There's nothing like a good rivalry in college football. Some of the most memorable moments in the game's storied history have come from Florida and Florida State, Oklahoma and Texas, Michigan and Ohio State, Army and Navy, and Auburn and Alabama, just to mention a few. These rivalry games are not only one team against the other - it's decades of history wrapped up into a single game every year. And when Northwestern and Illinois clash on Saturday at Soldier Field with the Land of Lincoln Trophy on the line, it's fair to ask--is this game a rivalry?
When now-former head coach Tim Beckman came to Illinois in 2012, he tried impossibly hard to make Northwestern-Illinois into something it isn't: a rivalry where the two sides absolutely loathe one another. He began referring to Northwestern as the "team up North" and placed anti-Northwestern signs in the locker room. He made injured and rehabbing players wear purple and he took lofty potshots at Northwestern's recruiting within the city of Chicago. Beckman's whole mindset was based on the notion of needing a rival in college football. Every storied program has a rival, and he wanted to instill that same hate in an opponent that big time football schools have. It ended embarrassingly for him; you can't force hate upon an 18-year-old kid. True rivalries cannot be forced, and lacking a true rival and a big time program, Beckman tried to target Northwestern.
To the delight of most Northwestern fans (or perhaps disappointment due to his lack of coaching prowess), Beckman is now gone upon the results of an internal investigation substantiated accusations of gross player mistreatment. This should come as no surprise. Illinois has gone 5-6 this season under the lead of mild-mannered interim head coach Bill Cubit, who has not done nearly as much as his predecessor to stoke the fire of this "rivalry".
On Northwestern's end, unlike Beckman, Fitzgerald has done little to promote true hatred against Illinois. He's a respectable 5-4 in his career against the Fighting Illini and has emphasized his mindset of going 1-0 each week. Perhaps there is more on the line against Illinois due to bowl implications, but it's tough to imagine Fitzgerald treating this game differently than almost any other Big Ten contest. What Northwestern did do to inadvertently fuel Beckman's campaign against Northwestern was Athletic Director Jim Phillips's "Chicago's Big Ten team" marketing scheme. Former Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas thought he had to do something to counter Phillips, and him and Beckman were stuck trying to make this game into something it isn't, a big-time rivalry fueled by hatred.
The fact of the matter is that neither school has been good enough for a long enough time for this game to really matter deeply. Northwestern was a national laughingstock before the miraculous Rose Bowl appearance in 1995, and while there have been occasional excellent seasons since then like this one, Northwestern has never been good for long enough to inspire hatred from the rest of the Big Ten.
Illinois seems to be buried in the quicksand of mediocrity, summed up effectively by The Champaign Room:
"Extending Bill Cubit is more or less raising a giant white flag over Memorial Stadium with a massive middle finger sewn on it. It's pissing on the fanbase and not even pretending that it's rain they feel drenching them. Illinois football may not have reached its nadir results-wise, but it's standing in the middle of a lake covered in rotten ice when it comes to getting fans to care about it. One wrong move and apathy will swallow what's left of it."
Big time rivalry games are born out of tradition and the success of both programs. Neither Northwestern nor Illinois have simply been good enough for this game to consistently mean something. And two 5-6 teams playing for bowl eligibility like last year does not help this game's rivalry status. I'm talking about two teams that are nationally ranked, or at the very least are competitive. Northwestern is holding their share of the bargain this season.
While they lack the consistent success to sustain a true rivalry, what Northwestern-Illinois does have is proximity, history, and a trophy. Playing each other once a year, residing in the same conference, and fighting to be the best team in the state gives this game a bit more meaning.
Come Saturday, with bowl implications on the line, one team will victoriously raise the prolific HAT over its head. It will be far from the biggest game of the day, and it will never have the magnitude of other matchups, but either Northwestern or Illinois will be the winner of what is, almost inevitably, a rivalry.