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Getting to know Minnesota’s Golden Gophers now that boycott is over; Wazzu's Holiday Bowl opponent was a very big deal back in the day

MINNESOTA WILL INDEED play Washington State in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27, now that the players have withdrawn their boycott. So on the field, what's the story on the Golden Gophers? Minnesota has become a bit of an afterthought in the Big Ten, but there was once a time when Gopher football was a very big deal.

When college football was in its infancy, Minnesota was on the cutting edge. The game that has always felt right at home in the frozen north became a campus favorite in the late 1800's. Minnesota quickly developed rivalries with the neighboring schools in Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin. Those rivalries grew into a tradition that helped form Minnesota into an early college football powerhouse.

National Championships
The first half of the twentieth century was a golden era for Minnesota, which saw them win six national championships through World War II. After the war, success came less frequently. But the Gophers still won a seventh national championship in 1960, their last to date.  They also won the last of their conference titles in 1967. But despite a nearly 50-year drought, UM still ranks third in the Big Ten with 18 conference titles.

Recent Struggles
Since 1967, Minnesota football has become remarkably unremarkable. From 1968-98 the Gophers made three bowl games, and never won more than seven games in a single season. Part of the malaise seems to have coincided with the university's decision to move football games into the Metrodome. It was considered more modern at the time and offered Gopher fans a comfortable game day environment.  But it was also off campus, and lacked atmosphere.

TCF Bank Stadium
After years of failed attempts, the Gophers finally got their own stadium again in 2009. “The Bank” seats 50,805 and houses the largest home locker room of any stadium in college or professional football. Gopher fans hope it will help level the recruiting playing field in the years to come. And since the new stadium opened, the Gophers have made six bowl appearances, including the last five years in a row.

Rivalries
Minnesota enjoys rivalries with most of their Big Ten roommates, and generally speaking the Gophers have held their own historically. With the exceptions of Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State, the Gophers have a winning record vs. all other Big Ten schools. Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan are Minnesota's biggest rivals. The Michigan game has become an exercise in futility for Minnesota, with the Gophers winning just four games vs. the Wolverines since 1968. However, the Wisconsin game is the biggest concern on the minds of many Gopher fans. Once a rivalry that the Gophers held in control, the Badgers have won the last 14 meetings, and 20 of the last 22. Minnesota is now clinging to a one game lead in the series.

Trophies
Paul Bunyan's Axe: The most important rivalry for Minnesota these days is also college football's longest. At 124 games and counting, the Minnesota-Wisconsin matchup dates back to 1890. Since 1948 the winner gets a a 6-foot axe which is used to “chop down” the opponent's goal posts.

The Little Brown Jug: The Gophers play Michigan for the oldest exchanged trophy in FBS football. The story goes that Michigan’s Fielding Yost didn't trust Minnesota to give his players clean water and brought a five gallon jug of water with him to the 1903 game. The Gophers managed a surprising 6-6 tie and Yost apparently left the jug behind as Minnesota fans stormed the field. Keeping the jug as the spoils of war, the two teams have fought over it ever since.

Floyd of Rosedale: Minnesota and Iowa both peaked as college football powerhouses in the 1930's, a time that saw the politicians get involved. Minnesota Governor Floyd Olson formally bet his Iowa counterpart a prize winning pig in 1935. Iowa's governor accepted and was later forced to deliver a pig to his office when the Gophers triumphed. He begrudgingly named the pig “Floyd” in his honor. Today, the two teams play for a 100-pound bronze likeness of the famous swine.

The Governor's Victory Bell: The rivalry with Penn State isn't exactly historic but Minnesota has a thing for trophies, so they created the Victory Bell to welcome Penn State to the Big Ten in 1993.

$5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy: After Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011, online banter between fans produced a $5 bet over the winner but then eventually spiraled into a something else: the winner gets to break a wooden chair over the loser's back. The online community resoundingly approved, and eventually an actual trophy materialized to commemorate the wager and was presented at the 2014 game. Both schools' official position is that this trophy does not exist, but the fans disagree.

Best Defunct Trophy: Slab of Bacon Trophy.  Minnesota and Wisconsin played for the slab from 1930-1943. Minnesota coach George Hauser refused to accept trophy following the 1943 game out of respect for World War II. The trophy, a piece of black walnut with a football at the center bearing an "M" or "W" depending on which way its hung, was lost in a Wisconsin storage room before being rediscovered in 1994.

Famous Players
Minnesota's most famous alums are Hall of Fame fullback Bronko Nagurski and 1941 Heisman Trophy winner and running back Bruce Smith. More recent stars include running backs Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney  and receiver Eric Decker.

History with WSU and Leach
Minnesota and WSU have only met five times, with WSU leading the series 3-2. The last matchup was 28 years ago, with Dennis Erickson's Cougs thumping the Gophers 41-9 in Minneapolis in 1988. But Mike Leach has a history with Minnesota in his own right too. He faced the Gophers while coaching Texas Tech in the 2006 Insight Bowl. Trailing 38-7 in the third quarter, Leach's Red Raiders staged the biggest comeback in bowl game history to defeat the Gophers 44-41 in overtime. The calamity got Minnesota head coach Glen Mason fired, and it’s still a sore subject with Gopher fans today.

RELATED STORY: Misguided Minnesota bowl boycott ends


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