Ever since the final whistle at Illinois on Saturday, only one thought has occupied the Gophers’ brains.
The pig, the pig, the pig.
Coach P.J. Fleck has repeatedly drilled it into his players, lecturing the new and reminding the old about the history and importance of the Floyd of Rosedale trophy, a prized possession the Gophers and Hawkeyes have vied for through the decades.
There are posters of it hanging around the Gophers’ football facility, lest the bronze statue ever slip to the back of a player’s mind. Heading into Friday’s game against Iowa at TCF Bank Stadium, Fleck has even demanded his players think about the trophy just before bed — and count pigs instead of sheep — so the rivalry will infiltrate their dreams.
Iowa doesn’t need subconscious messaging. It has the real thing set up in its weight room, the pig’s home since 2015.
“At the end of Friday night, somebody is going to walk away with that pig,” Gophers offensive lineman Blaise Andries said. “And we don’t just want it to be us. We desire it. We obsess over it. We are going to do everything we can to get that pig.”
This 114th installment of the border battle — while annually filled with vim and vigor — feels a little different from years past because of and in spite of football.
On the field, the Gophers have a wrong to set right. They were 9-0 last year, riding high off beating higher-ranked Penn State at home, basically creating a straight line to the Big Ten championship, the Rose Bowl, maybe even the College Football Playoff. Instead, they went to Iowa and lost 23-19, knocking the Gophers off their postseason trajectory.
Off the field, both programs have grappled with the times. From the COVID-19 pandemic causing stress and scrambling to this summer’s renewed call to end racial injustice after George Floyd’s killing under a Minneapolis police officer’s knee, Iowa and Minnesota haven’t been able to focus on only the game.
“It doesn’t happen every year where things are dramatically different, but the bottom line is, you do something 22 years, life comes at you. Life is not static. Life doesn’t stay the same,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Real life doesn’t, and certainly, a life in athletics. Because they go hand in hand.”
Ferentz has been the Hawkeyes coach since 1999, the longest tenure in college football, and compiled a 163-106 record in Iowa City. It’s something Fleck has come to admire and strive to replicate, the stability found in a longtime coach, how that consistent culture and identity sustains long-term success.
But Iowa learned this summer how steadiness can belie stagnancy.
Shortly after Floyd’s death on a south Minneapolis street, dozens of former and current Iowa players spoke out on social media about racism, bullying and mistreatment they experienced while on the team. An independent report later confirmed the program’s racial bias against Black players from current and former coaches. Iowa fired strength coach Chris Doyle for his part in demeaning and abusing players.
Defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon said the Hawkeyes have used the offseason reckoning as a chance to redefine their program for the better.
“All the things that happened during the summer, we pushed through,” Nixon said. “ ... That’s what Iowa football culture is. You have to fight through adversity. You have to get through the hard times in order to be successful.”
The Gophers have dealt with systemic racism in their own way, realizing how Floyd’s death in their city deeply affected the team. Players helped develop the program’s new HERE campaign, dedicated to helping end racism through education, starting with team discussions and history lessons about racism in America. Players such as star receiver Rashod Bateman have found their voices and shared their own experiences with racism.
“I think Coach Fleck and this culture do a great job of being able to listen to the players and listen to the things that we need,” Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “… I think that’s how you can create sustained success for 10 years. We always talk about, we’re not building for one year, we’re not building for one game. Coach is thinking about 10 years down the line.”
Now in his fourth season as Gophers coach, Fleck has yet to beat Iowa, the one West Division team to elude him. And the teams might be the most evenly matched this year.
Both have navigated the new challenges COVID-19 presents, from Iowa having to shut down its athletics operations for a few days this fall after a spike in positive tests to the Gophers shuffling around personnel to deal with virus-related absences.
Neither fared great to start the season, dropping the first two games before rebounding big this past weekend. With other West teams having canceled games from COVID-19, there is still a path to the title. But that quest has to start Friday, with Iowa’s zipped-up defense against the Gophers’ high-scoring offense.
While each team has professed this game is just like any other, there’s a long history of emotion between them. Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, Kirk Ferentz’s son, has criticized Fleck’s recruiting tactics in the past. Gophers cornerback Benjamin St-Juste posted on Instagram earlier this week how he hadn’t forgotten the “disrespect” from 2019.
Whether in this rivalry or in other games, Fleck said he’s always driving his team to continually evolve in the pursuit of something greater.
“If it’s not broken, break it, and see if you can build it back to what it was or make it better,” Fleck said. “It’s almost a disease that you have that it’s hard to be able to find what’s good enough. But that also benefits well for a program.”
Friday night will reveal if real-life advances can rewrite these teams’ on-field history.
“It’s like anything in life,” Ferentz said. “Time will tell.”