By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – There should be no confusion or disagreement about which school is Iowa’s biggest rival in football.
It’s Wisconsin by a wide margin.
Argue all you want about who should be second on the list between Minnesota and Nebraska, but the top spot belongs to Barry Alvarez and the Badgers, who will host Iowa on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
It belongs to Barry and the Badgers for lots of reasons, but mostly because Barry used parts of the Iowa blue print for success under Hayden Fry, and also raided Fry’s staff for two key assistant coaches, to help rebuild the Wisconsin program nearly 30 years ago.
Fry gave Alvarez his first big break in coaching by hiring him as an assistant coach at Iowa in 1979. Alvarez had just led Mason City High School to a state title when Fry took a chance on him.
Fry had a gift for identifying and then surrounding himself with talented and determined coaches, and Alvarez certainly fit that description.
Alvarez then saw first-hand how Fry rebuilt Iowa with rock-solid defense, reliable special teams and balance on offense.
Fry was known for his exotics and for being creative and innovative as a play caller.
But Fry also once called 42 running plays for Sedrick Shaw during a methodical 21-7 victory at Michigan State in 1995, and was more conservative than his legend might suggest.
“I always laugh, Coach Fry with his white pants and sunglasses and exotics,” said Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. “Everybody is looking on the periphery and it was all about playing good defense and not beating yourself. That really was the secret, and especially in our big games, that's what we did.”
Ferentz coached the Iowa offensive line under Fry from 1981 to 1989, so Ferentz also saw up close how Fry managed to do what his four predecessors at Iowa had failed to do.
Ferentz and Alvarez were together on the Iowa staff for six seasons until Alvarez left to join Lou Holtz’s staff at Notre Dame after the 1986 season.
Alvarez was the first piece of what many consider the greatest coaching staff in the history of college football to break away.
Bill Snyder then left after the 1988 season to become the head coach at Kansas State where he also became a legend.
And then Ferentz left after the 1989 season to become the head coach at Maine, where he stayed for three seasons before moving to the NFL for six seasons and then ultimately back to Iowa as Fry’s successor in 1999.
Ferentz’s departure in 1989 was overshadowed by the loss of both Dan McCarney and Bernie Wyatt, as they both also left Iowa after the 1989 season to help Alvarez rebuild the Wisconsin program.
To say that Fry wasn’t pleased about their unexpected departures would be an understatement.
McCarney and Wyatt were both former Iowa football players and had been instrumental in rebuilding the program, especially as recruiters.
McCarney also grew up in Iowa City and seemed to fit the once-a-Hawkeye, always-a-Hawkeye persona better than almost anybody.
So it cut deep when McCarney left his alma mater, and his beloved hometown, to coach for a Big Ten border rival.
Wyatt was a master recruiter, especially on the East Coast where he grew up in New York. He used the same persuasiveness that helped to bring the likes of Andre Tippett, Ronnie Harmon and Tony Stewart to Iowa to bring star players such as Ron Dayne and Lee DeRamus to Wisconsin.
Alvarez certainly had the right to raid Fry’s staff for two key assistant coaches, but that doesn’t mean Iowa fans have to like it, even 30 years later.
And the fact that Alvarez turned Wisconsin into a better version of Iowa just adds to the frustration and resentment.
It’s like pouring salt in a festering wound.
Some Hawkeye fans would disagree that Wisconsin is Iowa’s biggest rival in football because they believe that Minnesota, and now Nebraska, are better candidates for that role.
The problem with Minnesota is that rarely over the past 50 years or so has it been very good or relevant in football
The Gophers are currently on a roll under head coach P.J. Fleck at 8-0 overall, but two months of success doesn’t erase nearly a half century of being average to mediocre.
As for Nebraska, it hasn’t even been in the Big Ten for a decade, and has also been on a steady decline since joining the conference in 2011.
There is a lot of hate and animosity between the two fans bases, but it takes more than ripping each other on social media to make a rivalry.
Nebraska fans also seem stuck in the past, or, at least they use the past to help cope with the present, sort of like how a baby uses a pacifier.
Some have tried to force this rivalry on us, but you can’t force or create a rivalry.
It takes time and circumstances and history to create a rivalry.
It also takes mutual respect to a degree.
How can you not respect what Alvarez accomplished at Wisconsin as a head coach, and what he has helped to sustain as athletic director?
Saturday’s game is huge for both teams because the loser will have dug a hole that could be too steep and too deep to overcome with regard to winning the Big Ten West Division.
But it’s also huge from a rivalry standpoint because Wisconsin is clearly Iowa’s biggest rival in football.
Some Wisconsin fans might prefer to call Minnesota a bigger rival, but Gopher fans like to chant “we hate Iowa” at sporting events, even when Iowa isn’t the opponent.
Minnesota would be a worthy candidate to be Iowa’s top rival if it could just perform better in football, and maybe that would happen if Fleck stays long enough.
The fact that Alvarez has stayed at Wisconsin has helped to fuel the rivalry with Iowa because he is a bridge to the past for both programs.
He also raided Fry’s staff for two assistant coaches, who up until that point, probably didn’t even like Wisconsin.
McCarney received a promotion with the move, going from being a position coach at Iowa to defensive coordinator at Wisconsin, while Wyatt probably was re-energized by the thought of helping a friend rebuild another Big Ten program.
Alvarez made them both offers they couldn’t refuse and that was the start of Wisconsin becoming Iowa’s biggest rival in football.
Iowa has lost six of the last seven games in the series, which means it’s time for Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa players to hold up their end of the rivalry deal.
Minnesota whipped Wisconsin at the end of last season, so the tide could be turning in that rivalry.
Iowa could have a problem if Minnesota continues to climb because that would certainly make the Gophers more appealing to Wisconsin from a rivalry standpoint.
Iowa would then be stuck with Nebraska, and that’s a depressing thought.
Iowa was very good to Barry Alvarez and he showed his thanks by raiding Fry’s staff and by using much of what he had learned under Fry to make Wisconsin a better version of Iowa.
It would be wrong to call that betrayal, but what Alvarez did should be enough to say that Wisconsin is Iowa’s biggest rival.
Especially since he’s still running the show in Madison.
As for McCarney and Wyatt, they have since retired from coaching, and Wyatt now lives in Iowa City and often visits the Iowa Football Complex.
Kirk Ferentz, obviously, doesn’t hold any grudges, but some Iowa fans still do, and rightfully so.
The Badgers have earned the right to be Iowa’s biggest rival in football based on what has happened on and off the field.