MINNEAPOLIS — Only 800 people saw the first college football game between Minnesota and Wisconsin, played at a park somewhere in Minneapolis on the chilly afternoon of Saturday, Nov. 15, 1890.
The University of Minnesota, having launched a football squad almost a decade earlier, overpowered an inexperienced and relatively new Wisconsin program by the embarrassing score of 63-0 that day. The romping was even more impressive when considering the fact that touchdowns only counted for four points back then and the forward pass had not yet been legalized.
According to an account published in the Sunday Tribune the following day, the victory cemented Minnesota as the "champions of the Northwest," a feat so exciting that the small group of fans in Minneapolis "rushed upon the ground and shouldering the mud covered heroes carried them from the park amid deafening yells of exultation."
A full century and three decades later, the passion of this Minnesota-Wisconsin border rivalry has not subsided.
No college football series in history has been played longer without interruption, and this Saturday the two teams will meet at TCF Bank Stadium for the 129th time. The overall head-to-head record between the Gophers and Badgers sits at a remarkable 60-60-8. This series is dead even.
So this weekend's winner will emerge not only with the historical advantage, but also with Paul Bunyan's Axe, a Big Ten West title, a slot in the conference championship game and realistic potential for the Rose Bowl or the college football playoffs.
"I am 57 years old," Mike Mulrooney, owner of Blarney Pub and Grill in Dinkytown, said on Thanksgiving afternoon, "and it hasn't been this exciting since — well, I can't even remember it."
Mulrooney knows his establishment will be overrun "wall-to-wall" with patrons all day Saturday, as Minneapolis takes center stage in the college football universe. ESPN crews have already been spotted on campus as they prepare for the university's first-ever hosting of College GameDay.
But only a lucky 50,000-plus fans will be able to say they actually witnessed history inside TCF Bank Stadium. The game sold out easily this week — and now the remaining tickets shared on the secondary market have reached astronomical levels. On StubHub, the cheapest ticket currently runs about $170, just to sit in the upper corner of the stadium. That doesn't even count processing fees.
"170 dollars?" Tracy Johnson asked while enjoying a Thanksgiving meal in Dinkytown. "Who can go to that?"
Perhaps that's just the price of success, Mulrooney would argue.
"It wasn't that long ago you could get tickets off the street or StubHub for almost face value," he said. "You look at prices for this game, and even the Penn State game, and that tells you everything."
In fact, the Minnesota-Wisconsin ticket is by far the hottest and most expensive on the market in college football this weekend, exceeding ticket prices for even Auburn-Alabama, Ohio State-Michigan and Oklahoma-Oklahoma State. All three of those historic rivalry games also feature Top 25 teams this Saturday, but tickets can be had at each for roughly $100 to $130 per seat at the lowest. Not exactly cheap, but cheaper than getting inside TCF Bank Stadium.
Yes, the weather might be rough in Minneapolis this weekend with rain and/or snow. And, yes, the tickets are expensive. But fans like Tracy Johnson aren't bitter. They'll be watching, at least from the comfort of their own homes or local restaurants if they don't want to pay a small fortune to buy a seat.
"I'm sure hoping and praying we beat Wisconsin," Johnson said. "Get rid of those Badgers!"
Just like 1890.
Except with even more on the line this time.
"It's big," Mulrooney said. "It's big for the school, big for the state and big for the community."