Sept. 15, 2016
Andy Demetra | Inside the Chart
Georgia Tech has already won one trophy this year, a shimmering Waterford Crystal football for its victory in the Aer Lingus College Football Classic in Dublin, Ireland.
The Yellow Jackets will be playing for a far more historic prize on Saturday.
“I had no clue,” senior placekicker Harrison Butker said.
“They never told me,” said defensive tackle Patrick Gamble, knitting his brow.
They’re not alone.
“I was not familiar at all with that. You’ve enlightened me,” said George McGugin, a lifelong Vanderbilt fan and the grandson of Dan McGugin, the Commodores’ legendary former head football coach.
Yes, when Georgia Tech and Vandy tee it up for the 38th time at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, they’ll also be playing for a fiercely-contested, mostly-forgotten rivalry trophy. Since 1924, the winning team in the series has received a silver-plated cowbell with the year and final score of each game engraved on it.
Okay, so it may not evoke the ancient passions of Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate. It may not have the notoriety of a Paul Bunyan’s Axe or a Floyd of Rosedale (though the cowbell is older than both). Forget about name recognition – the cowbell doesn’t even have one.
But now that they know what’s on the line, Georgia Tech players suddenly have a fever for more cowbell.
“It’s definitely something else to put in your mind and in your tank when you’re going out there playing hard. Now that I know it’s a rivalry game, I got something to tell the guys,” Gamble said.
As he walked away, Gamble stopped.
“Why do Georgia Tech and Vandy play for a cowbell, anyway?”
Good question. It does seem odd that Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt, a pair of august, big-city research institutes, would battle over something so agricultural in origin. The trophy was the brainchild of Ed F. Cavaleri, an Augusta, Ga., native described by the Atlanta Constitution as “a faithful Georgia Tech supporter though he did not attend the Jacket institution.” While on his way to the 1924 game, Cavaleri bought a cowbell at an Atlanta hardware store to use as a noise-maker. Vanderbilt won 3-0, but afterwards, someone suggested that Cavaleri should award the bell to the winning team.
A tradition was born. Cavaleri attended every game in the series from 1924 to 1967, dutifully presenting the cowbell to a representative of the winning team. He thought it was lost forever after the 1935 game, a 14-13 Vanderbilt win at Grant Field.
“I’d just left the stadium, was taking the bell along to have it engraved. On a side street, near the stadium, two fellows jumped me. One pushed me down, the other grabbed the bell,” he told the Associated Press in 1964.
According to his son Ed Jr., Cavaleri posted a notice of the missing cowbell at the Georgia Tech YMCA. A pair of Tech students later came forward, telling him the bell was at the home of a friend in North Carolina. It was returned on the eve of the 1937 game.
(The cowbell didn’t miss much. The 1936 game ended in a 0-0 tie.)
More shenanigans followed. One time, at Nashville’s Dudley Stadium, Cavaleri set the bell down during a stoppage in play. When he reached down to pick it up, some ne’er-do-well had run off with it. The following day, in response to urgent pleas on the radio, someone dropped it off on the steps of Nashville’s WSM radio.
The rivalry petered out after Georgia Tech withdrew from the Southeastern Conference in 1964 and the cowbell mostly faded from memory. The teams have only met three times in the last half-century, most recently a 56-31 Georgia Tech victory in 2009.
On Saturday, the series will be restored again. Yet one little issue lingered.
Uh … Where is the cowbell?
It wasn’t in the trophy cases in the Edge Athletic Center atrium – at least anymore. My radio analyst, Sean Bedford, recalled seeing it there as a Tech undergrad.
“[It] stood out because it was so simple (think end of ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’). It stuck in my memory because I thought it was interesting that Tech and Vandy had a rivalry trophy,” Sean texted me.
At some point, the case was cleared of its smaller, less notable trophies. Several athletic department employees thought they had seen it on a credenza outside the athletic director’s suite. It wasn’t there either.
Our search then led to a second-floor storage room housing old files and miscellaneous Georgia Tech memorabilia. A clutch of plaques and dusty trophies lay on top of a row of metal filing cabinets. We rummaged around. No luck there.
The list of places to look was dwindling. Ed Cavaleri recovered his cowbell on the few occasions it went missing. Was our luck about to run out? Had the last bell tolled on the Georgia Tech-Vanderbilt rivalry trophy?
But sometimes, fate has a funny way of stepping in. At an operations meeting on Tuesday afternoon, associate director of event operations Christie Hughes printed a document to Georgia Tech’s communications office printer, located in a supply room on the first floor of the Edge. Facilities manager Jackson Mathews and intern Rob Stewart walked over to get it.
“When we got over here, [the printer] was saying ‘Low Toner.’ I didn’t know which cabinet the toner was in, so I just started opening cabinets,” Mathews said.
Mathews went to a pair of wall-mounted cabinets on the right side of the room.
There it was. Sitting on a shelf, wedged between a 75th anniversary Orange Bowl football and a cardboard box of old ACC media directories. Six inches tall, gleaming silver, with a brown leather strap attached to the handle.
A relic of a bygone rivalry, ready to be tolled again.
The cowbell has a gold plate screwed into each side, with “GEORGIA TECH-VANDERBILT FOOTBALL TROPHY” inscribed at the top (we really need to find a more creative nickname). Three columns list the year of each game, Georgia Tech’s points scored and Vanderbilt’s points scored. The results of the games from 1924 to 1967 are engraved on one side; the results from 2002, 2003 and 2009 are on the other.
To think: had it not been for a printer that was low on toner, the cowbell may have never been retrieved this week. But on Saturday it will ring out once more, marking the return of a modest, obscure and unmistakable Georgia Tech tradition.
The Yellow Jackets plan on playing for keeps.
“I’m definitely surprised,” said senior defensive end Rod Rook-Chungong. “But I want that cowbell come Saturday.”