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Pat Fitzgerald: Lovie Smith hire won’t change in-state rivalry

Pat Fitzgerald called Lovie Smith a friend Tuesday. (AP)

Pat Fitzgerald considers Lovie Smith a friend.

Now he’s a rival, too.

One day after the former Bears head coach said Monday he wanted to lock down the state, the Northwestern coach said that sounded familiar.

“Not the first person I’ve heard that from,” Fitzgerald said Tuesday at the Wildcats’ pro day.

Fitzgerald went on to tout the Wildcats’ lack of turnover — and with good reason. Since he began as a Wildcats assistant in 2001, Illinois has employed six head coaches, counting a one-game interim boss and, now, Smith.

“I’ve been here now for a number of years, had staff consistency,” Fitzgerald said. “We know who we are, we embrace who we are, and we believe we win with consistency because of who we are.

“Do we need to get better? Yeah, in a lot of ways. But that’s what we’re doing right now seven practices into spring. Like I said, happy for Lovie and his family, but our focus is on us.”

He said he wishes Smith “nothing but the best of luck in every game but one, as you would suspect.” The Wildcats are 9-6 against the Illini since 2001.

Fitzgerald, though, expressed sympathy for fired head coach Bill Cubit, who was fired Saturday, two days before Smith’s official announcement.

“It’s one of those situations where you hat to see what happened to Bill and his staff, but this is an amazing, amazing profession,” he said. “We get to impact so many great kids and help them take the next step in their lives, but it’s a pretty darn tough business, too.

“Ecstatic for Lovie, but your heart goes out to Bill. He did a great job there through some turbulent times.”

Asked how the hiring would affect the rivalry, Fitzgerald kept mostly mum — “Any questions about them, you can ask them,” he said — though his former players sounded intrigued.

“I think (Smith) and coach Fitz will have a great relationship with one another and kind of build up that rivalry with one another as well,” said “superback” Dan Vitale, who is expected to be drafted in the middle rounds. “I’d like to see that rivalry grow, especially being the in-state one.”

The Wheaton-Warrenville South alum, who grew up watching Smith coach the Bears, said the move was exciting for the Illini.

“I’m a big fan of him,” he said. “I feel like that’s awesome for him.”

It was a “great hire,” said Wildcats receiver Miles Shuler, who ran a blazing 4.39-second 40-yard dash Tuesday.

“Lovie Smith is a legendary coach, a great coach,” he said. “Illinois got a great head coach over there.

“Coach Fitz, he’s a legendary coach too. It’s going to be a great matchup in the future, so I’m excited for that.”

Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com