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When the Wisconsin Badgers take on the Golden Gophers of Minnesota in their annual contest, there’s more at stake than mere regional bragging rights. In this fabled battle for the border, the winning school gets to take home the axe of mythical figure Paul Bunyan. In earlier years, the two teams used to compete for a trophy called the “Slab of Bacon.” While the name of the prize has changed, the commitment to excellence in the Badger State hasn’t diminished in the slightest.
A founding member of the Big Ten Conference, Wisconsin has been tussling with opponents since entering competition in the late 1800s. Both in football and basketball, the Badgers are staples of postseason play. However, it’s actually on the ice where Wisconsin has seen the most success. The men’s and women’s ice hockey teams have combined to capture 10 national championships, and in 2006, made Badger history as both squads won NCAA titles. To be fair, the school isn’t exactly a slouch on the gridiron or hardwood, either. Wisconsin football has won the Rose Bowl three different times, and the hoops team can point to numerous appearances in the Sweet 16, plus a particularly memorable Final Four run in 2000.
While it may be difficult to pinpoint how a Midwestern school can become so widely lauded, a large chunk of credit is due to athletic director Barry Alvarez. As the university’s football coach for 16 seasons, Alvarez led the Badgers to three Big Ten championships and three Rose Bowl victories, and was named Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year in 1993. A member of both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame, Alvarez won more than 100 games during his time as the Badgers’ field general.
Football fans love to talk about how teams need to compete for 60 minutes to win a game, but in Madison, the Badgers and their supporters put in an extra half-hour of effort. At Camp Randall Stadium, the end of a contest signals the start of the “Fifth Quarter.” Members of the Wisconsin marching band take the field and rock out for spectators, regardless of whether the school is celebrating a big win or coming to grips with a devastating loss. The extra 30 minutes of support is especially impressive when you consider that the other long-running Wisconsin football tradition requires fans to “get out of their seats and jump around” at the end of the third quarter and not stop until the beginning of the fourth.
As sung in the university’s rallying cry, “forward” is the driving spirit of Badger fandom. For more than 100 years, student-athletes have donned the cardinal red and white in an attempt to bring victory home to the Wisconsin faithful. Some years have been more successful than others, but through it all, the university’s school spirit has never been called into question -- and in some ways, that’s even more rewarding than championship trophies.