Yeah, I'm sure some people think Illinois hiring a new athletic director is interesting news, but let's be real: Jim Phillips didn't seem to think Ilinois' vacant AD spot was too important, so I guess neither do I. So let's cut to the important stuff.
After his press conference, if Lindsay Willhite is to be believed, new Illinois hiree Mike Thomas purportedly told reporters that he wants to "be king of Chicago". Confusing statement: he doesn't want to be actual king of Chicago, that position doesn't technically exist, although I'll bet you $100 with 1-1 odds that there is secretly a Daley scion sitting on a throne somewhere in an underwater porthole in the murky bottom of the Chicago river, reading this post, cackling hysterically that I could be so naive, and shooting pistols at Rahm Emanuel's feet while yelling "DANCE, MONKEY! DANCE I SAY!" And he doesn't mean the sausage king of Chicago, that's Abe Froman. He means the college sports King of Chicago.
Northwestern has made a violent point of saying otherwise. NU is Chicago's Big Ten team. Dan Persa is Chicago's Heisman candidate. Women's lacrosse, unable to say that they are "Chicago's Big Ten team" since they compete in the American Lacrosse Conference, stick "Chicago's Lacrosse Team" on all their paraphernalia. It's been part of Jim Phillips' plan to hype up NU's connection to the city of wind despite the fact that the school resides in its snooty suburban neighbor just an el ride away.
Standing in Phillips' way and preventing him from connecting the Chi to NU is common sense: a century of sub-mediocrity has made NU irrelevant to most people not directly connected the school, including Chicagoans. Not to mention that the city has two iconic baseball teams, an enormously popular football team, a recent Stanley Cup champion on the ice, and a basketball team that recently featured the most transcendent team sport athlete the world has ever known. And that NU has the tenth-smallest alumni base in Chicago out of the 12-team Big Ten. (Thx, Penn State.) And that even with all that in mind, Chicagoans are more likely to favor this Catholic school in Indiana when it comes to college sports.
It appears Phillips and Thomas have reached an impasse.
If Thomas wasn't just blowing steam, this could be a problem for NU: U of I sports has made relatively feeble approaches into the area: yeah, there's the annual Fighting Illini game at the United Center, but for the most part, it stays downstate. But take a look at their incoming basketball class - specifically, their top four recruits, Nnanna "What's My Name" Egwu, Myke Henry, Mike Shaw, and Tracy Abrams - four kids who went to high school in Chicago. While NU is trying to push into the Chicago market, Illinois already has a lot of play in a city it doesn't really need to push: sure, as noted, there's Notre Dame and a million pro teams, but Chicago is in Illinois, name recognition goes to Illinois, and there's tons of alums and tons of tradition. Even a simple foray into Chicago is an easy smart play.
But for Phillips, it's not just a smart play, it's a necessity. Unlike Illinois, Northwestern doesn't really have a fanbase. Phillips has to go create one. And Chicago - a city with enough butts to fill Ryan Field many times over and no real college to lean on - is the place to go. Yes, NU's claim to Chicago is tangential and kind of a joke considering that NU is not by any means Chicago's Big Ten team. But it's a joke we have to keep pushing, in hopes that if we say it enough times it will become true.
So Illinois presents NU with a challenge, and if I foretell correctly, there will be tension. There's a reason that after securing the Wrigley coup last year, NU went well out of its way to clarify that there was a Northwestern home game being played and not a neutral-site matchup with an interstate team. Purple flags, purple marquees, purple everything, Sure, Illinois had fans there, but to the world it was put on display as NU's game. The Illini present a threat to NU's hopes of harnessing some of Chicago's windpower.
As NU Alum will point out in the comments, the easiest way to create a fanbase is winning, where the teams have been more or less even in the past few years. Using 2008 as a frame of reference, 4 which I always do having gotten to college in 2008, the Illini have the clear edge in hoops (30-24 in-conference and three tourney appearances vs. NU's 22-32 and none, 3-2 in the head-to-head thanks to a Demetri McCamey buzzer-beater in '08 and an OT win in the next year) but the Cats have the edge on the gridiron (13-11 in-conference and three bowl appearances to the Illini's 10-14 and one, with the Cats going 2-1 in head-to-head matchups).
So, game on, Thomas. Your teams are as good as ours. Sure, your school's rep is higher. But the battle for the Chicago college sports kingdom can be a game of thrones minus all the incest and weird nerdy stuff if you want it to be.