Intentional or not, Pat Fitzgerald and Lovie Smith somewhat rekindled the Illinois-Northwestern rivalry at Big Ten Media Days, nearly four months before the two collide in the season finale in Evanston.
Jokes started on Monday, when Fitzgerald admittedly scuffled through his opening remarks. In a gentlemanly gesture, the 11-year veteran at Northwestern welcomed three new faces — Tracy Claeys, DJ Durkin and Chris Ash — into the Big Ten head coaches’ fraternity.
The fourth Big Ten rookie and head coach of Northwestern’s in-state rival Illinois, was never mentioned.
Not long after his time on the podium, Fitzgerald sent a tweet to Smith apologizing for the omission and welcomed the former NFL coach to the conference.
— Pat Fitzgerald (@coachfitz51) July 25, 2016
On Tuesday, Smith attempted to stir up a little emotion himself.
In his opening statements that kicked off the second day of Big Ten Media Days, the newly appointed Illinois head coach invaded enemy territory, claiming that Northwestern isn’t the only program the City of Chicago can love.
“We feel like we’re Chicago’s team, also,” Smith said to close out his remarks on Tuesday. “We have a lot of alumni here so it’s good to be here.”
To the Northwestern fan in the wrong mood, those could be construed as fighting words.
Fitzgerald’s self-proclaimed fumble and Smith’s mention of Chicago created a nice internet squabble between the two fan bases through social media outlets, but the statements – or lack there of – shouldn’t be perceived as mean-spirited attacks on the programs.
Smith’s Windy City comment was likely referencing his recruiting priority and attempting to establish a strong base in the state’s most football-fertile lands.
“Recruiting has gone well and they are listening to us,” he said of Chicago athletes on Tuesday. “We need to do well in the Chicago area.”
Recently, Illinois has made a strong push to become more prominent in the city, moving its home games against Northwestern from Memorial Stadium in Champaign in 2015, 2017 and 2019 to Soldier Field.
In the first of three matchups at Soldier Field and six straight games in the Chicago area, the Wildcats beat the Illini, 24-14.
With such a strong emphasis being placed on the Chicago area, it’s easy to understand why Smith – who used to coach the Bears, by the way – believes Illinois should be considered a fan favorite in the city.
And for Fitzgerald’s blunder?
There were plenty of coaching changes that occurred this offseason in the conference and Smith is still a relatively fresh hire. It’s easy to see how the newest head coach in the conference could’ve slipped his mind.
But either way, both Fitzgerald and Smith created some headlines at the Big Ten Media Days that developed into an innocent back-and-forth between fans.
It’s a good thing for the rivalry. It sparked some interest and got people talking about a game that’s still months away.
Fifteen miles from where Fitzgerald and Smith kicked off the season, the two will face off in the final game of the year. We’ll see how cordial they’ll be towards one another when November 26 rolls around.