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Badgers get Axe back, say Minnesota celebrated too much

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Jonathan Taylor of the Wisconsin Badgers
Jonathan Taylor of the Wisconsin Badgers celebrates the team's win over the Minnesota Gophers with the Paul Bunyan Axe at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday in Minneapolis.
Hannah Foslien | Getty Images

When Minnesota beat Wisconsin last year to stop a 14-game losing streak in the series, the Gophers had much to celebrate.

The Badgers, as it turned out, didn’t appreciate the lengths of the revelry that took place across the border over the past year.

After Wisconsin took back Paul Bunyan’s Axe on Saturday with a victory as decisive as Minnesota’s was last season, the Badgers didn’t hold back in expressing their disdain for the way the 71-year-old traveling trophy was handled by their oldest rival.

“We just felt like they disrespected the Axe by renting it out to people,” linebacker Chris Orr said, lamenting the “everybody-can-touch-it” opportunities that Minnesota staged over the past year at various venues, from the stadium to the state fair. 

Paul's Axe
Senate President Jeremy Miller displays Paul Bunyan's Axe, a football trophy brought to the Capitol by the University of Minnesota in February 2019.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

“It means more than that. People played this game for a very long time. It means more than that. It’s not a commodity or something that you can just rent out for money or whatever the case is, trying to make profit off it," Orr said. "I feel like that was disrespectful. They didn’t honor the players that came before.”

The Badgers avenged their 37-15 loss at home in 2018 with a 38-17 victory on Saturday, overwhelming the Gophers in the second half with a fierce pass rush and strong pass coverage on defense and sharp play-calling and back-breaking long gains on offense.

When the game went final, a swarm of white-uniformed Badgers converged on the west goal post to perform the ceremonial chopping. With 22 wins in the last 25 years of the most-played series in major college football history, the Badgers have a 61-60-8 edge on the Gophers. Paul Bunyan’s Axe didn’t enter the picture until 1948.

“The worst feeling in the world was losing on our own field and having them take it,” Orr said. “The best feeling in the world is beating them on their home field on senior day and taking it from them.”

The Gophers not only ended the long losing streak last year, but they became bowl eligible on the final try to end coach P.J. Fleck’s second season with a flourish, beating the Badgers at their own game with a powerful performance on both sides of the ball at the line of scrimmage. With a team that hasn’t finished in first place in the Big Ten since 1967, in front of lagging attendance, the university naturally seized the opportunity to renew some statewide pride in the program.

Minnesota players celebrate with the Paul Bunyan Axe
Minnesota players celebrate with the Paul Bunyan Axe trophy after beating Wisconsin 37-15 on Nov. 24, 2018, in Madison, Wis.
Andy Manis | AP 2018

Fleck was asked earlier in the week about complaints by the Badgers about the offseason Axe tour.

“That wasn’t a rub in anybody’s face,” Fleck said. “There’s people who are very emotional when they had it. We had people rent it out all over. It was at weddings, anniversaries, parties. This year it’s Minnesota’s. That’s what rivalry trophies are. That’s why they’re so passionate. 

"If Wisconsin wins it, they get to share it with whoever they want to share it with. It’s Wisconsin's. When Minnesota wins it, they get to share it with whoever they want to share it with. It’s Minnesota’s that year. It wasn’t mine. It wasn’t just our players’. It was the state of Minnesota’s. For me, I wanted people to be a part of our football program, to invest more in our football program, see we can do things. It wasn’t like we were holding it out the window driving through the entire state of Wisconsin. That would be showing up. But sharing with our in-state alums, donors, boosters, supporters, I think that’s culture, tradition. I think that’s what the point was.”

Either way, the Badgers have it now.

“It’s going to sting for a little while,” Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “That’s football. You’ve got your highs and you’ve got your lows. This is obviously a low for us, but our team will respond. I can guarantee you that.”