(NOTE: This is the fifth chapter in a multi-part series on how the Big Ten Conference divided into two football divisions)
IOWA CITY — Barry Alvarez is a fighter.
He has top-notch credentials as a player, coach and now administrator. Alvarez, 64, played linebacker at Nebraska in the 1960s, coached under Hayden Fry at Iowa in the 1980s and took Wisconsin to three Rose Bowl victories in the 1990s. He boasts the best bowl winning percentage in college football history with an 8-3 record.
As the Badgers’ athletics director, Alvarez still fights for his school. But last summer he was engaged in a losing bout with the Big Ten. The league’s northwest corner of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa all enjoyed playing one another on an annual basis. In the league’s former 11-school layout, each school protected two rivals to play annually and the northwest trio all chose each other.
In fact, that system came about after Wisconsin and Iowa rotated off one another’s schedule in 1993 and 1994 when Penn State joined the league. Alvarez fought for Wisconsin-Iowa then, and he joined Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta in the fight for Wisconsin-Iowa last summer. But this time the numbers were against Alvarez.
Nebraska’s addition pushed the Big Ten to 12 teams and in this two-month battle to split the league into divisions, Wisconsin and Iowa were considered equals. The league studied competitive equity since 1993, dating to Penn State’s entry, and Wisconsin and Iowa clearly ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, among Big Ten competitors in winning percentage over that 17-year period.
Once competitive equality was determined as the primary tenet in realignment, Commissioner Jim Delany divided the top four — Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Nebraska — into separate divisions. With no other Big Ten school close to Wisconsin and Iowa in winning percentage, the schools were marked for separation as well.
“I still knew we couldn’t have four of those top six teams in one division,” Alvarez said. “You’ve got to fight for your program and in the same respect you have to respect the league and what’s best for the league, too.
Both Wisconsin and Iowa share their oldest rivalries with Minnesota, which ranked among the weakest in winning percentage. Wisconsin and Minnesota compete in the most-played rivalry in Division I football, and Iowa has faced Minnesota more than any other school. Two of the nation’s most recognizable trophy games feature Minnesota —Paul Bunyan’s Axe (Wisconsin) and Floyd of Rosedale (Iowa).
“I think we all spoke up for each other,” Minnesota Athletics Director Joel Maturi said. “Let’s face it: geographically we fit. We’ve played each other most often.Wisconsin and Minnesota have the longest contiguous rivalry in the history of college football. We obviously didn’t want to stop that.”
After competitive equality, rivalry preservation was Delany’s second tenet in realignment. In-state games automatically were saved, as was the titanic annual Michigan-Ohio State clash. The history surrounding Wisconsin-Minnesota, which first was played Nov. 15, 1890, was too strong for the league to pull apart as well.
With Iowa and Wisconsin slated for opposite divisions, Minnesota was set to join only one of them. Once divisions were established, each school would protect one cross-divisional opponent to maintain rivalries. No matter where they landed, the Gophers were asssured they were going to get both of its top rivalries protected.
“I don’t know that I could have drawn it up any better for the Gophers,” Maturi said. “So we’re real, real pleased.
“One of us weren’t going to be able to play everybody in a given year. It just wasn’t going to happen, unless we were all in the same division. But from the competitive equity part, that wasn’t going to be the case. Only one of us could have been the crossover team. The result was, we knew that.”
But that didn’t stop Alvarez and Barta from trying. Delany said Alvarez twice made late pleas — with the second a very strong appeal — to preserve Iowa-Wisconsin.
“It was obvious to me that as much as we wanted to protect the Iowa rivalry that we weren’t probably going to be in the same division,” Alvarez said. “I know Gary and I fought to have us in the same division. We wanted that game played every year, but it just wasn’t going to work out and there had to be a give and take.
“We were very close to setting things and I made one more run saying, ‘I don’t feel good about this.’ I wanted to protect that because I knew it was important to our people, and I think Gary felt the same way.”
Barta originally told his fellow athletics directors his perfect world included annual games against Minnesota, Wisconsin and newcomer Nebraska. In early divisional editions, a few had Wisconsin and Iowa in the same division but those were discarded as uneven competitively.
“You could just see that give and take was inevitable,” Barta said. “Both Barry and I had spoken about our preferences and everybody was making pleas and trying to preserve their most desired rivalries. But in the end, it was probably the last meeting or second-to-last meeting … this probably is the best it was going to get for greater good for the whole conference, and yes Iowa and Wisconsin were going to have to sacrifice a little bit. But again, the greater good of the conference won out.”
Many of the league’s other athletics directors sympathized with Alvarez and Barta but, as Purdue Athletics Director Morgan Burke said, “I had no skin in that game.” Other annual rivalries, like Purdue-Northwestern and Michigan State-Penn State also were shelved.
In the end, Wisconsin was placed in a division outside of its two primary rivals and away from Northwestern, the closest school to Madison in proximity. Alvarez also wanted his alma mater, Nebraska, in the same division, but that didn’t materialize, either.
“Barry was a guy who argued hard for regional representation,” said Mark Rudner, the Big Ten senior associate commissioner for television administration. “But he also said in the meeting, ‘Listen, no matter where you’re at, you’ve got to win games.’”
Alvarez, ever the fighter, did request Nebraska’s Big Ten debut this fall at Camp Randall Stadium. He’s past last year’s discussions and instead focuses on what the football program can do on the field.
“The only thing we didn’t get out of the deal was we’re not going to play Iowa every year,” Alvarez said. “I’m not happy about that, yet we had the chance to protect one rivalry and that’s Minnesota. That’s the longest, ongoing game rivalry in college football. We certainly wouldn’t want to lose that.
“Now it’s about playing football. It’s not about how did we draw, who’s in our division, is it a fair division, our division’s stronger. … Was it right? Was it wrong? Do you like the name? That doesn’t matter now. It’s about playing football.”
COMING SUNDAY: Chapter 6: Culture Shock. Nebraska joins the Big Ten without voting power but moves forward nonetheless in a league where Tom Osborne hopes the cultural ties are stronger than those that formed the Big 12 Conference.