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College Football Relics: Paul Bunyan’s Axe vs. The Old Oaken Bucket

Comparing two of the oddest trophies in college football, given to the winners of Minnesota vs. Wisconsin and Indiana vs. Purdue.

With nearly 150 years of history, college football has a myriad of treasured artifacts. The very best come from rivalry games, many with their own unique trophies. Two of the strangest and most historic reside in Big Ten Country and will be on the line this weekend.

Paul Bunyan’s Axe

Wisconsin at Minnesota: Saturday, 3 p.m., BTN

  • All-time meetings: 130 (Wisconsin leads 62-60-8)
  • Current trophy replaced a Slab of Bacon
  • Six-foot long handle
  • Second-edition axe debuted in 2000

College football’s most-played rivalry, naturally, comes with its share of history. Minnesota won the first-ever meeting between the two sides, 63-0, kicking off a long and continuous feud that didn’t have an official prize for 50 years. The first trophy? A Slab of Bacon, first handed out in 1930. However, the slab vanished in 1943, only to re-emerge with updated scores into the 1970s. In the interim, the two schools decided to create the Paul Bunyan Axe in 1948, which has an inscription of a capital M or W depending on how it’s held.

The axe is named after fabled hero Paul Bunyan, a giant lumberjack who, according to myth, created the Grand Canyon, the Black Hills and the Puget Sound.

A legendary figure deserves a tool that bears the same stature, and that tool comes with its own tales. In 2019, the year Minnesota ended a 14-game losing streak to Wisconsin and regained the axe, the Badgers held a gripe with the Gophers over how they handled the axe. In 2018, Minnesota was hosting, “everybody can touch it” events at the stadium and State Fair. Then-Wisconsin linebacker Chris Orr said Minnesota “didn’t honor the players before,” calling Minnesota’s handling of the trophy, disrespectful. Wisconsin currently holds a two-game winning streak and it’ll be interesting to see what happens should the axe change hands again.

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The Old Oaken Bucket

Indiana at Purdue: Saturday, 3 p.m., FS1

  • Number of meetings: 122 (Purdue leads 74-42-6)
  • First awarded in 1925
  • Named after a poem by Samuel Woodworth

“The old oaken bucket, the iron-bound bucket; the moss-covered bucket which hung in the well.”

That is the end of the poem that served as inspiration for the trophy awarded to the winner of the Indiana vs. Purdue football game. Its author, Samuel Woodworth, was not from Indiana, but the poem showcases the sentiment that residents feel toward their home state. The poem has been set to music a few times, including by G. F. Kiallmark and Bing Crosby.

Oaken Bucket games have had their share of memorable moments. From the teams battling the elements in 1952 to the 2007 thriller, ranked by the Big Ten Network as the seventh-best trophy game of the 2000s, Memorial Stadium has history within its history.

Lee Corso of ESPN’s College Gameday is entrenched in this rivalry. In 1980, under the largest crowd to witness the game at the time, then-Indiana coach Corso’s son Steve scored a touchdown with under a minute to play. Corso decided to go for two, but stalwart Purdue linebacker Mike Marks stopped the attempt. Indiana was able to recover the onside kick and set up for a potential game-winning 59-yard field goal. Marks deflected the attempt, preserving the Boilermakers’ win.

The IndyStar wrote this about Corso: “The Indiana football coach first risked the life of his son, then his own neck Saturday in an effort to emerge victorious in the annual ado that decides who’s going to laugh and who’s going to cry in our state for a year.”

The Bucket is college football’s second-oldest trophy, eclipsed only by the Little Brown Jug, awarded to the winner of the game between Minnesota and Michigan. Purdue has already played “Spoiler-Maker” to Michigan and Michigan State this year, and will look to end the regular season with its fifth win in six games. The Hoosiers are losers of seven in a row and come in as heavy underdogs. The six-pound bucket seems likely to change hands, as the Hoosiers won the last meeting between the two, but rivalries are littered with upsets. Nothing is guaranteed.