Gameday: Northwestern, Iowa spark rivalry – or not

Colin Becht

It may sound like something devout Zen Buddhist and basketball coach Phil Jackson might ask, but is a rivalry really a rivalry if only one team admits that it exists?

That’s the situation between Northwestern and Iowa, a matchup riddled with a mutual hatred yet an unreciprocated sense of import.

“This is a rivalry,” senior wide receiver Sidney Stewart said. “The coaches and the players, we all know that it is a rivalry. They’ve definitely beat that into our head.”

However, Adam Jacobi of the Iowa fan blog Black Heart Gold Pants wrote that the same sentiment hasn’t exactly spread through the Hawkeyes or their fan base.

“A proper rivalry includes a level of personal involvement from fans, and interaction between the two fan bases,” Jacobi wrote in an e-mail. “Sadly, there is no such thing as a Northwestern fan. The primary constituent in the stands of a non-important Northwestern game is an empty bleacher seat.”

Rivalry or not, Jacobi makes clear the animosity that exists between the two programs. This began under former NU coach Gary Barnett, according to NU blogger Lake The Posts.

“It’s no real secret as to why Cats fans enjoy beating Iowa so much,” wrote Lake The Posts, who asked that his real name not be printed for business conflict reasons. “It starts with Gary Barnett.”

According to Lake The Posts, former Iowa coach Hayden Fry said to Barnett after an Iowa victory over NU, “I hope my guys didn’t hurt your boys too badly today.”

“That’s something coach Barnett instilled in me,” said coach Pat Fitzgerald, who played under Barnett. “That if we wanted to take the next step and become a contending team in this league, we have to compete with teams like Iowa.”

Following this new mindset, NU beat Fry’s Hawkeyes in 1995 and 1996, Fitzgerald’s junior and senior seasons.

“It was just the realization of a goal by NU,” Lake The Posts wrote in an e-mail. “(Barnett) forced a rivalry upon his players and that became embraced by the fan base.”

Gaining ground

Since 1995, the Wildcats have won eight of 13 matchups and four of the last five against Iowa, much to the chagrin of the Hawkeyes.

“Northwestern is a rival insofar as the team beats Iowa far more than it ought to, and usually at a greater cost to the Hawkeyes’ season than Iowa victories over Northwestern,” Jacobi wrote. “That is because Northwestern does not have good seasons. It has one-game seasons, and those are against Iowa.”

Although NU has won or shared three Big Ten titles since 1995, Jacobi wrote that he wouldn’t consider those productive seasons because of the Cats’ continuing bowl-win drought.

“Yes, Northwestern plays bowl games sometimes,” Jacobi wrote. “But clearly those do not matter to the team, otherwise it would actually win one ever.”

Jacobi wrote that any talk of a rivalry between NU and Iowa would die down once the Hawkeyes built up a winning streak over the Cats.

“At that point, the world will have been restored to balance, and Iowa fans will focus solely on Minnesota, Iowa State, and Nebraska as rivals,” he wrote. “Why doesn’t Northwestern form a rivalry with DePaul? DePaul would be a lovely fit for Northwestern.”

According to Lake The Posts, the disdain Jacobi demonstrates toward NU is reflective of the Iowa fan base’s aversion to judging the Cats on anything other than “the NU dark ages.”

“It is still seen as unacceptable to lose to Northwestern,” he said. “The vitriol has heightened with each passing loss to Northwestern. I guess you could say that Northwestern fans feel like Iowa fans are sore losers and get so outrageously pained when Northwestern wins it makes it that much more enjoyable.”

Home sweet home at Kinnick

Lake The Posts wrote that in the latest Iowa losses to NU, Hawkeyes fans have pushed the hostility between the two teams to a new level.

“The recent ‘trend’ among Hawkeyes fans online has been to accuse Fitz and the Cats of intentionally injuring (former running back) Shonn Greene and (quarterback) Ricky Stanz,” Lake The Posts wrote. “You can have all the fun you want, but if you assault NU’s character – something the fan base cherishes – then watch out.”

The Cats defeated Iowa each of the past two years while also injuring Greene in 2008 and Stanzi in 2009.

“Iowa fans will not characterize this as a rivalry and actually dismiss the last two Cats wins as flukes citing (Greene’s) injury and (Stanzi’s) injury, yet they interestingly omit the fact we played last year with two injured QBs,” Lake The Posts wrote. “Most Iowa fans feel NU fans are forcing the rivalry, but the pain they’ve felt in our recent success is undeniable. I really don’t care if they consider it a rivalry or not. I just want to beat them every season.”

The Cats are currently experiencing their most recent wave of success against the Hawkeyes in which NU has won three straight games at Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium.

“We need to play better,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “In ’06, we didn’t show up and they did. It’s a matter of record. Going into that game, they had not won a Big Ten game yet. … They spanked us.”

Jacobi insisted NU’s winning streak had less to do with either team than pure chance.

“A die can be rolled as a six three times in a row,” he wrote. “It would make no sense to try to explain such an occurrence as the logical and inevitable result of mental toughness of anybody involved, or that the die ‘simply wanted it more.’ It is a rare and random effect of luck.”

Lake The Posts wrote that sometimes a history of success against a program can fuel future success, even if teams seem outmatched.

“There are head-to-head confidence factors that programs have,” he wrote. “The Illini always play Ohio State well, Iowa owns Penn State and we ‘always’ – read since 1995 – play Iowa well. I don’t fight it, I embrace it.”

Lake The Posts wrote that he hopes the Cats’ success against the Hawkeyes will eventually change how Iowa fans view NU.

“NU fans are only looking for respect and when you earn it by beating a team to the point it becomes a trend, you’d hope the stereotypes about snooty rich kid school stuff get old,” he wrote. “Kind of like farm and pig jokes.”

In the eyes of players

The current players for NU and Iowa are less concerned with past feuds between the fan bases than with this weekend’s game.

“They’ve had success because they’ve played well and they’ve beaten us,” Stanzi said. “We can live with that. That’s part of football. Are we happy about it? No, we’d love to win those games. But I don’t carry a grudge with them. I don’t think they’re bad kids.”

For the second straight year, the Cats have a chance to spoil Iowa’s Rose Bowl hopes. The Hawkeyes are in a four-way tie at the top of the Big Ten, whereas Iowa entered last year’s contest with NU a perfect 9-0 and in contention for a national championship before the Cats rained on their parade.

“We spoiled them as No. 4 (in the nation),” senior linebacker Nate Williams said. “They’re probably not too happy about that, probably a little bitter.”

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