Illinois-Northwestern a rivalry? Only if you ask them

SHARE Illinois-Northwestern a rivalry? Only if you ask them
SHARE Illinois-Northwestern a rivalry? Only if you ask them

So Northwestern and Illinois act as though the other is their rival. Doesn’t that suggest one takes the other seriously?

Such is not the case in Evanston or Champaign, even as the two are set to fight each other for bowl eligibility on Saturday at Ryan Field.

Northwestern fans think Illinois’ people are unpolished. Illinois fans think that Northwestern fans don’t care about winning—or anything football related, really.

Guess what? They’re both right.

It’s entirely ironic, too, on the part of Illini nation—the half of which is rooting against its team on Saturday so that athletic director Mike Thomas has the ammunition to fire maligned coach Tim Beckman after the season.

And Northwestern fans are the ones who don’t care about winning?

But Illinois fans say it’s because they demand a winning program. On game day, Northwestern fans demand the right brand of Camembert for tailgating. Winning runs deep with Illinois and equally as shallow with most Northwestern fans.

For Northwestern fans, it’s cute when they’re good. And OK when they’re not. They are, after all, the underdog—entirely content being the “Little engine that could.”

Illinois, of course, has made two BCS bowls in the last 12 seasons. The Illini have won their last two bowl games. The Wildcats have two bowl wins in their entire football history.

But Northwestern wins too—off the field. Coach Pat Fitzgerald is 9-0 at Big Ten Media Day, the MVP of the two-day presser. And in his nine seasons, Northwestern has rarely had an off-the-field incident.

Of course, the podium is kryptonite to Beckman so much so that it actually makes him as quotable as Fitzgerald, but for all the wrong reasons. Even so poking fun at Beckmanisms, is entirely too low hanging fruit for the intellectuals at Northwestern.

The Wildcats can point to his sideline tobacco-chewing incident. There’s also his on-field altercation with offensive coordinator Bill Cubit last season. None of it, though, means that Beckman is incapable of winning football games.

All of it suggests he is less worldly than one might hope for as a representative for their university. Northwestern excels at public image. Illinois couldn’t care less. The Illini are about winning football games.

So even if Beckman were Fitzgerald-like in his presentation, his paltry three conference wins over the past two seasons would be his undoing. Northwestern, but the way, has four Big Ten wins during that time.

This isn’t to suggest that, internally, both of these programs aren’t driven to win. Both haven’t accepted losing. The coaches, by the way, have made clear they love coaching at their respective schools. This is only to say that the same enthusiasm isn’t shared externally.

So rivals? Right now Illinois-Northwestern is among the lamest on a day packed with real ones on the best Saturday of the college football calendar.

For these two programs to aim to be better than the other—to even talk about it, no less—is shooting for mediocrity. Less than that, actually. The winner of Saturday’s game is still irrelevant.

It makes any insults either fan base can throw the other’s way inconsequential.

Illini fans are unhappy with their program; Northwestern fans content. What neither realizes is that they are measuring themselves against an identical 5-6 team.

Email: sgruen@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SethGruen

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