Beckman, Fitzgerald trying to fuel rivalry

Some Big Ten rivalries burn year-round. Others need a few gallons of kerosene and a book of matches.

The Illinois-Northwestern series undoubtedly falls in the latter category. Although the teams share a state and have played 105 times since 1892, their series never will be confused with some of the Big Ten's best and spiciest rivalries. It might not even make it on the first page. How many non-Illinois or Northwestern fans could identify this as the rivalry trophy at stake when the Illini and Wildcats lock horns.

But coaches Tim Beckman (Illinois) and Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern) are trying to fan the flames.

Beckman announced at his introductory news conference in December that, "You'll never see me wearing purple." As Toledo's coach, he had his players burn anything they had that was orange -- the color of archrival Bowling Green. He also refers to Northwestern as "the team up north" and put up this sign in Illinois' locker room.

Fitzgerald referred to Illinois as "that team from Champaign" during Monday night's Chicago Cubs TV broadcast (Fitzgerald performed the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley).

It's not exactly Michigan's Brady Hoke refusing to wear red throughout his career -- despite stints as Ball State's and San Diego State's coach -- and calling Ohio State simply "Ohio," but at least it's something.

The Illinois-Northwestern rivalry has started to move the needle in recent years. Northwestern's marketing slogan, "Chicago's Big Ten team," rankled some Illinois players, officials and fans. Moments after Illinois finished off a 38-35 win against Northwestern last year in Champaign, "Sweet Home Chicago" was played throughout Memorial Stadium.

There have been other flash points. After a win in Evanston in 1998, Illinois players put an orange helmet on the head of a newly installed Wildcat statue at Ryan Field. Two years later, Northwestern got its revenge with a 61-23 thumping of the Illini to clinch a share of the Big Ten title.

But for the most part, the rivalry has been fairly tame. It's fair to question whether both programs consider one another a chief rival. You could argue Iowa is a bigger rival for both Illinois and Northwestern. Illinois also plays Ohio State for the Illibuck and has some tension with Michigan. And while both teams want to increase their presence in Chicago, the Windy City is first and foremost a pro town.

Beckman and Fitzgerald will be challenged to prop up the rivalry, but their efforts should be appreciated. The fact that Illinois and Northwestern are engaged in more recruiting battles, which wasn't the case before, adds to the dynamic.

Of course, the best way for the rivalry to be elevated is for both programs to start competing for Big Ten titles. The last time both programs finished in the top four in the Big Ten: 1971.

Mutual success breeds contempt.