Robert Kunkel, a UND alumnus and Chicago advertising executive, was the originator of the trophy, and Blue Key, an honorary service fraternity at NDSU, and the UND Blue Key (Student Government after their Blue Key Chapter dissolved) administered the annual awarding. It is an oversized 75-pound replica of the James Earle Fraser-designed U.S. buffalo nickel with a buffalo on one side representing NDSU Bison and a Native American head on the other side representing UND, who were known as the Fighting Sioux until 2012. Fraser, best known for his sculpture, "The End of The Trail", was born in Winona, MN and lived for a time in Dakota Territory. The coin-shaped trophy's "mint" date is 1937, the year the trophy was created. Jack Sather, a native of New England, ND, was commissioned to design and act a sculpture of the award. It took six weeks to complete the job and he was paid $65 for his work. Those funds were raised by both NDSU and UND Blue Key chapters from members and friends. The Nickel, at 250 times larger than a regular five-cent piece, weighs 75 pounds and is 2 inches thick and 22 inches in diameter. Both sides were 3/4" relief and, from the original models, plaster casts were poured. The casts were hauled to a St. Paul, MN foundry where plaster copies were recast in an aluminum alloy. The halves were welded together to make the finished piece. It was first awarded in 1938 when NDSU won 17–13. It has been the object of many theft and "kidnapping" attempts by students from both universities. Governor William Langer was asked to participate in the unveiling of the new award in Grand Forks. Moments after the unveiling an unidentified student stepped up to Governor Langer, told him "I'll take care of this for you", and disappeared with the nickel trophy. It turned up 36 hours later on the front lawn of then UND President John C. West (The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, October 21, 1967) and a new tradition of "kidnapping" or "borrowing" the trophy had begun.
Prior to 2004, the game was one of the longest-running college football contests, with 110 meetings spanning several decades with the first official game in 1894. The Sioux lead the all-time series 62–45, with 3 ties. In games where the Nickel Trophy has been contested (since 1938), the Sioux lead the series 35–30 and won the last three games in the series. The last NDSU win was in 2000, 16–13. The two playoff games between the teams (1994 and 1995) are not considered part of the Nickel series, and it has been agreed on by both schools that only the regular season scheduled game would determine the Nickel's rightful owner according to former Blue Key member and chapter adviser Tim Flakoll. The nickel trophy was not at stake in 2015 due to the Sioux logo remaining on one side.
Both teams have had long winning streaks in the series. The most recent streaks of significant length were in 1981–1992, where the Bison won 12 straight games in the series, including two shutout wins (1985 and 1989)- and in 1993–1996, where the Sioux snapped the losing streak by winning four straight regular season games. (As mentioned, the two teams did play playoff games in 1994 and 1995 respectively- the Sioux winning in 1994 and the Bison in 1995). Of more historical note, the Sioux won 12 straight also from 1953–1964 before the Bison stopped the streak with a 6–3 win in 1965.
Since 1921, NDSU and UND competed as charter members in the NCAA Division IINorth Central Conference. In 2002, NDSU announced their intention to move their football program to the Division I-AA level (and athletic program as a whole to Division I). An agreement for the schools to continue competing on the field could not be reached between the two universities and was the subject of much controversy following NDSU's reclassification. Thus, the Sioux have held the trophy since October 18, 2003, when they defeated NDSU in the last Nickel Trophy game by a 28–21 score in Grand Forks.
Scheduling logistics with their respective conferences and the yearly frequency of the potential resumption of the series are the stated reasons for not resuming. Several high-profile alumni and sports figures have called for a resumption of the series, and there is a grassroots movement for the legislature to require an annual game by law.
On May 16, 2012, UND athletic director Brian Faison announced that UND and NDSU are planning a contract for two more games between each other, first in 2015 in Fargo (NDSU) and then 2017 in Grand Forks (UND). On August 22, 2014, UND athletics announced the signing of a contract for two games against NDSU to be played in Fargo on September 19, 2015 and September 7, 2019.