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Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It's an age-old saying and a coaching axiom.

Every football coach worth his salt has looked at successful programs to see what made them tick, and then tried to emulate them.

Minnesota's Jerry Kill is a part of the Dennis Franchione coaching tree.

"I learned a lot about building things through him," Kill said.

But every coach strays from the mentor, looking for another way to get better. When Kill was the head coach at Southern Illinois, he sent his staff to Iowa City to watch Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz conduct a practice.

"First of all, he's a first-class guy," Kill said. "We have similar values. Similar values in recruiting. We run our programs the same. I look up to him. He's been in this thing a long time. We wouldn't have sent our staff to visit if we didn't have a lot of respect for him."

Kill is building the Gophers into a legitimate Big Ten program. The motto, since he arrived five seasons ago, is "Brick by Brick," a methodical process built for success that stands the test of time.

He's following a similar path Ferentz walked when he replaced Hayden Fry as Iowa's coach in December 1998.

"The first thing I did was look at teams that were having success," Ferentz said. "What were the common denominators?"

Over the years, Iowa's program has been held in high regard. When Gary Barnett came to Northwestern in 1992, he used the Hawkeye program under Fry as his blueprint for success.

Mark Dantonio did the same thing when he came to Michigan State in 2007. Iowa's program, successful despite geographical and recruiting disadvantages, was looked up to.

Today's landscape is different. Michigan State and Wisconsin, two programs that tried to match the Hawkeyes' success, have now passed Iowa. And Minnesota is threatening to join them. A 51-14 victory in last season's Floyd of Rosedale game is proof of that.

Ever since that successful fake punt in 2010 led to a 31-30 Wisconsin victory at Kinnick Stadium, things haven't been the same in that series. The Badgers have been to three Rose Bowls, three Big Ten Championship games and have won 11 games in three different seasons.

Michigan State has won at least 11 games four of the past five seasons and has been to two Big Ten Championship games.

Wisconsin and Michigan State play styles of football similar to Iowa. And now instead of being copied, the Hawkeyes are playing catch-up.

"I think, no matter what conference you're in or where you're at, you're always looking at the teams that have been successful," Ferentz said. "That stuff is all cyclical. But I think the traits of all good teams stay pretty consistent. That's the challenge. How can you master these things, be better at them, to give your team a chance to win in a very competitive conference? The balance of power changes."

Ferentz has gone back to the future to study why his teams were successful before, and how they can be successful again.

"We spend a lot time thinking about that and talking about that," Ferentz said. "Same with the players. What made such and such a great player? Why did Marshal Yanda develop into such a great player? We certainly didn't see it when he came in.

It wasn't like we knew he was going to have that kind of career and go on to be a great NFL player like he has. That's the intriguing part."

The intriguing challenge for Ferentz heading into his 17th season at Iowa is to match his past track record. And catch the Wisconsins and Michigan States of the world.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.

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