IOWA CITY, Ia. — Kirk Ferentz left Hayden Fry’s Iowa coaching staff after the 1989 season to take the job at Maine. When he returned as Fry’s successor a decade later, the Big Ten landscape had changed.
“We couldn’t wait to play Wisconsin back in 1988, 1989,” Ferentz said. “It was like, 'Let’s play them in a doubleheader.’ And then we got back here and they’re at the top of the league.”
There’s a statue outside Camp Randall Stadium in Madison to honor the man responsible for that Badger revival. His name is Barry Alvarez. Ferentz and Alvarez were on Fry’s staff together. It was Alvarez who was dispatched to Cedar Rapids to pick up Ferentz when he flew in to interview for a job as offensive line coach in June of 1981.
On Saturday, Ferentz will be trying to pass Alvarez. The Big Ten opener between Iowa and Wisconsin is the headline. But a secondary storyline is this: Alvarez won 119 games at Wisconsin in 16 full-time seasons, and parts of two others. Ferentz, in his 17th season, has also won 119 games. That ties for ninth on the Big Ten’s career wins list. Ferentz could pass him in a stadium where Alvarez became an icon in the state of Wisconsin.
“To be in a group with him, that would be an honor, that’s for sure,” Ferentz said Tuesday.
Alvarez led Mason City High School to a state title before Fry hired him in 1979. Alvarez was part of an incredible staff that scratched and itched and made Iowa football relevant again. Then, after a stint at Notre Dame, Alvarez got the Wisconsin job and started another rebuilding project the same year Ferentz left for Maine.
One of the first things Alvarez did was to hire defensive line coach Dan McCarney away from Iowa. McCarney still remembers his first day on the job.
“Alvie pulls me in and says, 'Mac, here’s what we’ve got to do,’” McCarney remembered. “‘I want to turn this place into another Nebraska. I want to fill this stadium. I want us to be successful. I want this place rocking. I want each of my senior classes to play in at least one Rose Bowl. And some day, I want to be athletic director.’”
Alvarez also coaxed assistant Bernie Wyatt, and all of his East Coast recruiting connections, away from Iowa. Alvarez inherited a program that had run off five straight losing seasons, then went 1-10 in 1990. The Badgers went to the Rose Bowl in 1993, one of three trips to Pasadena for Alvarez before he stepped down to become athletic director following the 2005 season.
“You wonder why there’s a statue of Barry outside Camp Randall?” McCarney said. “Because anything and everything that he dreamed of, and the people of Wisconsin dreamed of, he’s accomplished.”
Iowa never lost to Wisconsin during Ferentz’s nine seasons as Fry’s assistant — eight wins, one tie. But when he returned to Iowa after his time at Maine and in the NFL as an assistant with Cleveland and Baltimore, Ferentz quickly learned that the Badgers had some bite.
Ferentz lost his first game against Wisconsin as Iowa’s head coach in 1999, 41-3. I can imagine Alvarez would have been up for a doubleheader that year. Ferentz finally broke through in 2002, and won six of the next eight. That included a 20-10 victory in 2005 that was the final game Alvarez coached in Camp Randall.
Iowa hasn’t played at Camp Randall (or beaten Wisconsin) since 2009. The Badgers are favored to repeat as Big Ten West Division champs this year. Iowa could put a dent in those dreams with a victory Saturday. One that would let Ferentz pass the guy with the statute.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.