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Article updated: 9/28/2011 10:59 PM

Illinois-Northwestern rivalry turns into war of words

Illinois head football coach Ron Zook

Illinois head football coach Ron Zook

 

Associated Press

Northwestern head football coach Pat Fitzgerald

Northwestern head football coach Pat Fitzgerald

 

Associated Press

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It's refreshing to see the Illinois-Northwestern football rivalry approach the level of college football's other intrastate imbroglios.

By that I mean, thank goodness the level of verbal outrage continues to rise -- thus raising the stakes for both sides.

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After all, nothing says rivalry week like an exchange of fightin' words that don't mean diddly once the hitting starts.

Here's an example of what's being said in Illinois' camp this week, which is intended as a response to Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald's recruiting philosophy:

"We heard them say some things like, 'We recruit a different kind of guy. They don't recruit our kind of guys,'" senior middle linebacker Ian Thomas told Gatehouse Media. "We want to show them our kind of guys are better football players and a better team. It's all fun in competition."

Here's the thing: Every football coach has a recruiting schtick.

Ron Zook likes to refer to Illinois' style as "Friends and Family."

When former offensive coordinator Mike Locksley reeled in five-star receiver Arrelious Benn from our nation's capital five years ago -- one of several high-profile Illini coups early in Zook's tenure -- Locksley cited "Friends and Family" because he was buddies with Benn's coach, Craig Jefferies.

(They became such good pals that Locksley hired Jefferies in January to coach for him at New Mexico. Too bad for Jefferies that "Locks" got fired Monday).

Fitzgerald has a schtick, too. He calls it "recruiting to our fit."

Because Northwestern has higher academic standards than most Football Bowl Subdivision schools -- and doesn't shy away from mentioning its players' ability to avoid the police blotter -- Fitzgerald tailors his recruiting sales pitch to make it sound like earning a Northwestern scholarship is like joining the Marines.

You know: The Few. The Proud.

I've heard him recite his philosophy so frequently, I can't cite all of the dates and times he has done it.

Did Fitzgerald do it during the lead-up to last year's Illinois-Northwestern game at Wrigley Field? Perhaps, though I can't find evidence of it.

But if you search the Internet, it's not too difficult to find Fitzgerald's philosophy espoused in May … or December … or February.

Here's a snippet from Jon Greenberg's column for espn.com on Feb. 4, 2010, one day after NU (and every other school) revealed its recruiting class.

"We (the school's athletic department) have a love affair with our players," Fitzgerald said. "These are the best and brightest college football has to offer. They have a 2.98 GPA, and 54 of them had above a 3.0. We won eight games with a chance to win nine in a New Year's bowl. Are you kidding me? These guys are so special."

I can see where it irritates other schools when Fitzgerald calls his Wildcats "the best and brightest college football has to offer."

By definition, other schools' players cannot measure up. Nobody wants to hear that or heed that.

At the same time, Fitzgerald and Zook rarely battle for the same recruit.

According to Illinois' media guide, quarterback Reilly O'Toole (Wheaton Warrenville South) and wideout Kenny Knight are the only freshmen who chose the Illini over Northwestern.

Northwestern's guide doesn't list the other schools its freshmen considered, but Rivals.com says only four of the Wildcats' 17 recruits (including Fremd superback Jack Konopka) also received offers from Illinois.

If the Illini and the Wildcats fish in different streams, why should each school care about how the other baits their hook?

"I have no idea what they're talking about," an edgy Fitzgerald said after Wednesday's practice. "I don't know if I've said anything different any time. We recruit for our fit, and I think we know exactly what that is.

"In a recruiting battle with anybody, it's the same thing. We're worried about us. No disrespect to (the Illini), but I really don't care about them. I'm more focused on us."

lwillhite@dailyherald.com

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