Wabash to face Butler in the ‘Iron Key’ game

Some might say Wabash takes its rivalries too seriously. They would be wrong. The College seems to have built a lot of bad blood over the past 150 years. Sometimes those rivalries die. And sometimes they return after a long hiatus. On Saturday, September 16, Wabash will renew its longstanding rivalry with Butler University once again.

Back in the day—when rough ’em up football was commonplace for Wabash College—the Little Giants were known for knocking helmets with much larger institutions like Butler. Situated in Indianapolis, Butler was close enough to become a regular occurrence on the schedule.

The Little Giants and Bulldogs took the field together for the first time on October 25, 1884. This game was Wabash’s first ever intercollegiate football game, and would end as their first win after the team routed Butler 4-0.

In the early years of the rivalry, Wabash found regular success as regulations on athletic scholarships hadn’t yet created a wide division between schools of differing sizes. Wabash won 12 of the games before 1925 with a would-be six game win streak from 1910 to 1921 broken up by a single tie in 1913.

The rivalry was as hot as any involving Wabash, despite Wabash’s odds of winning trending down every year. In fact, earlier in the rivalry, Butler was considered the true arch-rival of Wabash football. Huge crowds assembled to watch the event with as many as 12,000 fans gathering in Indianapolis to watch the 1948 iteration of the game.

The original Iron Key served as a trophy for the rivalry between Wabash and Butler. | Courtesy of
The Indianapolis Star October 18, 1936

Adding to the allure of this enigmatic, abandoned rivalry is a mysterious traveling trophy that has been lost to time. The Iron Key was adopted in 1933 to serve as the trophy of the Wabash-Butler rivalry, just one year after the Monon Bell was added to the Wa- bash’s rivalry with DePauw.

The Key was a unique design, sporting a W and a B worked into the features of a regular skeleton key. Similar traditions as those surrounding the Bell enveloped the Iron Key. Several stories of the Key being stolen by either school have been immortalized in the pages of The Bachelor. According to the November 15, 1956 issue of The Bachelor, the original Iron Key was stolen in 1955 and a replica was made for the 1956 matchup.

The Key would continue to switch hands until 1976, when Butler won the last matchup, presumably claiming the Key for their own. Since then the trophy has disappeared. Perhaps a final heist secured the Key into the hands of an unknown alumnus. All-in-all, the two teams have faced off 67 times, with Butler winning a vast majority of the games. The last time that Wabash and Butler played each other was in November of 1976. Wabash entered the contest 6-2 on the season under the leadership of coach Frank Navarro, after whom the new football field in Little Giant Stadium is now named. Butler won the contest 35-12. The series died after that matchup, leaving the score at 19-39-9 in favor of the Bulldogs for nearly 50 years.

What had been a competitive rivalry in the early 1900’s petered out after a six-game losing streak erased Little Giants’ hopes of ever emerging victorious again. Time passed and the stories of Wabash football meeting Division I teams on the gridiron drifted into legend as the team turned its attention towards smaller schools. But at Wabash, traditions die hard.

Butler may lead the all-time series, but the Little Giants will look to chip away at their deficit in Indianapolis this upcoming weekend. Despite being underdogs, the Little Giants will embrace the College’s longtime mantra and fight once again for glory and recognition, hopefully bringing home a win that has been a long time coming. And just maybe the matchup will spawn enough interest to unearth the lost Iron Key.