The Kentucky–Tennessee rivalry is a college sports rivalry between the University of Kentucky Wildcats and the University of Tennessee Volunteers. The rivalry between these two Southeastern Conference (SEC) schools, located about 173 miles (278 km) apart, dates to their first college football game in 1893, and has continued across all sports, with the men’s basketballseries gaining particular attention in recent years.
The football rivalry was once a trophy game known as the Battle for the Barrel, with the victors keeping a painted wooden beer barrel until the next contest. The barrel tradition was discontinued in 1998 following a fatal alcohol-related car crash involving two Kentucky football players.
Both schools were charter members of the Southeastern Conference when it was established in 1932. Since that season, Tennessee has a 53–14–3 record against Kentucky, including a streak of 26 straight victories from 1985 to 2010, which is one of the longest such streaks in NCAA history. The Wildcats did not win any games against the Volunteers during the 1940s, 1990s, or 2000s. The only decade of the SEC era in which UK posted a winning record against Tennessee was the 1950s, when they went 6–3–1. The series was not without disappointment even during that period for Kentucky fans, however, as the Vols dealt Bear Bryant‘s 1950 Wildcat squad their only defeat during their school-best 11–1 season.Tennessee and Kentucky have faced off on the gridiron since 1893, making it one of the oldest rivalries in major college football. It was close in the early years, with Kentucky holding a series lead after the first 22 match-ups. But since the early 1930s, Tennessee has dominated the cross-border rivalry.
History of the trophy
Like many college football rivalries, the Kentucky–Tennessee game once involved a trophy: a wooden beer barrel painted half blue and half orange which was awarded to the winner of the game every year from 1925 to 1997. The Barrel was introduced in 1925 by a group of former Kentucky students who wanted to create a material sign of their school’s supremacy in the rivalry. It was rolled onto the field that year with the words “Ice Water” painted on it to avoid any outcries over an alcohol drum symbolizing a college rivalry during the Prohibition era.
While the trophy was ceremonially awarded to the game’s winner each year, it took some unauthorized trips over the years. Tennessee lost to Kentucky in 1953, but several orange-clad students “keg-napped” the barrel and kept it hidden in Knoxville until UK students retaliated by “dog-napping” Smokey. The barrel theft set in motion a series of additional pranks over the next few years between students of the two schools, but the barrel was not involved.
Vanderbilt University students stole the keg from Kentucky in 1960 to rally support from cross-state UT students in an upcoming basketball game against Kentucky. The Commodores lost the game and returned the trophy months later.
End of the Barrel era
A fatal alcohol-related car crash involving two UK football players a week before the 1998 contest prompted the end of the barrel exchange. Kentucky athletic director C. M. Newton expressed the idea that the ongoing use of an alcohol container as a trophy would be inappropriate under the circumstances. The ceremony was cancelled for the 1998 game, and the two schools mutually agreed to permanently discontinue the tradition before the 1999 game.
The actual barrel was in UT’s possession when the schools ended the exchange, but its current whereabouts have not been made public. It has not been displayed since 1997, and it was not transferred to Kentucky when the Wildcats broke the Volunteers’ long series winning streak in 2011.