Free-flowing border helps shape Iowa-Wisconsin into most even series in college sports

Through 103 years of basketball, the Hawkeyes and Badgers each have 77 wins

Iowa's Matt Gatens (5) and Eric May (25) put the press on Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor (11) during the first half of their game Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/ SourceMedia Group News)
Iowa's Matt Gatens (5) and Eric May (25) put the press on Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor (11) during the first half of their game Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/ SourceMedia Group News)

IOWA CITY — Wisconsin and Iowa have a bond forged well beyond the 110-mile border that pits the state on opposite sides of the Mississippi River. The schools are separated by 175 miles and before Iowa and Wisconsin became states, they were linked as the Wisconsin territory.

But the current Iowa-Wisconsin sports rivalry is more than about just proximity or history. It’s about people. It’s also about how surprisingly even the Iowa-Wisconsin series has become.

Through 103 years of basketball meetings, the Hawkeyes and Badgers each have won 77 games. Iowa and Wisconsin have played football against one another since 1894, and the series is knotted at 42-42-2. No other rivalry among major college sports programs can boast a series tie in both of college athletics’ most high-profile sports.

There have been long streaks, such as Iowa’s 17-0-1 record against Wisconsin football from 1977 through 1996. Wisconsin basketball is 13-3 against the Hawkeyes since 2002 and had won nine straight at Kohl Center until Iowa’s 72-65 win on Dec. 31.

“I’ve always thought it was (a good rivalry),” Iowa senior Matt Gatens said. “I don’t know how the outside looking in sees it. There always seems to be player recruiting battles; we share borders. They’ve had good teams in the past, they’ve always been good matchups, good coaches. So those are recipes for a good rivalry. I don’t want to lose to them. It’s a team I always want to go after and beat.”

Eastern Iowa sports fans agree. Of 4,433 votes cast on, readers voted Wisconsin “Iowa’s football rival to loathe” over Nebraska, Northwestern and Iowa State. Of 1,070 votes cast, Wisconsin was voted second (behind Illinois) as “Iowa’s basketball rival to loathe.”

Iowa and Wisconsin waged perhaps their most epic football battle in 2010 at Kinnick Stadium. In a game that featured nine lead changes, the Badgers won 31-30 en route to a Big Ten title. Wisconsin claimed the Heartland Trophy and will hold it until at least 2013, when the schools have their next scheduled meeting.

The last two basketball meetings in Iowa City were overtime clashes. Iowa held off Wisconsin 73-69 in 2009. Then-freshman Jordan Taylor, now the Badgers’ star point guard, drilled a 3-pointer at the buzzer to cap a five-point rally in the final 26.7 seconds to force overtime that night. Last year Iowa senior Bryce Cartwright missed a jumper that would have won the game in regulation. The Badgers outlasted Iowa 62-59 in overtime.

The people involved bring another aspect to the Iowa-Wisconsin rivalry. Jarrod Uthoff was named Iowa’s Mr. Basketball last season but developed a relationship with Wisconsin assistant Gary Close, who worked under former Hawkeye Coach Tom Davis and later was the Iowa City Regina head coach. Uthoff, a Cedar Rapids Jefferson prep, picked the Badgers over Iowa and is a red-shirt this year.

Wisconsin sophomore Ben Brust, who leads the Badgers in 3-pointers, originally signed a letter of intent to play basketball at Iowa. Then when Iowa fired Todd Lickliter, Brust received his scholarship release. The Big Ten later changed its rules about transfers to accommodate Brust, who eventually picked Wisconsin.

Barry Davis, who owns the most wins in Iowa wrestling history, coaches Wisconsin. Barry Alvarez was a Hayden Fry assistant and later became a Hall of Fame football coach — and current athletics director — at Wisconsin.

Bret Bielema was an Iowa captain under Fry and an assistant for both Fry and Kirk Ferentz before he became the Badgers’ head football coach in 2006. Bielema, in fact, still has a Tiger-Hawk tattoo on his calf. He doesn’t hide it among his recruits.

“It was something that when he was young and 19 and it was something that he did and it was something that he’ll be forever a part of,” former Wisconsin safety Aaron Henry told The Gazette last summer. “You really can’t knock him for, being that you’re at the University of Wisconsin; he’s the head coach there.

“He graduated from the university. It’s his alma mater, so you’ve got to respect it. But soon enough I expect to see a Wisconsin motion ‘W’ somewhere around there.”

Perhaps the most high-profile talent transfer involved Linn-Mar basketball product Jason Bohannon — son of Iowa’s 1981 Rose Bowl quarterback Gordy Bohannon — picking Wisconsin over Iowa.

But the personnel river flows both ways between Madison and Iowa City. Sam Okey was the Big Ten basketball freshman of the year in 1996 for Wisconsin but later transferred to Iowa. Darrell Wilson was a two-year football assistant at Wisconsin before joining the Iowa staff in 2002. Davis, Iowa’s all-time winningest basketball coach, is a Wisconsin native. Davis played guard at Wisconsin-Platteville, a school that current Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan led for 15 seasons.

In women’s basketball, Iowa freshman sensation Samantha Logic is a Racine, Wis., native. Wisconsin sophomore Morgan Paige, who averages 9.5 points a game, is a Marion product.

Thursday night’s men’s basketball game will give one program the upper hand in the series — for now. But Iowa’s players aren’t thinking about history; they just care about the game.

“Students are in free,” Iowa senior Bryce Cartwright said. “ESPN2, so it’s a primetime game. So you definitely want to be hyped for it.”

One game after the other. That’s what makes a great — and historically equal — rivalry. 

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