Illinois trying to make real rival out of Northwestern

As soon as Illinois head coach Tim Beckman arrived at Illinois, he made no secrets about engaging in a rivalry with “the team up north.”

In the Illini locker room and meeting room, a Northwestern sign has been crossed out — Beckman’s doing. He has no interest in denying or hiding it, either,

“Starting in high school, remember the team you played down the road that was the team you had to beat” Beckman said. “This is our state school. I figured that would be the rivalry.

“I respect Coach Fitzy (Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald) and his program. I’ve been up there quite a bit, I hope he wins every game but one.”

Illinois, and more specifically Beckman, seem intent on pushing a rivalry between the two schools.

The coaches both expressed a mutual respect for each other and have known each other long before their days in the Big Ten.

But does Northwestern really consider it a rivalry? Fitzgerald has continually played down a possible rivalry between the two schools.

“I don’t follow a lot of those things closely because I take the focus and the attention on to our program,” Fitzgerald said. “And we’re focused right now on our opener. But before that, we’re going to be focused on ourselves. We have to get a lot better than we were last year, and that’s the challenge as a coaching staff.”

Maybe this rivalry could get heated one day, but for now it doesn’t seem so. Not to Northwestern linebacker David Nwabuisi, who acknowledged that maybe the rivalry is more fun for fans and alumni at the moment.

“I’m sure fans get a kick out of it,” Nwabuisi said at Friday’s Big Ten football media day. “Probably got Illinois guys working with Northwestern guys and they’re probably talking smack in the office before they play every year. For us it’s really another game on the calendar. The only difference is were playing for that Land of Lincoln trophy.”

Northwestern offensive lineman Brian Mulroe did go as far as to call the game a rivalry, but then downplayed it meaning more than any other Big Ten games.

“Just any Big Ten opponent is going to be a crazy game,” he said. “Sure it’s a rivalry, but do we change our mindsets going into the game, probably no.”

Despite any Northwestern objections, Beckman is going to push the matchup with the Wildcats every year, especially if the game can continue to have special venues such as when the game was played at Wrigley Field in 2010.

“I’ve been in those big rivalry football games, and I think it’s something that you breed through your program,” Beckman said. “We call it the team upstate. And I’m not scared to say that. That’s the school we’re going to call it. We’re going to make it a rivalry and we’re going to make it a very, very important part of our football season.”