In his introductory press conference back in March, Lovie Smith took a page out of former Illinois coach Tim Beckman's book and referred to Northwestern as "the team up North." Now, it's usually never good to take anything out of Beckman's book, but either way, it appears that Lovie is fully embracing the competition for title of "Chicago's Big Ten team."
At Media Day, the soft-spoken Smith ended his statement by saying "we feel like we're Chicago's team." He knew the implications of his words.
"We realize there's two teams in our state and both claim that we're Chicago's team," Smith said. "We have a lot of alumni here in Chicago, quite a few fans here, but Pat Fitzgerald has done a great job with the program and they're a team that we need to beat, it's as simple as that."
In terms of recruiting competition, we've documented how Northwestern has dominated the "team down South." By hiring a former NFL coach—and one of the most recognizable Chicago sports names during the mid-2000s—Illinois is hoping it can reverse that trend.
Smith has earned six commits in the class of 2017, which pales in comparison to Northwestern's 17. Although to be fair, Smith has not had nearly the same amount of time that Fitzgerald has had to build relationships with recruits. That said, five of Illinois' commits are in-state. It's also worth noting that Illinois was the lone Power Conference offer for four of those five commits. Four Northwestern commits held an Illinois offer, while no Illinois commits picked the Illini over the Wildcats.
"The recruiting process overall has gone well," Smith said. "We had some areas that we have identified. But in order for us to do well, we need to do well in the Chicago area. And why wouldn't you want to do well? A lot of great athletes here."
Smith mentioned his desire to recruit in the neighboring St. Louis and Indianapolis areas, as well as the talent-abundant Texas and Florida regions. It's apparent that the Northwestern and Illinois recruiting battle will continue and possibly be heightened by the addition of Smith, who may already be a better recruiter than Tim Beckman.
Although Fitzgerald may have forgotten about him in his address to the media on Monday, the addition of Smith to the Big Ten is certainly not going unnoticed. Urban Meyer says that Smith brings "instant credibility and name recognition" to the conference. Northwestern players took note too.
"The fact that they [Illinois] added Lovie Smith just raises the stakes to the game," Anthony Walker said. "He's a great coach, he's going to bring in a great staff, and the players are going to play hard for him, you know that for a fact. I'm really interested to see what that game brings, and it's going to be a hard fought battle like any game in the Big Ten. But we have to win that game. We have to beat Illinois.
As for Lovie's plan to reclaim the coveted Land of Lincoln trophy?
"I think no matter where you are, no matter what level of football, there is one team that you need to beat," he told Inside NU. "And it becomes fairly obvious [it is Northwestern], as a football team it's kind of unanimous in their opinion.
However, Smith understands that Illinois likely won't contend for a Big Ten championship this season.
"We're not there yet," he said. "But in time we would like to be a part of that conversation also."
The former Bears coach will return to his former stadium to play Northwestern in 2017, part of Illinois' plan to play three consecutive home games against the Wildcats at Soldier Field. Smith undeniably instills some much needed experience and energy into what seemed like a dying football program, and at the very least will increase the attention surrounding the battle for Chicago's Big Ten team.
"As we start our climb it's important to do better against them [Northwestern]," Smith added. "And we will."
It's refreshing to see a coach so excited to play for the HAT. We'll truly be able to see what Lovie brings to the table for the school down South come September.