clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Badgers At Gophers: A History Of Paul Bunyan's Axe

The Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Wisconsin Badgers have the longest-running rivalry in college football, with Saturday's contest marking the 120th game played between the two teams, going all the way back to 1890. The Gophers currently lead the all-time series, with a record against Wisconsin of 59-53, with the teams having tied eight times.

Paul Bunyan's Axe is the current prize that is contested by the Golden Gophers and the Badgers on the football field. . .but a look back at history will tell us that it isn't the first one.

The original trophy that the Golden Gophers and Badgers fought over in the early years of their rivalry was known as the Slab of Bacon. The Slab of Bacon (as you can see from the linked picture there) was nothing more than a piece of wood with a football with an M or a W. . .depending on which way it hangs. . .carved into the top of it. The first game contested over the Slab of Bacon happened in 1930, when the Badgers defeated the Golden Gophers in Madison by a score of 14-0. However, the Badgers' success in games played for the Slab was limited, as the Gophers won 11 of the 14 match-ups overall, including ten of the last eleven.

The last game played for the Slab took place in 1943, a 25-13 Minnesota victory in Minneapolis. There was supposed to be a ceremonial exchange after the game, but officials for the two teams could not find each other. The Badgers sent it to the Gophers' locker room, but George Hauser, the Minnesota coach at the time, refused to accept it, saying that he believed such trophies should not be contested for the duration of World War II, which was taking place at the time. Hence, the trophy game stopped, and the Slab of Bacon was replaced by Paul Bunyan's Axe in 1948.

The trophy was believed to have been lost, but it was actually found in a storage room in Camp Randall Stadium in 1994. It turned out that, while the trophy was thought to be lost, somebody had been maintaining it, as it had the scores of every Minnesota/Wisconsin game from 1930 to 1970 written on the back of it. So, it wasn't lost so much as it was that Wisconsin kept it after the Gophers had technically beaten them for it and then just never bothered to give it back. The Slab currently hangs in the football office at Camp Randall Stadium, even though it is technically property of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

(He said objectively.)

On to the Axe, which was created by the Wisconsin letterwinners' organization and instituted as the trophy in the series in 1948. The scores for every game are recorded on the handle of the axe, which is six feet long. The original axe was retired after the 2003 game. . .the last time Minnesota came away with it, ironically enough. . .and a new axe was brought out for the 2004 edition of the game. Tradition states that if the team that currently holds the Axe retains it, they run to their own sideline, take it out, and carry it around the field. If the team not currently holding the Axe wins the game, they are allowed to run to the other team's sidelines and steal it away.

The Badgers have had a great deal more success in games involving the Axe than they did in games involving the Slab, They lead the series since the Axe became the trophy by a tally of 36-24-3, with this Saturday's game being the 64th game in which the Axe will be up for grabs. In fact, the Golden Gophers have won just five of the last 21 meetings against the Badgers, and have not come out on top since 2003, when Rhys Lloyd's last-second field goal at the Metrodome gave the Golden Gophers a 37-34 victory over the Badgers.

The odds are against the Gophers bringing the Axe back home this season. . .they're currently four-touchdown underdogs to the Badgers. . .but it will certainly be a site to see if they can pull off the upset.

Photographs by Micah Taylor, clairity, and Fibonacci Blue used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.