Half-forgotten tradition: UF and UM used to play for rights to Indian war canoe

For many years, the trophy for the winner of the biggest college football game in Florida was a canoe.

Long before the bad blood between the University of Florida Gators and the Florida State Seminoles, UF’s true rival was the University of Miami. And, true to the history of their home state, the Gators and ’Canes battled for a hand-carved Seminole War Canoe.

The Seminole Tribe and the city of Hollywood gifted the six-foot canoe, fashioned from a 200-year old cypress tree struck down by lightning, to the rivalry in November 1955. For the next 20 years or so, the victor won the canoe in the annual matchup.

Then the tradition faded, and the canoe collected dust somewhere on UM’s campus until it was rescued from a trash heap by a former player and his coach. They kept it until it was placed in the UM Sports Hall of Fame in 1989, where it has sat untouched since.

One recent UF grad tried to stir up talk of reviving the canoe-trading tradition in 2010, two years after the last game of the now-infrequent rivalry. Andrew James Clyde Hart has sent letters to newspapers again this year in hopes of drumming up support to renew the tradition and bring back the yearly game.

“I thought I’d give it one last try to get people talking about it,” he said.

John Routh, a local sports figure who spent years leading Hurricanes cheers as Sebastian the Ibis, serves as executive director of the hall of fame. He said any talk of bringing the canoe back out on the field starts when an annual game returns.

“Should the series ever be played on a regular basis, we’ll unretire it,” he said.

From glory to garbage

In its glory days, you respected the canoe.

A Seminole Indian dressed in full regalia would guard it during the game, waiting to ceremoniously pass it to the winning team. Players would give it a true champion’s lap, touting the canoe around the field during the victory celebration.

“This trophy symbolizes the magnificent spirit and the fighting determination traditional of the Independent Florida Seminoles,” reads the plaque given with the canoe.

Think the Golden Boot of the Arkansas-Louisiana State University rivalry or the Jeweled Shillelagh from the Notre Dame-Southern Cal game.

At some point in the 1970s, however, the big trophy became more of a burden than a boon.

“The problem was the thing was so big, neither school had a place to put it,” Routh said.

According to a 1987 article from the now-defunct Hollywood Sun-Tattler, a UF assistant athletic director recalled last seeing the canoe after a game in the ’70s, when a Seminole stood alone in the rain, waiting for winners to claim it.

“The stadium was emptying, the field was deserted, and the Indian just stood there, looking for somebody to come get the canoe,” said Norm Carlson, UF’s assistant AD during that last meeting between the Gators and ’Canes in ’87.

The trophy seems to have languished somewhere on UM’s Coral Gables campus for a few years before it ended up in a garbage pile on the side of the road, where two alumni — Don Mariutto, a three-year letterman from the ’50s, and Walt Kichefski, a former assistant coach — spotted it on their daily morning run.

They saved it from the trash and held onto it for years. No one seemed to wonder where it went. Mariutto once filled it with oranges as it floated in his pool during a party to celebrate an Orange Bowl.

The canoe didn’t reappear on campus until the hall of fame was built in the late ’80s and the two men donated it.

It’s quietly resided there ever since.

Attempted Revival

In 2010, UF freshman Andrew James Clyde Hart was playing a football video game when he heard something odd.

The announcer on the digital Gators vs. Hurricanes game said something about the teams playing for a war canoe. He’d heard it before, but the diehard Gators fan and history buff hit the books to do some research.

“I wondered, ‘Where is it?’ ” he said.

The last time the two teams met, the Gators won in Gainesville in 2008, Hart’s freshman year. He was at that game, a 26-3 rout.

After he learned of the Seminole War Canoe, he wanted it in Gainesville.

“It’s supposed to represent the fighting spirit,” he said. “And it was a gift.”

Hart, as a member of UF’s student senate in 2010, got a resolution passed to bring the trophy to UF and push for a return of the annual series. A copy of the resolution went out to newspapers and officials at both schools.

UM’s student government responded by saying they felt the tradition had withered along with the annual series.

“The rivalry between the schools has quietly diminished as the teams have only played five times in the past 20 years,” UM student officials wrote back.

The final winner in the regular series was the 1987 Hurricanes squad. And the chances of a regular UF-UM matchup are probably shot after this season.

Hart, who now studies at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, sent letters to newspapers again this year urgently trying to start the conversation about the canoe and a renewed annual rivalry.

“Now, the last game for the foreseeable future is upon us with no solution in the works,” he wrote. “The trophy should be the spark of the flame for an important discussion: Do we want to continue an incredible tradition?”

Mike Piacentino, chief of staff for UM’s current student government, said the canoe doesn’t symbolize what it used to.

“It is now a symbol of the former rivalry,” he said.

Hart hopes people remember the energy and spirit behind the old rivalry, even if the canoe stays in Miami. Even though time often washes away traditions, he wants people to remember this one.

Follow @joeflech on Twitter.