Perhaps no Big Ten official had more reason to be miffed about the Big Ten’s initial divisional alignment than Wisconsin Athletics Director Barry Alvarez.
Wisconsin was placed opposite from Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska when the Big Ten split into two divisions for the 2011 football season. Wisconsin was scheduled as a permanent cross-divisional rival with Minnesota, but is slated to play both historical rival Iowa and burgeoning rival Nebraska just six times over a 10-year period. Wisconsin’s closest divisional opponent currently is Illinois, and while they share a border, neither side sizzles for their annual match-up.
Alvarez, a Hall of Fame football coach and former Iowa assistant under Hayden Fry, has never shied from sharing his opinion about the league’s divisional structure. With the league adding Maryland (definitely) and Rutgers (probably) in 2014 and a new round of divisional realignment on its way, Alvarez staked his position in a letter to Wisconsin fans in the Jan. 31, 2013 edition of “Varsity,” a Badger publication. Alvarez wrote that he wants Wisconsin to play against Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska every year.
“We have our own concerns at Wisconsin,” Alvarez wrote. “First of all, you want to preserve your natural rivalries. You want to maintain playing those rivals while striving for competitive balance within the division.
“I thought the Big Ten did a very good job in researching everything from the time that Penn State joined the league. It clearly showed that there were teams that separated themselves from other.
“But I want to play Iowa every year. I didn’t like not playing Iowa the last two years. I know our fans didn’t like it either. I want to continue to play Minnesota every year.
“I also want to play Nebraska every year. That has turned into a natural rivalry for us. Those games are important to our fans because they can travel to them.”
Alvarez told me multiple times before and after the 2010 Legends/Leaders unveiling that he wanted to play Minnesota and Iowa every year. Wisconsin-Minnesota is the most-played Division I rivalry, dating to 1890. Iowa and Wisconsin played every year from 1937 through 1992 then rotated off one another’s schedules in 1993-1994 when Penn State joined the league.
After that two-year break, Alvarez, who coached Wisconsin at the time, successfully lobbied for each school to declare and played two permanent rivals every season. Iowa and Wisconsin played 72 times in a 74-year period through the 2010 season. When the league added Nebraska for the 2011 season, officials mandated that competitive balance would be the first tenet in realignment. At the time the numbers dictated that Iowa and Wisconsin should separate into opposite divisions. Alvarez vigorously pleaded to maintain the rivalry but to no avail.
Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta also fought for preserving the rivalry. Barta told The Gazette two weeks ago that geography is likely to shape this round of realignment.
“The last go around we all had a chance to identify who we would want as our natural rivals,” he said. “If you just make a circle outside the state of Iowa, it’s Minnesota, it’s Wisconsin, it’s Illinois, it’s Northwestern and it’s Nebraska now. Those make great sense as a starter. What you have to try to figure out — I’m not saying that anybody else hasn’t looked at it — but those are natural. If you go to the Eastern side, there’s some natural schools. You just have to figure out how to split it after that.”
Iowa and Wisconsin rotated off one another’s schedules in 2011 and 2012. They are scheduled to play as non-divisional foes on Nov. 2 at Kinnick Stadium. The series rivalry stands at 42-42-2.