IOWA CITY, Iowa — Barry Alvarez picked up Kirk Ferentz at Cedar Rapids’ Eastern Iowa Airport in the spring of 1981 and they shared a 20-minute drive to Iowa City.
Ferentz was set to interview with Hayden Fry for the offensive line coaching job vacated by Clovis Hale. Alvarez joined Fry’s first staff as tight ends coach three months before the 1979 season kicked off. Alvarez, who had switched to linebackers coach in 1980, and Ferentz are western Pennsylvania natives with high school coaching roots.
“He’s the first guy I really got to know when I got here,” Ferentz said.
Alvarez stayed at Iowa for eight years, then left for Notre Dame in 1986 and became Wisconsin’s head coach in 1990. He hired former Iowa colleagues Dan McCarney and Bernie Wyatt to make the three-hour trek northeast to Madison. In their fourth year, the Badgers won the Rose Bowl.
Ferentz stayed at Iowa until 1990, when he was hired as head coach at Maine. After three years, Ferentz became Bill Belichick’s offensive line coach in Cleveland and later moved with the Browns to Baltimore. In late 1998, Ferentz replaced Fry.
Two towering figures with a total of 15 bowl victories, six Big Ten Coach of the Year awards and a combined 251 wins at their Big Ten schools. In their years together, they forged similar philosophies. As competitors, they solidified one of college football’s great — and perhaps most overlooked — rivalries.
The Badgers lead the all-time series 44-43-2. Alvarez won five of his 14 battles with the Hawkeyes, but he’s quick to point out a Big Ten scheduling glitch kept Iowa off Wisconsin’s schedule in 1993 and 1994. Ferentz, who still coaches the Hawkeyes, owns a 7-8 record against Wisconsin and was 4-3 against Alvarez.
Their battles had great significance. In 1999, Wisconsin clinched a Rose Bowl berth and Ron Dayne broke the NCAA career rushing record in a 41-3 pounding of the Hawkeyes. Iowa solidified its return to the Big Ten’s elite with a 20-3 win during a 2002 co-Big Ten championship season. Two years later in a winner-take-all game for a share of the Big Ten title, Iowa popped Wisconsin 30-7. In 2005, the Hawkeyes ruined Barry Alvarez’s final home game at Camp Randall Stadium with a 20-10 win.
Ferentz never took pleasure in competing against his friend, especially in a rivalry game.
“I’ve never enjoyed coaching against or being on the opposite sideline from someone that I’ve worked with,” Ferentz said. “That was true with Barry, that was true with Bill Snyder in 2000. We played Bobby (Stoops) in the bowl game and then Bret (Bielema) the same way over (at Wisconsin), so that’s not fun because when you work with guys, typically you end up being pretty good friends, and it’s not fun to compete. But when the game is on, the game is on.”
Iowa and Wisconsin share longtime, untouchable rivalries with Minnesota. The Badgers and Gophers have played 125 times, the most in major college football. Iowa and Minnesota have battled 110 times. The dislike the programs have for Minnesota is palpable and mutual. In that same vein, the respect Iowa and Wisconsin have for one another is unusual.
During an appearance on “Nate and the Noise” on SB Nation radio, Alvarez was asked which team he considered Wisconsin’s rival. Alvarez acknowledged the Minnesota series then added, “I would have to say the Iowa game, maybe more so than the Minnesota game.
“The reason I say that, I think it’s been more balanced,” said Alvarez, Wisconsin’s athletic director since 2006. “The competition between the two teams has been more balanced than the Minnesota one.”
Since Ferentz joined the Iowa staff in 1981, the Hawkeyes have claimed five Big Ten titles. After 1990, when Alvarez took the Wisconsin job, the Badgers have six Big Ten titles. Minnesota hasn’t claimed one since 1967 and has lost 12 straight to the Badgers.
Minnesota promotes “Hate Week” for its game against the Hawkeyes. It’s important for Iowa, as is its series with Iowa State. But rivalry games form a season-long mosaic for the Hawkeyes. That’s the same with the Badgers.
“I don’t think either of us are big into hyping games up, this is the Super Bowl,” Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said. “We recognize it’s one game on the schedule, a team where we’re going to get their best shot. We don’t try to make it out any more or less than it actually is, as you mentioned some of those other teams and trophies. They try to hype it up to be something more than just the current week. You see it that way and obviously the quality of football the teams (Wisconsin has) had the last 15-20 years, that makes for a great rivalry.”
“We have a ton of respect for Iowa,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “I certainly do for their program.”
But don’t mistake respect for indifference. These programs boast hitters who will smack the taste from your mouth. That was on full display during a 2014 game at Kinnick Stadium.
“I think this is the 13th game we’ve done together this year,” ABC sideline reporter Todd McShay said over the air, “and it’s easily the hardest-hitting from the field level. They’re flying around, helmets cracking. (Chris) Spielman, you’d love it, man.”
“I do because I can hear it in my headset,” said Spielman, the color analyst and a former All-America linebacker at Ohio State and NFL Pro Bowler. “That’s the first time I haven’t heard a pillow fight all year.”
The programs are built along the line of scrimmage with tenets based on physical play.Wisconsin and Iowa both run the ball and stop the run. It’s their DNA. They’ve combined for four of the last 15 Outland Trophy winners, which goes to the nation’s best interior lineman. They’ve combined for three of the last eight Doak Walker Award winners for nation’s best running back. The Badgers have 39 draft picks the last 10 years; Iowa has 38.
“Two teams that are both smash-mouth football,” said Wisconsin cornerback Sojourn Shelton, who will start his fourth Iowa-Wisconsin game “Every time we get to play them you know you have to have your mind right and also it’s kind of cool. Because a lot of stuff you see during practice we’ve seen throughout spring ball and throughout camp are kind of some of the things we’ll see on Saturday.”
“If you really want to win this game, they’re going to make you win it,” said Iowa cornerback Desmond King, who also will start his fourth game against the Badgers. “It’s not going to be an easy game at all. It’s going to be back-and-forth, a tough, hard, fight game out there.”
— Chris Ruth (@ChrisRuthIOWA) July 9, 2016
Perhaps no game in the series epitomized the series’ competitive nature more than their 2010 meeting at Kinnick Stadium. Wisconsin was ranked 13th and Iowa was 15th. A combined 30 NFL draft picks — 15 for each side — competed in that game, and 26 other players (13 for each side) signed NFL free-agent contracts. Both left tackles (Iowa’s Riley Reiff, Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi) were first-round picks as were both right defensive ends (Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt, Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn).
The game included eight lead changes and dramatic plays by big-time performers. Perhaps the rivalry’s most famous play (or infamous in Iowa City) featured Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman running a fake punt on fourth-and-4 from his 26-yard line. With 6:24 left in the game, Nortman burst 17 yards to save the drive. The Badgers then rumbled down the field and converted two more fourth-down opportunities. With 1:06 left, running back Montee Ball twisted near the goal line with his knee about an inch off the ground. As he lunged for the end zone, Iowa cornerback Micah Hyde held up Ball and the football came out. Ball originally was ruled down at the 1, but a replay ruled he crossed the goal line for the game-winning score just before his fumble.
Iowa receiver Marvin McNutt caught 7 passes for 70 yards and a touchdown. He’ll never forget the feeling of losing that game.
“When they ran that punt for (17) yards down the field, untouchable … I played with (Nortman) in Carolina,” said McNutt, now head coach of the Indoor Football League’s Cedar Rapids Titans. “We would have to talk about that play all the time.
“It just seemed like everybody in the stands was yelling, ‘Watch the fake.’ And the fake happened, and it worked.”
Coaching the Badgers that day was former Iowa team captain and assistant coach Bret Bielema, who now leads the Arkansas Razorbacks. Wisconsin went to the Rose Bowl that year. Iowa, which won 11 games the previous season, played in the Insight Bowl.
Big Ten expansion added to the 2010 game’s significance. In 2011, the teams were headed to opposite divisions and rotated off one another’s schedule. That happened previously when the league added Penn State in 1993.
By 1995, Alvarez successfully pushed Big Ten officials to incorporate a scheduling model that included two rivalry opponents for every school. Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota were locked into their scheduling trio.
But with Nebraska joining the league in 2011, the Big Ten adapted a divisional structure based on competitive equality rather than geography. The league used data over a 17-year period when Wisconsin was the fifth-best team and Iowa was sixth. The league chose to divide the league’s top six schools and filter the rest on other criteria. Minnesota joined Iowa in the Legends Division, and the Badgers-Gophers’ annual rivalry was preserved as a cross-divisional game. Iowa-Wisconsin became Big Ten realignment’s biggest casualty.
Alvarez and Iowa counterpart Gary Barta requested a second annual rivalry game, but it was declined. Alvarez wasn’t through, however.
“We were very close to settling things and I made one more run saying, ‘I don’t feel good about this,'” Alvarez told me in 2011. “I wanted to protect that because I knew it was important to our people and I think Gary felt the same way.”
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany told me in 2010 the Iowa-Wisconsin series was “probably the most discussed” topic when the league split competitively.
In 2011 and 2012, Iowa and Wisconsin didn’t play one another. It was only the fourth time since 1937 the teams didn’t meet. Big Ten expansion was the culprit each time.
In November 2012, the Big Ten invited Maryland and Rutgers to join the league. Both schools wanted yearly games with neighboring Penn State. That allowed league officials to consider altering the divisional structure. Alvarez reignited his argument that Iowa and Wisconsin should be placed in the same division. This time, it was approved with the league splitting geographically.
Iowa-Wisconsin once again is an annual rivalry. Since 2004, the schools play for the Heartland Trophy, a brass bull. Despite their passionate fan bases’ iconic stadiums, each of which are more than 85 years old, the visitor has won the last five meetings. It’s come a long way since Iowa won every meeting from 1977 through 1997.
There’s always respect between the teams, but the rivalry runs hot one week a year.
“It’s a love-hate relationship,” McNutt said. “Obviously when we’re playing each other we don’t like each other.
“To me I always wanted to beat Wisconsin because it’s not just a rivalry game but it’s also a fun game. Two teams, you know what we’re all going to do. We’re going to run the football down your throat and we’re going to hit you with the play-action pass and defenses are going to be tough. It’s a fun game to watch because you’re almost watching yourself.”
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) June 26, 2015
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) September 25, 2015