By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Northwestern and Illinois have always been in-state rivals.
But they’ve never really been big rivals.
In December 2011, Fighting Illini football coach Tim Beckman tried to make some noise in that regard when during his introductory press conference in Champaign, he announced that he would only call Northwestern “that team up north.”
He ended up sounding more tone-deaf than anything, however.
In both football – where NU and Illinois never seem to be up at the same time – and basketball, the schools’ Big Ten rivalry is tepid, at best.
Heck, their dueling marketing campaigns probably inflame fans’ passions more than their actual games.
But that could all be changing on the hardwood now that Northwestern has hired Chris Collins as its new head basketball coach. The key to intensifying a Wildcats-Illini rivalry is getting Illinois fans – who might outnumber NU ones by 100 to 1 in – worked up enough about “Chicago’s Big Ten Team” to intensely care about defending “Our State. Our Team.”
Bill Carmody couldn’t amp up the rivalry. He was too buttoned-down, too blah and had teams too bad to even make one NCAA Tournament.
Well, he has all the ingredients to get Illini fans riled up.
For one thing, Collins spurned Illinois in 1992, when as the state’s Mr. Basketball out of Glenbrook North he decided to become a Duke Blue Devil rather than a Fighting Illini. Illinois coach Lou Henson instead settled for the ’92 Mr. Basketball runner-up Richard Keene of Collinsville, whose hair may actually have been the state’s biggest prize.
Collins’ rejection was now more than 20 years ago, but many Illini fans haven’t forgotten it. For one thing, Collins didn’t leave the state for just any school. He left for Duke, where he joined a lineage of floor-slapping guards that includes Bobby Hurley, Steve Wojciechowski and J.J. Redick, all of whom many Illini fans – among countless others nationwide – simply love to hate.
In Durham, Collins also pioneered a Duke-bound exodus the Land of Lincoln that later continued with the likes of Peoria Central’s Shaun Livingston and Glenbrook North’s Jon Scheyer spurning the Illini with commitments to the Blue Devils. Beyond that, he’s stuck around at Cameron Indoor Stadium, joining Mike Krzyzewski’s staff in 2000 and becoming Duke’s associate head coach in 2008.
Collins’ Blue Devil blood alone is probably enough to get most Illini fans’ own boiling, but he may also elevate the rivalry in other ways both on and off the court in Evanston.
I imagine, for example, that the energetic, 38-year-old Collins will be a far more aggressive recruiter than the passive Carmody was during his 13 years at Welsh-Ryan Arena. And while it remains to be seen whether Illinois and Northwestern would compete for the same in-state talent, it’s likely that the schools will butt heads on the recruiting trail more often than in the past, which was almost never.
Nothing sparks a rivalry quite like a recruiting war. But nothing inflames it like heated contests on the court. The jury is out on whether Collins, who has no head coaching experience, can make Northwestern a true factor in the Big Ten. But either way, Illini fans will be paying more focused attention to the man on the sidelines in Evanston next season.
Maybe even enough that they’ll let Tim Beckman call him, “That coach up north.”
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.