Trophy hunters: MSU alums turn quest for Paul Bunyan replica into rivalry business
Redford — A trophy, once described by a coach as the “ugliest” rivalry prize, that had spent most of its first 55 years in locker rooms, crammed in equipment and training rooms and, in the mid-1950s, was kidnapped as a prank, had a coming-out party in 2008.
The Paul Bunyan Trophy, introduced in 1953 and awarded to the winner of the Michigan-Michigan State game, had traditionally been a locker room trophy for the players to celebrate after a win. That’s perhaps because of its unwieldy size. It is a four-foot wooden statue of Paul Bunyan, the mythical giant lumberjack, mounted on a five-foot base.
In 2008, former Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio led the Spartans to a 35-21 win at Michigan Stadium that snapped the Wolverines’ six-game winning streak in the rivalry game. But during the Spartans' on-field celebration, four-foot Paul Bunyan, removed from the wood base, was paraded by the elated MSU players around the stadium.
From that, a new tradition was born, and “Paul” — as the players often lovingly refer to the trophy — has been celebrated on the field with the winner’s helmet atop his head. Michigan and Michigan State will meet for the 116th time in the rivalry on Saturday night at Spartan Stadium, and the Paul Bunyan Trophy will be awarded for the 71st time.
Also because of that 2008 coming-out party for Paul, a Metro Detroit business was created, Rivalry Trophy LLC (RivalryTrophy.com). The company sells licensed poly-resin replicas of 17 Big Ten college football rivalry trophies, as well as several from other conferences.
Shortly after that Michigan State win, Pat Kelly, a dentist and MSU alumnus, was enthralled by the Paul Bunyan Trophy celebration and called his friend, Brian McDonald, an English and social studies teacher at Parcells Middle School in Grosse Pointe Woods, and also an MSU graduate. Kelly was excited about the win and wanted to buy a Paul Bunyan Trophy replica.
They searched online. Nothing was offered.
“I'm not even sure I knew what the Paul Bunyan Trophy was because it was kind of a behind-the-scenes trophy until Dantonio won it that first year, and he brought it out on the field,” Kelly said. “We were like, ‘What the heck is that? I want one.’”
An idea came to Kelly as he drove his son, Pat, to school at Northville High. He immediately called McDonald.
“‘We should make one. How hard could it be?’” Kelly said to his friend. “And it probably would have ended it at that, but then he sent me a flood of links to all these poly-resin manufacturers. So then I sent some emails out to these guys saying, ‘Hey, here's a picture. Can you make this?’ And it just kind of grew from there.”
McDonald often jokes that Kelly had the last idea that hadn’t been taken.
“It was just one of those things that it really popped into his head,” McDonald said. “And then, when he mentioned it, I was like, ‘Yeah, how has someone not thought about this?’”
About six months later, after going through designs and the licensing process — the Big Ten has fully licensed RivalyTrophy.com for all conference rivalry-trophy replicas — Kelly and McDonald had two samples of a Paul Bunyan Trophy replica.
The version they selected is a remarkable likeness, owing to the amount of research Kelly and McDonald do before submitting designs, and then there’s the constant back and forth of emails, making certain everything is correct. They’re all about the details. For instance, the fact Michigan and Minnesota played twice in 1926 is correctly depicted on the Little Brown Jug. On the website, they share the background of each rivalry trophy.
“That's always one of our priorities,” McDonald said of striving for exact replicas. “If it's not something that we would put in our basement or show off, then we're not going to do it.”
'That's our pig!'
McDonald and Kelly have day jobs, as do their Rivalry Trophy assistants, Kelly’s sons, Pat and Jack, and Jordan March, the younger Pat’s friend since elementary school. Kelly and March, who attended Northville High, also are MSU graduates, and Jack is attending Schoolcraft.
This has been a passion project for the entire team. Rivalry Trophy has a warehouse in Redford Township, and the basement of Kelly’s home is often where orders are boxed and prepared for shipping. Business, most of it word-of-mouth, booms after rivalry games, they said, and from Black Friday through the holidays.
There are at least two price points for the trophies offered. The larger Paul Bunyan Trophy is 13 inches tall, weighs four pounds and costs $94. The mini trophy — think tree decoration — is $20. Kelly and McDonald said people place the smaller replicas on their desks and on Christmas trees; large and small versions have been sold for graduation and groomsmen's gifts, and there are Michigan and Michigan State fans who have a Paul that is shared and passed to the winning fan each year.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has made bulk purchases of the Paul Bunyan Trophy and Little Brown Jug, awarded to the winner of the Michigan-Minnesota game, to present to the Michigan players after wins.
Rivalry Trophy’s most popular items are the Paul Bunyan replica, the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy, a bronze hog awarded to the winner of the Minnesota-Iowa game on Saturday, and the Little Brown Jug. The Floyd of Rosedale replica is $110 and weighs six pounds and, like all the trophies they sell, is spot-on in its detail.
In fact, all of the trophies they sell are so precisely designed, television networks have used the replica trophies in their graphics. During one Minnesota-Iowa game, the network used the Rivalry Trophy version of Floyd.
“We were like, ‘That’s our pig! That’s our pig!’” March said.
McDonald jokes that a “healthy rivalry” is good for business.
“We’re probably going to be boxing orders all Sunday (after Michigan-Michigan State and Minnesota-Iowa), making a couple of trips to UPS on Monday,” March said.
The goal is to fill orders within 24 hours, a “pride thing” for the group, March said, and customer service is also a priority. Any issues with orders are immediately addressed, often, McDonald said, within minutes.
“That type of stuff and word of mouth are our No. 1 marketing tools,” McDonald said.
They’ve also produced a George Jewett Trophy, introduced in 2021 to be given to the winner of the Michigan-Northwestern game, but they have not yet received approval from Jewett’s son. With the Big Ten expansion, the group is wondering if new trophy games will be born. They’ve tossed around the idea of maybe one for the Michigan State-USC game, a Spartan and a Trojan design. They’ve already branched out this year with the Commander-In-Chief’s trophy for Army, Navy and Air Force, The Dakota Marker, for the North Dakota State-South Dakota State winner and The Bronze Boot for Wyoming-Colorado State.
“There’s that sense of, ‘OK, how are these going to go after we've been selling to 40,000-student schools?’” McDonald said. “How niche can we get and still turn a nice profit? But, at the same time, we also think that expanding and adding more trophies only makes it a better company.”
Kelly and McDonald fully welcome the input from Kelly’s sons, Pat and Jack, and March. The three have plenty of responsibility in the Rivalry Trophy company and are finding ways to market to a broader audience, which means doing more in-person promotion, as well as on social media platforms.
The next level
The College Football Hall of Fame has requested Rivalry Trophy’s trophies for a display on college football rivalries, which is an enormous opportunity, but the five men are still all about word of mouth. The group will have a tailgate with the trophies set up outside Jenison Field House on Saturday night for the Michigan-Michigan State game. They’ve also made several road trips to introduce the company and its trophies to new fans and have giveaways, and they’ve also been on the field and presented the replicas to players.
“When we go to road games, we just set up a giant tailgate and put the trophies on the table, and people just come and see them,” the younger Pat Kelly said. “I want people to see this with their own eyes, so they can know that it's not a toy.”
The two Kelly brothers and March are eager to push Rivalry Trophy to a new level, eventually with a greater social media presence and continuing to be on-site at different games with the trophies. They know they have a head start, considering McDonald and Kelly did all the legwork, in terms of negotiating licensing deals.
“They had to trailblaze all the licensing stuff,” Kelly said of his father and McDonald. “They had to figure it all out.”
McDonald and Kelly are eager to see where the three can take this.
“We're kind of aging ourselves a little bit, in terms of the new-media market,” McDonald said. “The ability to connect with a younger customer base is really important. Growing that market is where their strength really lies, and that's what has been really nice.”
With McDonald and Kelly driving the company, along with Pat, Jack and March, they feel good about where it’s headed.
“We thought we would retire from our jobs and be millionaires by now,” said Kelly, smiling. “That didn’t work out. Maybe the boys will take it to the next level.”