It’s the longest-standing rivalry in collegiate football – Wisconsin and Minnesota – and every time they play, the trophy called “Paul Bunyan’s Axe” is at stake. The Badgers have now retained possession of the axe for seven years in a row. After every year’s game, they have the score of the contest inscribed on the handle of the axe, and the winning school gets to keep the axe in its trophy case until the next gridiron contest.
With the realignment of the Big Ten (or eleven, or twelve, or thirteen, whatever it is now), Barry Alvarez pushed hard to make sure that the rivalry stayed intact, and that Wisconsin and Minnesota would meet every year, no matter how the conference was split to accommodate the addition of Nebraska. Suffice it to say Wisconsin-Minnesota is an important and significant football rivalry, more significant even than the famous rivalry between the two schools on the hockey rink.
So when the Badgers had pretty thoroughly trounced the Gophers Saturday afternoon, and it was late in the game, and Coach Bielema kept his starters in, including star running back John Clay, more than a few tongues started wagging about “piling it on” the Gophers. Then, when the Badgers scored with a handful of minutes left in the game, and went for a two-point conversion, serious questions arose about why the Badgers were running up the score.
After the game, the Minnesota coach, Tim Brewster, rebuffed Coach Bielema’s proffered handshake, in fact slapping his hand away, and obviously said some strong words to Bielema. In his post-game conference, Bielema acknowledged the rebuff, and when asked what was said between them, he said something like “suffice it to say we weren’t talking about car deals”. When asked why he went for two when the game was obviously in control, Coach Bielama said something about how “it’s on the card – when the score is thus and such, you go for two, so I just followed the card.”
Most outstate media outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, said the “card” thing was, in essence, a load of horse manure. Even Wisconsin fans had serious questions about the decision. 70% of those responding to an online question about it on the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s website said it was wrong to go for two. Social media sites, like Facebook, were full of comments from fans taking two decidedly different tacks on the issue. Some said “the Minnesota coach is a crybaby” while others said “Bielema is classless.”
I think it was tasteless and classless to keep the first string in so long, and to go for two when the game was clearly in control. While the Badgers have dominated the series in recent years, some day the tables will be turned, and football memories are long. In some future year, if the Gophers are up by a bunch of points late in the fourth quarter, and keep their starters in, and go for a two-point conversion after a late-game touchdown, we’ll see that they’re as classless as Wisconsin was this weekend. We’ll see if revenge trumps class.