The makings of a rivalry

Steven Goldstein analyzes the history of the Northwestern-Illinois rivalry in this comprehensive piece.

Three purple-clad fans frantically pedal tricycles up to half-court at Welsh Ryan Arena, turn, and coast back to claim a Northwestern prize pack. It's Feb. 17, and the injury-ridden Wildcats trail instate rival Illinois by double-digits during a media timeout. As both teams huddle on the sidelines, the promotional race comes to a close and the crowd stays hushed.

Until now.

The three race participants rip off their purple in unison to reveal Fighting Illini apparel, sending a legion of Illinois fans into a frenzy. With its burgeoning basketball team prepping for a Tourney run and Evanston just a short road trip away, Illinois' Orange Krush flocked to the game, antagonizing Wildside and Cats fans all night long.

"This is our house!" the Krush bellowed as the game's final minutes ran out and the Illini emerged with a big win.

It was convincing; it was real. A rivalry historically characterized as forced, obligatory and inconsistent seemed to manifest itself where it mattered most: the stands. Northwestern will get its latest shot at revenge May 8, when the Illinois coaching caravan stops at Evanston bar World of Beer for a two-hour meet-and-greet.

Perhaps it's getting closer. It's just not quite there yet.

The Big Ten's centurylong past lends itself to some of the richest rivalries in college sports. Pairings like Michigan/Ohio State and Indiana/Purdue elicit innumerable stories of nail-biting games, spirited crowds and back-and-forth hostilities from players and fans alike. Rivalries like these don't require media campaigns, hackneyed taglines or visits to opposing bars. When the Buckeyes take the Big House, fans don't need reminders for what to do or who to direct chants at.

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Northwestern and Illinois, despite recent efforts from both sides, is nowhere near the level of its Big Ten counterparts. Unlike Michigan/Ohio State or any other rivalry in the conference, NU/Illinois is a clash between a public and private university—two decidedly different cultures who often don't care to understand the perspective of the other. And, unlike most other rivalries, NU/Illinois features two programs who have never been on the same level of achievement.

The Sweet Sioux Tomahawk was first snatched by Northwestern in 1945, a reward for trumping Illinois 13-7 at what was then known as Dyche Stadium. It was one of legendary quarterback Otto Graham's final games as a Wildcat, yet the win wasn't of much significance: the teams would combine for a 6-10-1 record that season, while the Tomahawk itself was a mere replica, replacing a carved wooden Indian that was stolen previously.

Even with a tangible trophy on the line, the Cats and Fighting Illini failed to foster a true rivalry for decades. Fielding superior teams year after year, Illinois didn't lose a single game to Northwestern between November 1977 and November 1986, opting to turn its attention to rivalries with Ohio State, Purdue and even Indiana.

It wasn't much better in basketball, where Northwestern has gone a paltry 9-56 in its past 65 meetings with Illinois, taking into account the program's massive strides over the past decade.

Aside from geographic proximity, there wasn't much keeping the two programs tied together for a rivalry game beyond an arbitrary Tomahawk. Illinois strung together a streak of postseason football appearances that peaked with a trip to the 1984 Rose Bowl, all the while compiling consecutive 20-win seasons atop the Big Ten in basketball. Around the same time, Northwestern football plunged into a 34-game losing streak and notched just two double-digit win basketball seasons in a decade.

The Sweet Sioux Tomahawk was put to rest in 2008, with the Wildcats claiming it for good with a 27-10 win at Ryan Field, the same grounds where it all began over seven decades before. A year later, the Land of Lincoln trophy sprung up, stripping the Tomahawk and its final destination of any real meaning.

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Of course, now the rivalry has meaning beyond any trophy.

Northwestern's recent resurgence in football and basketball has prompted a renewed importance of the Land of Lincoln relationship. With nothing but decades of futility and lopsided battles for the Tomahawk behind it, the rivalry has instead been galvanized by four mere words: "Chicago's Big Ten team."

Maybe it's a testament to the lack of true founded rivalry between the two schools; maybe it's symbolic of just how powerful marketing campaigns can be. Still, it's those four words that power those Illini fans to shed their purple and Wildside to heckle John Groce and Co.

Fresh off a run of NIT appearances and two straight winning seasons in football, Northwestern kicked off its campaign as "Chicago's Big Ten team" in 2010, much to the chagrin of their instate cohorts. Illinois' subsequent "Our state/Our team" campaign put more than a piece of metal on the line. With two marketing initiatives, the Northwestern/Illinois rivalry has been elevated to a battle for one of the country's oldest states and most culturally significant cities.

The rivalry finally found its platform in 2010, when the two football teams met at Wrigley Field, televised by ESPN's College Gameday. Drawing floods of orange and purple, the Wrigley game served as a symbolic first stage for the battle for Chicago and Illinois, with the Fighting Illini knocking off the Dan Persa-less Cats 48-27.

Since then, the Land of Lincoln Trophy has changed hands twice, and as Northwestern secured a partnership with Wrigley and the Chicago Cubs, Illinois readies for a game at the Bears' Solider Field this September. It's a perfect sense of back-and-forth that's previously pervaded the rivalry for decades.

Now, we get to put faces to it.

"What we did to Illinois, I loved that" jeered Northwestern President Morty Schapiro at a University celebration for the Gator Bowl back on Jan. 18. Schapiro references NU's 50-14 thumping of the Fighting Illini to close out the 2012 regular season, something Wildside likely won't let Illinois coach Tim Beckman forget on May 8.

With the Big Ten's divisional realignment placing Northwestern and Illinois together, a budding rivalry has a chance to flourish. Those fans donning split Wildcat/Illini caps at games likely take the Land of Lincoln rivalry too seriously, while those ready to lump it with the rest of what the Big Ten has to offer on rivalry week should probably hold off for a bit.

But come May 8, there won't be any lack of aggression or enthusiasm. There won't be any Tomahawk either. Just the next step in the start of something promising.

Follow Steven Goldstein on Twitter

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