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BORDER BATTLE
David Sabino
August 22, 2008
How can two of the friendliest states in the union get so riled up over a football game?
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August 22, 2008

Border Battle

How can two of the friendliest states in the union get so riled up over a football game?

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YOU WANT A RIVALRY, YOU'VE GOT ONE," EXCLAIMED WISCONSIN COACH BRET BIELEMA AFTER HIS BADGERS HAD EKED OUT A 41-34 WIN OVER THE MINNESOTA GOLDEN GOPHERS AT THE METRODOME LAST NOV. 17. BEFORE THE GAME HIS MINNESOTA COUNTERPART, TIM BREWSTER, HAD BOASTED THAT HIS GOPHERS, DESPITE BEING HUGE UNDERDOGS WITH A 1-10 record, were going to break a three-game losing streak in the series, but it was Bielema's Outback Bowl-bound Badgers who had the last laugh—this time.

That latest flare-up kept the heat on in the Football Bowl Subdivision's (formerly Division I-A) most oft-played series. Even with Wisconsin's four straight wins, Minnesota still holds a 59-50-8 edge in the 117 games played over the last 118 seasons. For generations, such college immortals as Bronko Nagurski, Pat Richter, Bruce Smith and Alan Ameche have played in this tilt between state schools that share a border, a pool of recruiting talent and a hallowed football tradition, and that always seem to display an unequaled intensity against each other.

The fire was lit even before the first ball was snapped, on the evening of Nov. 14, 1890. Wisconsin football was in its second season, and as was the tradition in that much more genteel age, the host Golden Gophers welcomed the visiting Badgers to Minneapolis with a dinner the night before their competition. During the feast, however, the visitors, fresh off the school's first-ever victory (a 106-0 trouncing of Whitewater Normal, now Wisconsin-Whitewater) two weeks before, refused to acknowledge the prowess of their much more experienced hosts, who had been playing the game since 1882. The Minnesotans in turn deemed the upstart out-of-towners ingrates and vowed to make them pay for their impertinence the following day.

That they did. Quarterback Alf Pillsbury powered an onslaught by using a series of unconventional laterals for which Wisconsin had no answer. Minnesota outscored Wisconsin 63-0, and bitter enmity was born.

Over the next 21 years the existence of the rivalry was threatened on two occasions. The first stemmed from the use of mass formations, such as the flying wedge, designed as much to cause physical harm to the opponent as to advance the ball. A 1905 investigation by the Chicago Tribune estimated that there had been 18 deaths and countless serious injuries as a result of these formations during the previous season, prompting President Theodore Roosevelt to call for the suspension of so-called rivalry games until the universities reformed the sport. At the same time a Collier's article appeared outlining corruption in football recruiting and finance practices, particularly at Wisconsin. The schools of the Western Conference (also called the Big Seven) agreed to a moratorium on rivalry games during the '06 season until the shady practices surrounding them could be brought under control or eliminated. Rather than give up what had become a significant source of revenue, Wisconsin and Minnesota reached an agreement that would allow the series to resume in 1907.

Another threat to the rivalry came in 1911, with the teams preparing to meet for the Western Conference title. Wisconsin charged that Minnesota captain Earl Pickering had played professional baseball, violating a conference agreement. Golden Gophers coach Henry L. Williams was incensed. " Minnesota feels that she has been tricked," he said in a statement. " Wisconsin has sought to cripple her on the very eve of the important game of the season."

Minnesota supporters in turn levied their own allegations at a bevy of Badgers in a dispute so ugly that those in attendance at that year's 6-6 tie believed, as was widely reported, they had witnessed the final contest in any sport between these bitter border rivals. Just weeks later, however, allegations from both sides were withdrawn, cooler heads prevailed, and the annual game was allowed to continue.

AFTER THOSE TUMULTUOUS EARLY DAYS THE two teams settled into a more civil relationship. From 1923 through '25 they played, but nothing was decided in three consecutive ties.

Then, in 1930, Minnesota professor Dr. R.B. Fouch came up with an idea to spice up the annual game—a trophy just like the Little Brown Jug that the Golden Gophers and Michigan Wolverines played for each season. The Slab of Bacon was fashioned out of black walnut and affixed with footballs and a W or an M, depending on which way it was held. It was awarded to and proudly displayed by the team who "brought home the bacon" each season. (The Slab was mysteriously lost in the early 1940s but reappeared in '94, in a storage closet in Madison.)

In 1933 another tradition began when the schools agreed to meet each year in the season finale. A year later Minnesota brought home more than just the bacon by winning at Camp Randall Stadium: The Golden Gophers preserved an undefeated season and won their first national championship, only to repeat the feat in Minnesota in '35. Four more times—'36, '40, '41 and '60—the Badgers would be the final obstacle between the Gophers and a national title, and four times Minnesota won.

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