Patrick Reusse
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Coach P.J. Fleck would have a Gophers team take possession of the Paul Bunyan Axe for the second time in his five seasons with a victory in Saturday's home game vs. Wisconsin.

This would be notable considering the Gophers had lost 13 straight games to the Badgers when Fleck was hired for the 2017 season. It became 14 straight that fall with a 31-0 shellacking from the Badgers, and then came the Gophers' 37-15 blowout win in Camp Randall on Nov. 24, 2018.

Wisconsin was committed to bringing the Axe with it Friday for a possible exchange to take place Saturday evening.

As for the other UM-UW football trophy … well, The Slab of Bacon remains ensconced in the Badgers' football offices under false pretenses.

The Slab of Bacon was a wooden carving that debuted in 1930 and was presented through 1943. The Gophers were 11-3 in those games.

There have been occasional recollections of that trophy printed in Twin Cities newspapers, but no one in recent time has taken as much interest as did Mark Cota, a retired computer salesman from Eden Prairie.

"I'm an amateur woodworker and attempt to come up for something to put into competition at the State Fair,'' Cota said. "I heard about The Slab of Bacon, a trophy made out of walnut, and decided to try to make a replica.

"There were several mysteries — starting with why was The Slab of Bacon in the possession of Wisconsin, when the Gophers won the game in 1943, and also won in 1947, the season before the Axe became the trophy?''

The 1943 angle has been well-documented. The Gophers won 25-13 that November. Wisconsin had the trophy from a 1942 victory, and a couple of student-managers were told to take the hunk of walnut to the Gophers.

They were unable to complete the task, when a share of the home fans stormed the field in celebration.

Badgers coach Harry Stuhldreher, he of Notre Dame's 'Four Horsemen'' fame, told the lads to head for the home locker room and deliver the bacon to George Hauser, the Gophers' interim coach (Bernie Bierman was serving in the military).

Hauser refused to accept it, stating such pomp as trophy exchanges should not take place with World War II raging.

With nothing else to do with it, the Badgers took The Slab of Bacon back to Madison. There it stayed, even as the Gophers had won two straight leading into the first Axe game in 1948.

The Badgers said The Slab of Bacon was lost. And it was not found until the early '90s. Jim Mott had retired as Wisconsin's sports information director, other employees started going through storage rooms he had used and the walnut block of bacon was found in a briefcase, inside a larger case.

Which brings up the largest mystery for Cota:

"If The Slab of Bacon was lost in the mid-'40s, why were the scores filled in for all the games through 1970?'' he said. ''Who was the person in Madison filling in those scores for a quarter-century?''

Cota ran into Mike Grant in Eden Prairie. He asked if there was a chance Mike's father, Bud, a Gophers standout end from 1946 through 1949, might have some insights on The Slab of Bacon.

"I was able to meet with Bud twice for a total of three hours,'' Cota said. "Bud had heard of The Slab of Bacon, but never had seen it. What he remembered vividly was going 4-0 against the Badgers from 1946 to 1949, and shutting them out three times.''

Cota's niece, Linda Malkin, lived in the Madison area. At her uncle's request, she went to the Badgers football offices to take photos and measurements of the actual Slab — carved, adorned and donated by R.B. Fouch of Minneapolis in 1930.

"The State Fair judges weren't impressed with my replica, but that's OK, because it gave me a chance to talk to Bud Grant for three hours,'' Cota said.

There was an effort made by Charley Hallman, the late, unforgettable author of "Gophers Notes'' in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, to get The Slab of Bacon returned to his beloved rodents.

According to a Hallman piece in July 1994, a committee had been formed to decide the trophy's fate, with associate ADs Mark Dienhart (Minnesota) and Joel Maturi (Wisconsin) in charge.

"I remember The Slab of Bacon committee,'' Maturi said this week. "We never had a meeting. We had bigger issues in both athletic departments.''

Maturi was the Gophers' athletic director from 2002 through 2012. And a larger Badgers-Gophers issue he faced took place at the Big Ten meeting where a decision was being made on how to arrange those original "Leaders'' and "Legends'' divisions for the 2011 football season.

"The commissioner, Jim Delany, was devoted to the idea of equal competition within the divisions,'' Maturi said. "We went through endless models, and the final three they came up with didn't have us playing Wisconsin annually — in a different division and not as our protected crossover game.

"I got up and said, 'Minnesota and Wisconsin is the oldest rivalry in major college football. If I go home without us playing Wisconsin every year, I'm going to get fired.'

"Fred Glass from Indiana said, 'We can't get Joel fired,' and we settled on a model with Wisconsin as our crossover game.''