IOWA CITY, Iowa – Two years ago, Pat Fitzgerald looked me straight in the eye and said it’s wrong to think that he hates the Iowa football program.
I didn’t believe him then, nor do I believe him now.
I think Fitzgerald hates Iowa and always cherishes the opportunity to defeat the Hawkeyes.
He felt that way as a star linebacker for Northwestern in the mid-1990s, and the hate still burns today with the 40-year old Fitzgerald now coaching his alma mater.
Fitzgerald respects Iowa because how can you not respect what Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz have accomplished over the past 37 years? But Fitzgerald learned early on as a player under former Northwestern coach Gary Barnett that Iowa was the enemy, but also the inspiration.
Barnett used Iowa’s success under Fry as sort of a blueprint for his rebuilding job at Northwestern, which took a dramatic turn in 1995 when the Wildcats came from out of nowhere to win the Big Ten championship.
From that point on, the days of Northwestern being a hopeless Big Ten bottom-feeder were over.
Turn the clock ahead 20 years to today and the Wildcats have been ranked for five consecutive weeks and are 6-1 overall as they prepare to face the hated Hawkeyes on Saturday in Evanston, Ill.
And by hate, I mean a sports hate that’s fueled by athletic competition, not by some personal vendetta with mean intentions. I don’t want you to think that I think Fitzgerald would drop a loogie in Ferentz’s soup when Ferentz isn’t looking.
I think Fitzgerald hates Iowa in a sports sense because he wasn’t recruited by Iowa, because he hurt his knee against Iowa in 1995, which caused him to miss the 1996 Rose Bowl, and because he played for Barnett.
And speaking of Barnett, he will be in Evanston on Saturday, along with members of Northwestern’s 1995 Big Ten champion team, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the breakthrough season. But also to motivate the current Northwestern players, who are trying to bounce back from last Saturday’s 38-0 beat-down at Michigan.
And if that isn’t enough, the Northwestern players can draw from last season’s 48-7 loss to Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. It was by far Iowa’s best performance of the 2014 season and arguably Northwestern’s worst performance.
Iowa also has won three of the last four games against Northwestern after losing three in a row from 2008-10.
So it’s fair to assume that Northwestern is pulling out all the stops for this weekend, including wearing new alternate uniforms that honor the 1995 team. A victory wouldn’t make Northwestern’s season, but a loss would go a long way to breaking it, and would tarnish a special weekend.
No disrespect to Illinois, but I think if Fitzgerald had to choose between defeating the Fighting Illini or defeating Iowa, he’d pick the Hawkeyes over the in-state school. He’d pick Iowa because Iowa is usually better than Illinois, but also because of how he feels about the Hawkeyes.
"Hopefully we’ll prepare and play with that type of vigor and passion that (the 1995 team) played with,” Fitzgerald said.
The game has all the makings of a classic border brawl, although, points could be hard to come by because both teams really get after it on defense and because Iowa’s offense has been decimated by injuries.
Fitzgerald is considered a master motivator who has a passion for all things Northwestern. His team was embarrassed last Saturday at Michigan, but with Fitzgerald leading the way, it’s unlikely that the loss will linger, especially with so much on the line.
This game is big for Iowa, but even more so for Northwestern because a loss would put the Wildcats two games behind Iowa in the Big Ten West Division standings with five games left to play. That would be a lot of ground to make up in a short time.
From a perception standpoint, Fitzgerald is thought to have Iowa’s number even though his record is just 5-4 against the Hawkeyes, including 1-3 over the last four games. Ferentz was asked about that during his press conference on Tuesday. He made it clear with his answer that losing to Northwestern isn’t something of which to be a shame.
“Not to be disrespectful, but I think sometimes we have a perception problem here,” Ferentz said. “Like some people are living in the 80s. Those days are long gone. That stuff is ancient history. I think there’s a little of that stigma sometimes.
“Some of those games they beat us, they were pretty good. It wasn’t like we were terrible, but they were really good. I mean this is a whole different era.”
It’s a different era in the sense that Northwestern hasn’t been horrible for a long time, not since before Fitzgerald joined the program in early 1990s.
What hasn’t changed, though, is Fitzgerald’s feelings towards Iowa. The Hawkeyes are a hated rival in every sense of the word.
That’s why I expect the Fighting Fitzgeralds to be ready on Saturday.