They look like the lovechildren of a pair of garnet Crocs and Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
Fraternal twins, clearly not identical, the maroon-ish one has a white “U” painted on the forefoot. The other, the cherry one, has a white “R.”
The Shoes — upper case “S” — are bolted to a round pedestal atop a square polished wooden base, maybe not much to look at, as trophies go.
But highly coveted.
And profoundly symbolic.
One aspect of the fallout from RPI’s decision on Tuesday to cancel fall sports for the 2020-21 academic year is that, for the first time in 71 years, the RPI and Union College football teams won’t play for the Dutchman Shoes Trophy.
That may not seem like much in the grand scheme of things, when the COVID-19 pandemic is running rampant over people’s lives and schedules. But it’s another case of History, Interrupted in the Capital Region sports scene that will be felt deeply by both teams, especially the seniors who won’t ever get a taste of the rivalry again.
Never mind the 1950 birth of the Dutchman Shoes Trophy, a totem of victory created to quell hard feeling between the schools after, legend has it, looters descended on both campuses in 1949 following Union’s 14-6 win in Troy.
These schools have been playing each other all the way back to 1886, decades before the Shoes were introduced, making it the oldest college football rivalry in New York state. The last time this game was canceled was 1945, during World War II, so, within the greater context of RPI’s announcement, losing the Dutchman Shoes Trophy game is a pretty swift kick in the can around here.
“We always talk about nameless, faceless opponents, but what’s unique about RPI is that we play two trophy games every year,” RPI head coach Ralph Isernia said. “So we play for the Transit Trophy against WPI, and we also play the Shoes game, which I know is the one that everyone circles on their calendar.”
It’s a big deal,” Union head coach Jeff Behrman said. “To me, being an Ohio guy and an Ohio State fan, it’s Ohio State-Michigan. I don’t know that I gave it enough attention my first year. I might’ve even been quoted in some article somewhere that I try to treat every game the same, blah blah blah.
“You quickly learn it’s not the same. It’s not the same. It’s more than just a game.
The Dutchmen defeated RPI 33-0 last November, and one of the great backstory details of the rivalry is that the teams can’t agree on what the overall won-lost record is between them.
Union was the first liberal arts college in the U.S. to offer an engineering degree, in 1845, and the nickname for RPI’s sports teams isn’t “Engineers” because there’s an Amtrak station in Rensselaer.
So there’s a lot of smart people on both campuses, but somehow they couldn’t tabulate the seemingly simple data on who-beat-whom with a standard deviation that equals zero.
“I had done some research on it prior to my interview, just so I had some preparation,” said Behrman, who was hired by Union in 2016. “Obviously, the oldest collegiate football rivalry game in the state of New York, that says a lot right there.
“I think there’s even a discrepancy in the records. That totally adds to it.”
Isernia, who was hired at RPI in 2013, has been preparing his players, especially the seniors, for the likelihood that the 2020 season wouldn’t happen since springtime.
RPI and Union both play in the Liberty League, which is supposed to make a decision on the fate of its entire fall sports schedule by July 15.
Behrman said Union likely will hold off on making a decision on fall sports until the league announces its intentions in two weeks.
Both schools are Division III in all sports except Division I men’s and women’s ice hockey, which play in ECAC Hockey and typically start their seasons the second weekend in October.
“When you’ve been coaching as long as I have, you have guys that have had season- or career-ending injuries, unfortunately,” Isernia said. “But that’s a situation where someone’s leaving on the field. This is a situation that’s out of their control. It’s something that, four years ago, you couldn’t have seen coming that’s going to affect your senior year.”
“Certainly it’s disappointing, but at the same time I respect RPI’s decision and I completely understand it,” Behrman said. “It’s always got to come down to the health, wellness and well-being of your students, your student-athletes, faculty and the whole community.
“I get it. It’s not so much of a surprise based on how things have been going. You watch other schools say they’re not going to play in the fall, and it’s not much of a shock.”
According to RPI’s records, the Engineers are 31-82-4 all-time against the Dutchmen, while Union’s records show it to be 83-30-4 in favor of the Dutchmen.
So at least they agree that they have played each other 117 times. I think.
Disputed games trace back to 1888 and 1901, so if you want to do some research and clear things up, good luck with all that.
After a five-year winning streak for RPI, Union has won the last two by a combined 67-10.
Before last year’s game, Behrman got an encouraging text from Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, whose son played for the Dutchmen and graduated in 2015.
The Dutchmen came through for him, so the old wooden Shoes are sitting in the Union football office, for now, waiting to step back into action. But it won’t be this fall.
“I don’t point to any specific games or anything like that in the history, but it is a different feel, that week of practice,” Behrman said. “The intensity is that much higher. The focus is that much sharper. It’s just different that way.
“The trophy is in our office, not mine, in the football wing of the building, I guess you could call it.
“We keep it out there so that when we have prospects on campus, they see it.”