Kirk Ferentz is in his 14th season as Iowa's head coach. Three weeks ago, Iowa played its 40th "trophy game" in his tenure. For the purposes of this post, "trophy games" refer to all games with Iowa State (the Cy-Hawk Trophy), Minnesota (Floyd of Rosedale), Wisconsin (Heartland), and, effective 2011, Nebraska (the Heroes Trophy). Technically speaking, the Heartland Trophy only entered the Iowa-Wisconsin rivalry in the mid-'00s, but let's be honest: it was a critical rivalry before we played for that Floyd knockoff and it would still be a rivalry if the people of Madison melted it down to make a crown for Bielema tomorrow. (They're probably less keen to do that now than they were a few weeks ago.) Similarly, the reason I included the Nebraska series effective 2011 (and excluded the Iowa-Nebraska games from 1999 and 2000) is because it became a true rivalry last year. That's not because we added a dopey trophy to the mix, but because we're going to be playing them regularly now.
Anyway, back to the matter at hand: Iowa has played 40 trophy games under Ferentz. Their record in those 40 games? 20-20. Iowa is 6-8 against Iowa State in that stretch, 8-5 against Minnesota, 6-6 against Wisconsin, and 0-1 against Nebraska. Iowa's currently mired in a six-game losing streak in trophy games, one shy of tying their record for trophy game futility in the KF era (Iowa went 0-7 in their first seven trophy games with Ferentz at the helm, before finally breaking through in a 42-24 win over Minnesota in 2001). The trophy case is empty and has been empty for a while.
The natural inclination is to compare Ferentz's record in these games to the record of his predecessor, Hayden Fry. Fry went 43-14-1 (Iowa tied Wisconsin in 1984) in trophy games against Iowa State, Wisconsin, and Minnesota in his tenure. All told, he went 16-4 against Iowa State, 12-8 against Minnesota, and a blistering 15-2-1 against Wisconsin. Of course, those number includes his full 20-year tenure. If we just look at his first 13 years on the job, Iowa went 29-9-1 in trophy games (as well as 10-3 against Iowa State, 7-6 against Minnesota, and 12-0-1 against Wisconsin). Fry didn't actually lose a game against Wisconsin until 1997, his second-to-last year on the job. Ferentz is a game better against Minnesota than Fry, but other than that Fry runs circles around Ferentz's record when it comes to rivalry games.
Of course, playing those teams then is not quite the same thing as playing them now. (Well, except Minnesota, who's consistently ebbed and flowed between mediocre and wretched for the entire 30+ years of this time frame.) During Fry's 20-year run, Iowa State's best season was 6-5 (attained three times -- by Donnie Duncan in 1980, by Jim Criner in 1986, and by Jim Walden in 1989); during Ferentz's run, they've won 7 or more games on six different occasions. They're certainly not a powerhouse, but they're not the epic pushover they were for most of the '80s and '90s, either. Wisconsin's transformation has been even more profound. They were rarely as hopeless as Iowa State during Fry's run (aside from a stretch from 1986 to 1990 when they combined to win all of 10 games), but their high-water mark was back-to-back-to-back 7-win seasons from 1981-1983. Then Barry Alvarez took over and performed his own Fry-like resurrection of the program; by the time Fry stepped down at Iowa, Wisconsin was on the verge of back-to-back Rose Bowl bids and had established themselves as fairly consistent 8-10 game winners. They largely maintained that during the rest of Alvarez's tenure and even improved on it under his successor, Bret Bielema -- five of six seasons with 9 or more wins, including three with 11 or more wins.
So, no, it's not surprising in the least that Ferentz's record against Iowa's trophy game opponents is worse than Fry's record against the same opponents. That doesn't make it any easier to accept, of course, especially when the losses mount against... less-than-stellar incarnations of those teams (here's lookin' at you, 2010 and 2011 Minnesota). Ferentz's record in trophy games alone isn't going to cost him his job... but they're still damn important to him, to the program, and to the fanbase.
The importance of these trophy games is largely twofold. The first reason is the value in winning the games themselves, aka the bragging rights factor. Ferentz has been widely criticized for not emphasizing this factor enough (especially in the Iowa State series) and there's definitely some truth to that. Ferentz's NFL-esque "every game matters" mantra and big picture outlook has served him well at various times (especially against the Big Ten's upper crust), but ignoring the reality that some games really do matter more than others (at least in the eyes of fans). Fans care about rivalries because of the history invested in those series and because the fans of those rivals are their neighbors, their coworkers, their family members. They'll hear plenty of grief from those folks if Iowa loses to their teams -- and they'll have a chance to gloat and rub it in themselves if Iowa wins. And, hell, isn't that one of the main reasons we spend so much time caring about sports in the first place?
The second reason is the value in winning the games for foundational purposes. Winning the trophy games is essentially crucial for Iowa to have a shot at having a memorable or special season. The five best years of Ferentz's Iowa tenure were 2002, 2003, 2004, 2008, and 2009. Iowa's record in trophy games in those years? 14-1. The lone loss was to Iowa State in 2002 (a loss which kept a memorable season from being arguably the best in school history). In the other eight years (years in which Iowa won more than seven games just once), their record in trophy games was 6-18. The formula for Iowa to have a really good season is not exactly rocket science: beat the teams as good or worse than them and go roughly .500 against the teams better than they are. Do that and you'll usually wind up with a 9-10 win season, a shot at the Big Ten title, and (mostly) happy natives.
Saturday's game with Minnesota might very well be Ferentz's biggest trophy game in over a decade. From 2001-2010, Ferentz won at least one trophy game every season and his longest drought was a four-game skid across 2006 and 2007. Not surprisingly, that drought coincided with the last time Ferentz's job status was seriously questioned. Ferentz ended that losing skid with a win over Minnesota and Iowa went on to win its next seven trophy games (most by huge margins; the average score in those eight trophy game wins was Iowa 29, Opponent 7). Right now, Ferentz, the team, the season, and perhaps the overall direction of the program could really, really use a trophy game win this Saturday. Beating Minnesota alone isn't going to be a panacea for all of Iowa's woes, but it would ease the grumbling and stop the bleeding... and that's something Kirk Ferentz -- and Iowa football -- really needs right now. Please: #FreeFloyd. Put something in that empty trophy case.