Wisconsin hosts Minnesota on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network), and there’s clearly much on the line. A Badgers win clinches them the Big Ten West and sends them to the league championship, while a loss probably forecloses all of that.
They shouldn’t need any extra motivation. But in the form of the Badgers and Gophers’ rivalry trophy, Paul Bunyan’s Axe, they have it anyway. Look at this beauty:
That’s a gorgeous axe. Here’s what the hell is going on here.
Wisconsin and Minnesota have been playing football against one another since 1890, but the axe didn’t work its way into the fold until 1948.
There’s some legend about the axe having once actually been Paul Bunyan’s, which is fine. In real life, it’s a creation of the National W Club, Wisconsin’s letter-winner alumni organization.
The scores of every game since 1948’s are written out on the axe, which was replaced with a longer-handled model 13 years ago. Wisconsin has won 12 years in a row, bringing its all-time record against Minnesota to a stunningly even 58-59-8. But in terms of actual axe victories since 1948, Wisconsin is 41-24-3. Minnesota’s best days in the series came in the 1930s.
For a lot of years, there was a tradition that dictated the winning school would take the axe, run down the field, and pretend to chop down a goalpost.
But that stopped after the teams had an altercation in 2013, because you don’t want there to be a freaking axe in the middle of a fight between large groups of 270-pound men, or around a large crowd of spectators.
If you’d believe it, the rivalry trophy was previously even cooler.
Before the axe, the annual Wisconsin-Minnesota game was contested with something even more prestigious on the line: the Slab of Bacon.
The slab came into existence in 1930, carved by a Minnesota doctor who had an interest in the series. The slab either looks like an M or a W depending on which way it’s vertically hanging, and the winner got to say it “brought home the bacon.”
It went out of circulation sometime in the 1940s. According to Justin Doherty in his book Tales from the Wisconsin Badgers, a Wisconsin student was to give the slab to a Minnesota counterpart after a game one year. But the Gophers’ win prompted a field-storming, and the slab got lost in the chaos. Wisconsin eventually got the slab back, and now it sits in UW’s football building.
And that’s how a middling Big Ten West game gets not one, but two elite rivalry trophies that have served it for the better part of a century.