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Northwestern, Iowa and a strange “rivalry”

Are these teams rivals? Kind of.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The story is well-chronicled: when Gary Barnett began as Northwestern’s head football coach in 1992, he thought Northwestern needed a rival, and he chose Iowa. Barnett’s main requirements for a rival were 1) a high-level program and 2) a team on the Wildcats’ schedule for the foreseeable future. The Hawkeyes met both. It was a one-sided rivalry early on, but a rivalry nonetheless.

Iowa beat Northwestern 21 straight times from 1973-1994, but in 1995, in Pat Fitzgerald’s second season on the field as a player, the Wildcats beat the Hawkeyes. Northwestern is 11-9 against Iowa since that win in 1995.

“We weren’t competitive against Iowa for a long time,” Pat Fitzgerald said in 2014. “We became competitive since 1995. Before that the games were irrelevant. Now this has become a pretty darn good rivalry.”

Fitzgerald broke his leg against Iowa in 1995, which kept him out of the Rose Bowl that season. According to former NU quarterback C.J. Bacher, an Iowa fan sent Fitzgerald a stuffed monkey to represent the Iowa monkey on his back.

In 2010, Northwestern freshman running back Adonis Smith, when describing Fitzgerald’s relationship with Iowa, said “[Fitzgerald] hates them. I know that for a fact. He hates Iowa.”

Fitzgerald tried to downplay Smith’s comments at the time, and often praises Iowa. And Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz often praises Northwestern. Below the surface, though, there’s a degree of animosity and dislike between the programs.

Six days before Northwestern played Iowa last season, former NU linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. Tweeted about “Iowa Hate Week”:

This week at Northwestern’s press conference, NU wide receiver Flynn Nagel recalled getting water bottles thrown at him after a questionable call. Iowa walloped Northwestern 40-10 at Ryan Field in 2015. There’s a lot of bulletin board material for Northwestern in this matchup.

“We all feel very passionate when we play Iowa,” linebacker Nate Hall said after NU beat Iowa 17-10 last season.

In some ways, Northwestern and Iowa are similar programs. Both programs have the two longest-tenured head coaches in the Big Ten, both programs are generally in the upper-middle of the Big Ten West and both programs have had success with defense and running the football in recent seasons. Sure, Iowa has broken through and won the Big Ten West, and Iowa has a much richer history as a program than Northwestern, but these programs aren’t all that different now. Since Fitzgerald took over as Northwestern’s head coach in 2006, the Wildcats have beaten the Hawkeyes seven out of 12 times.

For a while, the rivalry was one-sided. Now, it seems Iowa, or at least Ferentz, has come around.

“This game has really become a big rivalry between us and Northwestern going back 20 years,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “We’ve had a great series over the years, and it’s not a trophy game officially but really kind of feels like that.”

Part of that rivalry comes in recruiting. The schools, which are about a three-and-a-hour drive away, often chase a lot of the same prospects in the region.

“Yeah, we go head-to-head,” Ferentz said of recruiting battles with Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern. “I don’t know how frequently, but we go head-to-head.”

In the past two recruiting classes (2018 and 2019), Northwestern has offered five Iowa commits, and Iowa has offered three Northwestern commits. The schools also offered several other players who committed elsewhere.

Despite all these things, Northwestern-Iowa isn’t a real rivalry, and isn’t recognized as one by those outside the game. Northwestern fans don’t really get more excited for the Iowa game because it’s Iowa, and the same goes for Iowa fans toward Northwestern. The artificially-constructed rivalry has endured in part because of Fitzgerald, who links the original Iowa-hating from the Barnett era to the current one. The animosity also still exists because of circumstance, though. Northwestern and Iowa are different, but they’re in a relatively equal tier of the same division, and they have similar styles on the field.

This Saturday will be a big game between the teams again, particularly for a Northwestern side with a chance to win the Big Ten West for the first time ever. The fans may not get more juiced because of the name on the other team’s jersey, but the coaches and players will, if they need the extra motivation.