A murmur has crossed the border, as petty tsk-tsking about your neighbor's conspicuous behavior often does, that some Wisconsinites frown upon P.J. Fleck's yearlong campaign to have every man, woman and child in Minnesota take a selfie with Paul Bunyan's Axe.
It's not a formal grievance, not an argument-starter at the Thanksgiving table. More like an entire state raising its eyebrows.
"We had [the Axe] forever and they finally get it, and they get to parade around the state with it," Wisconsin linebacker Mike Maskalunas told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this week. "We definitely noticed that."
Agree or argue with Maskalucas' gripe — Fleck proclaimed his innocence this week, saying of his Axe-on-Tour road trips, "That wasn't a rub in anybody's face" — but you have to give the Badgers football player this much: Maskalucas totally gets this rivalry.
Over 13 decades and 128 meetings, Wisconsin and Minnesota football fans have been offended and annoyed by their counterparts just across the river, antagonized in that passive-aggressive Midwestern way. Good-natured bad blood, you might call it, the sort that makes the victories all the sweeter and the losses more punishing than any gang tackle.
Heck, the rivalry was ignited from the very first game in 1890, when according to Gophers historian and author Al Pappas Jr., Minnesota's collegians were angered that "Wisconsin acted like they were better than us. They said they wouldn't set foot on campus, and they put on airs by showing up wearing top hats."
The Gophers' response? They knocked those high hats off with a 63-0 victory at Athletic Park in downtown Minneapolis. And yeah, it's been a tug-of-war ever since.
Rivalry gets even bigger
The latest chapter comes Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, when the eighth-ranked Gophers and the 12th-rated Badgers determine which team is the West Division champion, who gets to play Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game, and probably which state's fans get to spend New Year's Day in Pasadena.
That seems like a pretty big pile of chips to have riding on one game. So does it even matter who the opponent is? Wouldn't the buildup feel exactly as intense if there were Boilermakers or Cornhuskers on the other side?
That's not how this works, the Gophers say. "It's Wisconsin," summed up Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan, a native Kentuckian whose aversion toward the Badgers is fermented, not innate. "It's something you learn about when you come to Minnesota, right away. … I know what [beating Wisconsin] means to this state and this program."
And, it must be said, what losing to them for — avert your eyes, Minnesota — 14 consecutive years and 23 times in a quarter-century means to the fans, too.
"It feels like having my head beat in every year," Pappas said.
Which is why a certain segment of Gophers fans will forever revere Fleck, who led Minnesota to a ghost-chasing 37-15 rout at Camp Randall Stadium last year, a victory that could have filled 10,000 lakes with tears of joy. Sensing the euphoria he unleashed, Fleck embarked on a group hug with the entire state, as if returning a long-lost family heirloom, that ubiquitous Axe, to its grieving owners.
"There are people who are very emotional when they [see] it. We had people rent it out all over, at weddings, anniversaries, parties," Fleck said. "That's what rivalry trophies are. That's why [fans] are so passionate."
That's a passion that long predates Fleck, of course. This rivalry is the most played in big-time college football, but one that in many years attracts little national notice. This week's matchup is only the seventh in the series ever pitting two teams ranked in the Top 25 — that's another stat to ignore: the Badgers have won the previous six — a number that, say, Ohio State and Michigan fans would scoff at. Not that it matters to those with a red or maroon wardrobe on that day.
"You get very emotionally involved in those games, year after year. That hasn't changed. For me, even in the bad years, [the rivalry] never cooled off," said Tom Moe, who played for the Gophers from 1957-59 — and went 0-3 against the Badgers, he hates being reminded — and served as the University of Minnesota's athletic director from 2000-02. "I want us to win that game in the worst way. I don't think I'll ever get over that."
Two of Moe's grandchildren, senior linebacker Carter Coughlin and freshman quarterback Cole Kramer, will be in uniform Saturday, getting to experience the joy or anguish of the Battle for the Axe for themselves.
"I'm sure the kids are sky-high for this week," said Moe, who intends to be in his seat a couple of hours before kickoff, just to savor the fervor. "They've heard Grandpa talk about it enough over the years."
Plenty of games are still talked about. Ask any Gophers old-timer about 1962, when Minnesota, coming off two consecutive Rose Bowl appearances that remain their most recent invitations, appeared headed to victory with less than three minutes left in the season finale. Then came a dubious roughing-the-passer penalty, compounded when Gophers coach Murray Warmath was flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct after, as Sid Hartman wrote in the Minneapolis Tribune, the coach "gently grabbed the official by his arm" as he turned away. The Badgers capitalized with a late touchdown and a 14-9 victory.
"Badgers, Penalties Beat Gophers," read the 60-point headline in the Tribune the next morning, complete with a five-photo spread examining the controversial call; Sports Illustrated went with "Two Goofs Kill the Gophers."
This is college football, a sport at its best when the emotions are raw. The Gophers and Badgers meet in plenty of other sports, too, but it's not the same. Wisconsin and Minnesota have met for the NCAA women's hockey championship three times in 14 years, for instance, and while championship banners might be a better prize than a cartoon-sized axe, Gophers coach Brad Frost said the rivalry feels tame by comparison, partly because the players are so familiar with each other.
"One of the great things I love about Big Ten football is the rivalry games and having things on the line, whether it's the Axe or Floyd [of Rosedale, symbolic of the Iowa-Minnesota rivalry]. We don't have that in women's hockey, which is a little disappointing." What would be a good hockey trophy? "I don't know. A casserole dish, something like that," he joked.
This game is no laughing matter to Minnesota or Wisconsin, though, never has been. Moe recalls sitting in the stands at a rivalry game on the road in the 1980s, when his son, Mike, was the backup quarterback.
"After a while, I was ready to play myself. I'm 81 now, and I still feel that intensity," Moe said with a laugh. "I wanted to put a helmet on and hit somebody. That's what rivalries are."