IOWA CITY, Iowa – With all due respect to Minnesota, Nebraska, Illinois and the rest of the Big Ten schools, the most hated rival for the Iowa football team should be without question the Wisconsin Badgers.
The reasons are many, including the fact that Wisconsin has won three games in a row against Iowa, which it plays host to on Saturday, and five of the last seven overall against the Hawkeyes.
But the hate, or, let’s just call it a strong dislike, goes deeper than wins and losses.
It goes deeper than being border rivals and long-time foes whose campuses are separated by just 176 miles.
The way in which the Wisconsin program was rebuilt under former Iowa assistant Barry Alvarez still doesn’t sit well with some Hawkeye fans, nor should it.
“They took our blueprint, coaches from our staff, yeah, absolutely, they’re certainly my most hated rival,” said lifelong Hawkeye fan and Iowa City native Tom Suter. “I definitely feel some resentment towards Wisconsin. I shouldn’t because it’s people taking what they think are better jobs.”
Alvarez was only three years removed from being an assistant coach at Iowa under Hayden Fry when he took over at Wisconsin in 1990. Fry gave Alvarez his first big break in coaching by hiring him for his original staff at Iowa in 1979. Alvarez had just finished his third season as head coach at Mason City High School when Fry came calling.
So it was a significant promotion, jumping from high school to the Big Ten.
Alvarez left Iowa after the 1986 season for Notre Dame, where he spent three seasons as an assistant under Lou Holtz, including the last two as defensive coordinator in 1988 and 1989. Alvarez was a hot commodity when the Badgers hired him.
It also was a compliment to Fry that a rival Big Ten school would turn to one of his former assistants to rebuild its football program. Alvarez was one of the first to branch out on Fry’s now expansive coaching tree.
It made for a neat story, but the mood changed when Alvarez hired away two of Fry’s top assistants in Dan McCarney and Bernie Wyatt, both of whom had played football at Iowa.
Fry, obviously, wasn’t happy about losing two talented assistants after the 1989 season.
McCarney was considered the ultimate Hawkeye before Alvarez convinced him to be a Badger. McCarney grew up in Iowa City and played football at Iowa before becoming an assistant coach for the Hawkeyes.
McCarney, who is now the head coach at North Texas, also was an ace recruiter thanks to his passion and energy. He helped to land some of the key pieces to Fry’s rebuilding project, most notably all-America punter Reggie Roby.
Recruiting is also where Wyatt excelled. The New York native used his connections on the east coast to help rebuild both Iowa and Wisconsin.
From players like Andre Tippett and Ronnie Harmon at Iowa to players like Roy Dayne and Lee DeRamus at Wisconsin, Wyatt’s list of recruiting conquests is long and impressive.
McCarney and Wyatt both left the Wisconsin coaching staff a long time ago, but the program has remained solid over the past two decades. You could argue that Wisconsin has become a better version of Iowa in football, at times, a much better version.
The Hawkeyes take pride in having a power rushing attack under veteran coach Kirk Ferentz. But until this season, the Badgers had set the standard in that regard for much of the past two decades, with star running backs such as Dayne, Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon leading the way.
“There’s a little bit of jealously there, too, because they’ve had a great run the last few years, too,” Suter said.
It’s okay for fans to be jealous. The Badgers have earned the right to be respected, even by those who dislike them.
The Iowa players certainly aren’t jealous of the Badgers. And if they were, they’d never admit it publicly. However, there is a level of respect for what Wisconsin has accomplished.
“We try not to really look at all the outside stuff,” said Iowa senior tight end Henry Krieger Coble. “But you know that they have been the top team in our division for a long time. And that only gives us more reason to go out and prepare harder.”
As for as why I’m ripping open an old would now? Because whenever I watch the Badgers play, it reminds me so much of Iowa. Both teams want to be physical and they often recruit many of the same players.
Alvarez is also still in charge in Madison, only now he’s running the whole show as Wisconsin’s athletic director, and interim head football coach in waiting, or so it seems.
The past always will be part of the present as long as Alvarez is affiliated with the Badgers.
He added another awkward chapter to the rivalry by hiring former Iowa defensive lineman Bret Bielema as his defensive coordinator in 2004 and then promoting him to head coach in 2006. Bielema coached the Badgers for seven season before taking the Arkansas job in 2013.
It was awkward enough when McCarney and Wyatt coached for the Badgers. Adding Bielema to the staff and then promoting him to head coach took the awkwardness to a new level.
I give Ferentz credit for not holding a grudge against Wyatt, who is now retired from coaching and living back in Iowa City. Wyatt visits the Iowa football complex it seems on a regular basis. In fact, I saw him leaving the football complex at the same time I was arriving for player interviews on Tuesday.
I don’t blame Wyatt or McCarney for leaving Iowa in order to advance their careers, nor do I blame Alvarez for hiring them at Wisconsin. But I also don’t blame fans like Suter for disliking the Badgers and for holding a grudge.
That’s why this is such a good rivalry.
If I had my way, Iowa and Wisconsin would meet on Black Friday instead of Iowa facing Nebraska. Nothing against the Cornhuskers, but they’re still new to the conference and they didn’t use Iowa’s blueprint for success.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery until the one doing the imitating becomes better than your team.