Tuesday, November 26, 2019

So You Want to Beat the Badgers

I made my decision to go to the University of Minnesota on Saturday, October 9th, 1999. I was on campus that day for a formal visit, the details of which escape me other than the fact that it was a beautiful early fall day, and the 4-0 Gophers were playing the 3-2 Badgers at the Metrodome. I was in a tour group of several dozen high school seniors, almost all in maroon and gold. In those days before smart phones we got our score updates from our tour guides at the quarter breaks.

At halftime the score was tied 14-14, and regulation ended tied at 17-17. As overtime was starting, my group was herding into a lecture hall at the Nolte Center for reasons I don’t remember. Before the presentation could start, one of our guides announced the news that the Badgers had kicked a field goal in overtime to win their 5th in a row, 20-17.

The group’s reaction made my mind up for me. Nearly half the group erupted in cheers, falling over the seats to high-five each other, making “W” signs, and muddling through half-right versions of “On Wisconsin”. It was an absolutely surreal experience and it took me a while to react. The guides hunched their shoulders, frowned, and waited it out...they’d seen it before. The people in the group who weren’t cheering traded annoyed looks and a few middle-fingers but that was mostly it.

Eventually the tour guides regained control of the room and continued their presentation but I remember nothing of it; I sat and silently fumed, a pounding headache growing in my temple. I hadn’t grown up a Gopher fan; my parents are from Iowa and they didn’t go to college, so it wasn’t a deep-seeded Gopher loyalty that made my blood boil. What I had just witnessed struck me as hypocritical and perverse.  I tried to wrap my mind around how someone could enthusiastically cheer against a school they had chosen to consider and I just…couldn’t. There was no scenario I could envisage where I would make that decision and it left me with absolutely no respect for them.

By the time I left the Nolte Center I knew I was going to the University of Minnesota. Maybe it’s a ridiculous reason to make that decision. But I had just seen an annoying, loud problem and I wanted to be part of the change. Decades as a commuter school, legislative and administrative neglect, and athletic incompetence had left Minnesota with a big hole to climb out of, but it looked like we were starting to do it, and it was exciting. The U was the only school I applied to, and I made no other visits elsewhere after that day.

I was a freshman in 2000, joined the marching band where I met some of my closest friends, had a 3-1 bowl record, and got to experience two wins over Wisconsin in person. When Minnesota beat Wisconsin 42-31 in 2001 it ended Wisconsin’s bowl hopes, and we marched through traffic down Washington Avenue and across the bridge back to Northrop Auditorium from the Metrodome. In 2003 I got too hyped for the game, overstepped and ripped the left inseam on my pants from the crotch to the spat on the first step of the Pregame show. I went the rest of the game with my boxer shorts occasionally flapping out in front of 59,000 people. Rhys Lloyd kicked a game-winning field goal to win 37-34, jumped the Badger bench to get the Axe, and the Badger band had to march up the Metrodome tunnel with frowns and a few extraordinarily delicious tears.

Things looked like they might be turning around until 2005. Now graduated, I was a volunteering with the marching band and found myself on the field near the end zone when Justin Kucek’s blocked punt was piled on by what seemed like 500 Badgers with 30 seconds to go. Wisconsin won 38-34. As the blocked punt spun on the turf, I remember making mental calculations. What if I ran on the field and took the ball up the tunnel? I’d probably be banned from games but…it might be worth-it? I’m not sure how fan interference rules work…how bad will the Gophers get penalized? Am I seriously considering this? No you’re not this is stupid. OR…or…

In the time it took for me to process those thoughts it was all over. Who am I kidding? I would never have had the guts to do it and there’s no way I would have made it anyway. Instead I got to watch the celebration from 10-20 feet away, helpless. The high school friends I spent that evening with had all gotten over it but I was still fuming and not pleasant company. I think I’ve made a semi-conscious effort to block out most of the games since until last year.

Rivalries are one thing, but there are different tiers. Penn State is a rival in name only, and if it weren’t for 1999 and 2019 there’d only be a used bowling league trophy. The Jug keeps Michigan relevant but calling it one-sided is generous. Nebraska is growing into a fun little competition. Iowa is definitely a rival, but despite the cheer, I don’t hate them. I enjoy needling my Iowa-fan family members, but I just haven’t had the negative fan experiences with them some have.

Wisconsin is different. I don’t hate them. I despise Wisconsin athletics, and I have since that first moment. I want to win the Big Ten West, go to a Rose Bowl, go to the Playoff. But even with things like that riding on Saturday’s game, I find myself focusing more on beating Wisconsin twice in a row, proving 2018 was a new direction and not a fluke. I want them to walk away humbled and vaguely sensing the kind of existential dread for the future Gopher fans are so familiar with.

Why is this? Why such a different and visceral response for this program and its fanbase? Well, my 1999 experience set the tone for the majority of my interactions with that group going forward. I know you probably have some similar experiences. That’s what colors my view of this rivalry and motivates me. If you’re looking for more motivation, consider one or more of the following:
  • Every Badger fan who’s said something to you about “14 years”.
  • Every Badger fan who forgot about 1892 to 1992.
  • "The Harvard of the Midwest”.
  • Everyone who ever picked up a beer can or a battery with intent to injure.
  • "Shoot him like a horse!”
  • The person in your dorm who wore maroon and gold to every game except the Wisconsin game.
  • The people who sold their student tickets to Badger fans for beer money.
  • tHe GrEaTeSt TrAdItIoN iN cOlLeGe FoOtBaLl
  • Barry Alvarez.
  • Holding.
  • Somehow making every mediocre quarterback look elite.
  • The guy I went to high school with who said the Badger band travels a lot because “most Big Ten schools don’t have bands” and it wasn’t a veiled insult, he genuinely thought it was true.
  • The kid in Nolte Center in 1999 who pulled off his Minnesota shirt and strutted around Faith Hilling with his Wisconsin shirt underneath.

Last year’s win in Madison was a catharsis and was a catalyst for the incredible season we’ve all been able to experience this year, but’s not enough. It’s fitting in a way that we lost to Iowa, forcing the path to the Big Ten West Championship to go through Wisconsin. Beating Iowa to win outright or having Wisconsin drop a game to Nebraska or Purdue would have made for great schadenfreude but at the end of the day it’s like an avoidance behavior. Just like dealing with losing, successful programs have to be able face high pressure games head-on and come out on top. What better place than here? What better time than now?

No comments:

Post a Comment