As a devoted alumnus of the University of Wisconsin, Kevin O’Connor of Minnetonka is organizing the biannual Badger tailgating fundraiser before Saturday’s Border Battle at TCF Bank Stadium.
O’Connor expects 1,000 or so will attend the rally featuring cheerleaders, live music and Bucky Badger himself. Cocky Golden Gopher fans in his family will go for the party, offering a Ski-U-Mah palette of maroon and gold to clash with those bedecked in red and white. “They can drink beer and eat brats with the best of them,” O’Connor said of the Minnesota interlopers. “Some of them will even dance with Bucky when he shows up.”
O’Connor knows this to be true because his wife, Julie, and their two older sons, Ryan and Will, are Gophers. Only their youngest son, Kyle, a freshman at Madison, is a Badger.
Divided loyalties aren’t uncommon in the friendly border states with the portmanteau “Minnesconsin.” University tuition reciprocity makes cross-border families and friendships inevitable. According to Wisconsin’s Alumni Association, there are 26,623 Badgers living in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
While the annual Gopher-Badger rivalry dates to 1890, this year’s game in Minneapolis has something not seen for some time in these parts: high stakes.
Until last year, Paul Bunyan’s Axe had made its home in Madison for 14 straight years. Bringing the trophy back to the East Bank was a highlight for the Gophers, but neither team could stop Northwestern from winning the Big Ten West.
This year, the winner will be crowned and likely headed to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl, if not the four-team national College Football Playoff.
The Gophers bring the pent-up demand of not having smelled the roses since 1962. Meanwhile, the Badgers rode a resurgence that led the football program to Pasadena in 1994. Wisconsin has gone to southern California four times since then, most recently in 2013.
Badgers football fans are familiar with winning, while Gopher boosters are busy replacing years of practiced indifference with the zeal of the newly converted.
Minnesota senior Erich Korth of Stillwater will help set up a Wisconsin tailgating party with his mom, Lisa Winkler, a dedicated Badger, as he has for years. Erich and his dad, Dirk, will be there in Gopher gear, while younger brother Max, a sophomore in Madison, will join his mom in red.
“I’m honestly a little bit more nervous this year,” Erich Korth said. “In the past it’s been a write-off that we were going to lose. There’s so much more of an emotional investment this year because we have a serious opportunity to win the game.”
He conceded that Badger backers bring nothing but good-natured enthusiasm. “It’s more like a sibling rivalry than a gang rivalry,” he said.
Wisconsin native Mark Barrette’s assessment was more pointed. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Paula, who was raised in Chisholm and belongs to Gopher Nation.
The couple will watch the game at a bar with similarly divided friends.
Barrette noted, not incorrectly, that the Gophers bandwagon is newly crowded.
“It has not been much of a rivalry,” he said. “But now when Minnesota’s doing well, the fans come out of the woodwork. … You definitely see the groundswell, it’s exciting for fans. I get that.”
He’s looking forward to a “really cool day” even if he’s pessimistic about what awaits the winner in the Big Ten Championship game.
“Neither one is going to beat Ohio State,” he said. “Ohio State is a whole ’nother level.”
For the Deutsch family in Edina, it’s Mom and Dad vs. the two kids. Ronda and Pete are Gophers. Their children, Greta and Joel, go to school in Madison.
Ronda Deutsch, a 1987 U grad, said she and her husband have attended games for years — but only this year did they purchase season tickets.
She said that Joel will sit with them Saturday in his red and white, while Greta will be in the Wisconsin student section.
Because of the kids, the couple have attended games in Madison wearing the home team gear — to a point.
“My husband will not wear red. His Wisconsin shirt is gray,” she said.
Then there’s Julie Miller of Burnsville, a 50-year-old freelance advertising writer with loyalties so divided that she has one of those custom jerseys that is half Minnesota, half Wisconsin.
The Edina native graduated from Wisconsin in 1992, just as Badgers football emerged from mediocrity.
She grew up attending Gophers games at Memorial Stadium with her dad, Cal Carlson. Her mom, Margaret Sughrue Carlson, ran alumni programs at the U until 2010. Her husband is a Gopher. They will watch the game in separate rooms.
For every other game, she’s so committed to both teams that she flips her attire midday. “I have a full set of Gophers and Wisconsin gear,” she said.
Watching the Gophers play well has been bittersweet for Miller because her father, as dedicated a Gophers fan as they come, died in January. His maroon and gold sweater, along with his cremated remains in an urn, will be nearby Saturday as she watches the game. She also expects his spirit to be at TCF Bank Stadium, as an angel on the shoulders of Gopher coaches and players.
“For him it would have mattered so much,” she said.
When Paul Bunyan’s Axe landed at the U last year, No. 1 son Ryan tracked it down on the Twin Cities campus. He quickly shot a picture and sent it to his Badger father.
Gophers fan Julie O’Connor said her husband, Kevin, “would love to sink the [Gophers’] boat” that coach P.J. Fleck is calling on everyone west of the St. Croix to row.