students decided that they wanted to have a display that showcased the Wildcats’ dominance over the Vols. The Beer Barrel was rolled out on the field after Kentucky’s win in 1925, the words “Ice Water” painted over the blue barrel in an effort to avoid promoting alcohol during the Prohibition Era. 


The idea of “The Beer Barrel” being the prize in the Vols/Wildcat matchup stuck around for decades. One side of the blue barrel was painted over orange to represent the Vols, and the scores from each matchup were etched on to the 200 pound barrel. 


Peyton Manning celebrates a Vols‘ victory after receiving the Beer Barrel. Photo | WUTK Radio

In addition to the barrel’s entertainment presence on the football field and for the football players, students at Tennessee, Kentucky and Vanderbilt also got their hands on the famous Beer Barrel. The year of 1953 was a year of back and forth pranks for students in Knoxville and Lexington. 

Following a Kentucky win in 1953, the Beer Barrel was awarded to the Wildcats and expected to stay on Kentucky’s campus for the entirety of a year. Tennessee students, however, had a different idea for the barrel’s 1953 home. They stole it. Going a step further to get back at Tennessee students for stealing the Beer Barrel, students in Lexington decided to steal something close to the hearts of Vol fans. Smokey was dog-napped. The students eventually made their trades back and called it even. 


Not only did Tennessee and Kentucky students participate in pranks regarding the Beer Barrel, but students at Vanderbilt joined in during the year of 1960, too. Searching for support from the Vols in the Commodores upcoming basketball matchup with the Wildcats, Vanderbilt students decided to steal the barrel off of Kentucky’s campus. Kentucky later won on the court and took back what was rightfully theirs. 


For 72 years, Tennessee and Kentucky traded the beer barrel back and forth with their prospective wins. The year 1997 marked the last year the famous Beer Barrel would make its’ mark in the annual matchup. A week before the Vols faced off against the Wildcats in 1998, tragedy hit as two of Kentucky’s players were involved in a fatal alcohol-related car crash. Charles Martin Newton, Kentucky Athletic Director at the time, made the decision that a trophy referencing alcohol was not appropriate considering the circumstances. The trophy ceremony was cancelled for the 1998 game and both schools later agreed to permanently end the tradition. 


The barrel was in Tennessee’s possession when the tradition was discontinued and according to Kentucky Sports Radio, the Beer Barrel is stored in a football equipment cage at UT. 

While this 2019 matchup against Tennessee and Kentucky will not conclude with a famous Beer Barrel trophy ceremony, the teams share a unique history unknown to many UT students and fans today. As the Vols head to Lexington, you just might hear some references of what once was “The Battle for the Beer Barrel.”