IOWA CITY, Iowa — When Big Ten expansion twice nudged the Iowa-Wisconsin rivalry from the schedule, Badgers athletics director Barry Alvarez fought both times to keep it an annual affair.
The first time was in 1993, when Penn State turned the Big Ten into the Big Ten plus-1. League scheduling wasn’t sophisticated in the 10-team era and most of the matchups were based on common sense and history. Since the 1930s, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota had ensured they played one another without any disruptions.
But when the 1993 schedule was released, Iowa and Wisconsin were missing. It was the first time since 1936 the schools weren’t playing each other. It bothered Alvarez so much he pushed for a schedule change. Beginning in 1995, each school in the conference played two teams annually. They played the other eight teams six times over an eight-year period. For the western trio, it was a perfect fit.
When the Big Ten accepted Nebraska as its 12th member in 2011, the divisional layout was problematic. Commissioner Jim Delany wanted to divide the teams based on three primary tenets, in order: competitive equality, rivalry preservation and geography. League officials used data from a 17-year period to place the teams in competitive tiers. The first included Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska. The second was Wisconsin and Iowa. The third was Michigan State and Purdue. Then the rest.
The object was to keep the league balanced and maintain as many rivalries as possible. That meant Iowa and Wisconsin automatically were in separate divisions. Then their rivalry with Minnesota got in the way. Wisconsin-Minnesota is the most-played series in Division I football. Iowa-Minnesota is nearly as old and just as important. While Iowa-Wisconsin was each other’s primary competitive rival, it didn’t have the historic implications of either series with Minnesota.
Still, Alvarez battled to preserve it.
“It was obvious to me that as much as we wanted to protect the Iowa rivalry that we weren’t probably going to be in the same division,” Alvarez told me in 2011. “I know Gary [Barta, Iowa’s athletics director] and I fought to have us in the same division. We wanted that game played every year, but it just wasn’t going to work out and there had to be a give and take.
“We were very close to setting things and I made one more run saying, ‘I don’t feel good about this.’ I wanted to protect that because I knew it was important to our people, and I think Gary felt the same way.”
It just couldn’t work. If Iowa-Wisconsin was protected, then Wisconsin-Minnesota wouldn’t be. If Iowa and Wisconsin were in the same division, it would skew the league competitively. Both sides eventually conceded, but it was the only major Big Ten rivalry sidelined during the Legends and Leaders creation.
“Lots of discussion. Probably the most-discussed [topic],” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany told me in a 2010 interview. “I think that we knew once we committed to the principle of competitive equality that it was going to be really difficult to not separate Michigan from Ohio State and Penn State from Nebraska. Likewise, it was difficult not to separate Iowa and Wisconsin.
“We were driven by the principle of competitive equality. We were driven by the principle of maintaining as many of the important rivalries as we could. But we also recognized in the West we were going to have some problems. It was debated and advocated and argued over. We went into those meetings together, we went out together but in between, there was a lot of debate.”
In 2011 and 2012, the Badgers and Hawkeyes didn’t play. There are close ties between the border foes, which are about three hours apart. Alvarez was a longtime assistant of Hayden Fry and colleague of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz before leading the Badgers from 1990 through 2005. Wisconsin’s coach from 2006-12 was Bret Bielema, a former Iowa team captain with a TigerHawk tattooed on his calf. Bielema is a former Ferentz assistant. In 2004, Iowa beat Wisconsin in the season finale for a share of the Big Ten title. The following year, in Alvarez’s final home game as head coach, Iowa won 20-10.
In perhaps the greatest game in the series, which felt like an epic conclusion after the divisional structure was announced, No. 10 Wisconsin beat No. 13 Iowa 31-30 at Kinnick Stadium. The game had eight lead changes, 30 NFL draft picks and 56 players on the sidelines who saw at least some NFL action. The victory propelled the Badgers to the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl berth.
The 12-team structure relegated the Iowa-Wisconsin series to secondary status, where the teams were scheduled to meet only six times in 10 years. They met as non-divisional foes in 2013 in Iowa City. Then when the league added Maryland and Rutgers, officials opted to revise the divisions based on geography rather than competitive equality. That put Iowa-Wisconsin back on the annual schedule as West Division rivals in 2014.
In the three ensuing seasons, all of their games have been determined by a touchdown or less. The winner has claimed the divisional title. As it was pre-2011, Badgers-Hawkeyes is this region’s most important game.
Over the last 15 years, Iowa (five) and Wisconsin (four) have combined for nine top-10 finishes. The other West Division teams have zero top-10 finishes. Over the same stretch, Wisconsin (four) and Iowa (three) combined for seven major bowl appearances. The other West Division teams have only one, and that was Illinois in 2007.
The Big Ten recognized the historical significance of the Iowa-Wisconsin rivalry as well as its importance in building a crescendo to the season. Beginning with the 2020 season, the teams will face each in their finales. It’s been quite a 10-year circle for the rivalry from getting phased out as an annual event to becoming a main attraction.