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Pat Harty: Iowa fans have reason to envy Wisconsin

[ 0 ] October 29, 2013 |

If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, than why do so many Iowa football fans despise the Wisconsin Badgers?

I’ll tell you why.

Imitation loses its appeal when the program doing the imitating becomes as good or arguably better than the one it used to imitate.

As great as Hayden Fry was in rebuilding the Iowa program in the early 1980s, you could argue that his former Hawkeye assistant Barry Alvarez had even more success at Wisconsin a decade later. Fry and Alvarez both won three Big Ten titles as head coaches, but Alvarez also won all three of his Rose Bowl games, whereas Fry was 0-3.

Both programs have remained solid over the past two decades, while occasionally suffering through lapses.

The series, which resumes Saturday at Kinnick Stadium after a two-year break, is tied at 42-42-2 with the teams splitting the last four games. However, Wisconsin has an 8-6 record against Iowa since 1997.

Fry used to own the Badgers, winning 15 of his first 16 games against Wisconsin, the one exception being a 10-10 tie in 1984.

Fry’s success came at a price, though. Many of his assistants used Iowa’s resurgence to fuel their rise up the coaching ladder. Alvarez left after the 1986 season to become the linebackers coach at Notre Dame. He was promoted to defensive coordinator in 1988 and then took control of Wisconsin’s sinking ship in 1990.

One of the first things Alvarez did as head coach was to raid Fry’s staff of two valuable assistants — former Hawkeye football players Dan McCarney and Bernie Wyatt. They both excelled as recruiters at Iowa and had the same impact at Wisconsin.

Wyatt, a native of Amityville, N.Y., was responsible for tapping a recruiting pipeline to the East Coast that was instrumental in building both programs.

Throw in Bret Bielema’s seven-year coaching reign at Wisconsin in which the former Hawkeye defensive lineman won two Big Ten titles and compiled a 68-24 record before accepting the same job at Arkansas after last season and it’s easy to see why some Iowa fans would resent the Badgers.

One of the easiest ways to upset an Iowa football fan besides yelling the words “fake punt” is to simply mention the Wisconsin Badgers.

It’s sobering enough for Iowa fans that Wisconsin is good in football and shows no signs of slowing down under first-year coach Gary Andersen. How it reached this point, and with who, is what really bothers Iowa fans, at least the ones I know.

They also don’t like that Wisconsin plays the same style of power football that has made Iowa successful under Kirk Ferentz because many times the Badgers do it better, including this season. Wisconsin enters Saturday’s game leading the Big Ten in rushing with an average of 296.9 yards per game, while Iowa is ranked sixth at 188.9 yards per game.

Alvarez installed the power running game at Wisconsin, using many of the same philosophies that Fry had implemented at Iowa. Alvarez’s two successors have stuck with it because it works and because it fits the Wisconsin way of being tough and physical, which is also the Iowa way.

“I think the two successors have been both smart enough to say that this has been a pretty good formula for quite a while,” Ferentz said of Bielema and Andersen. “You’re not going to get too far off that path.”

This also has been a good rivalry for quite a while partly because both teams are usually pretty respectable and because the programs are so similar.

Mike Hardy has seen the rivalry from two vastly different perspectives after growing up in Wisconsin and cheering for the Badgers. He now plays defensive end for the Hawkeyes.

Hardy said Bielema showed his Hawkeye pride even while coaching of the Badgers.

“When I went up and visited Wisconsin, Bielema showed me his Iowa tattoo on his leg,” Hardy said. “Obviously, I knew he played here so it wasn’t a big deal. I knew he has roots here.”

But it is a big deal. Iowa versus Wisconsin would be a good border rivalry even without the programs sort of joined at the hip. But the fact that they are so similar makes it Iowa’s best rivalry, with apologies to Minnesota.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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