Northwestern made an audacious statement when it declared itself “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.”
It was a naked marketing ploy to get attention for the suburban university just outside the city limits. A jab at the rival down south that clearly had a larger fan presence in the Windy City.
That first year Northwestern made that push, Illinois defeated NU at Memorial Stadium, playing “Sweet Home Chicago” with the message “Our State, Our Team” on its jumbotron. The rivalry had reached a fevered pitch — Tim Beckman’s anti-Northwestern signage and reported use of purple jerseys for non-contact players aside — and the battle lines were drawn.
Illinois now had to fight for supremacy in its own state. But it needed to do that all along. It is not just a matter of marketing gimmicks and rivalries.
The Illini have tried to plant a flag in Chicago as more than the major city in their state. They have needed to make it a centerpiece to their recruiting plan in addition to marketing.
Illinois has just seven players on its roster from the Chicagoland area. The Illini though are recruiting Chicago hard. Five of their 11 commitments come from the Chicagoland area.
And Illinois continues to work to increase its presence in Chicago. The Illini played their annual rivalry game against the Wildcats at Soldier Field and will do so again next season. They have played at Soldier Field plenty of time and they will do so again in the future for those games.
But Illinois has to do more to win the big battle on the field in the state. It has to attack the major city and gain a stronger foothold than just a large fan presence.
Hiring Lovie Smith, with his long history with the Chicago Bears, certainly helps with the optics. He is a coach with NFL experience that should help the team increase its recruiting — and he brought some NFL friends with him such as Illinois alum Hardy Nickerson.
Both of those moves should help Illinois get more attention in Chicago.
There should be no problem getting fans in Chicago. For all of Northwestern’s bluster, Illinois is still the state university and the most popular team. Ryan Field gets painted orange and blue, like it does with the opposing team’s color for many Big Ten home games, every time the Wildcats host the Illini.
Chicago though is a unique market. It is the hub for the Big Ten. There are large alumni bases for almost every Big Ten team in the city. Everyone has a footprint there.
Illinois is fighting everyone for a piece of the city in many ways. And the team is doing it coming off an embarrassing ordeal with former coach Tim Beckman.
Expectations are relatively low for Smith’s first year with the Illini. Even in the West Division, Illinois does not figure to compete for a bowl berth yet. The Illini though will have to start establishing a foothold at home to begin improving their fortunes in the conference.
Chicago is home to Illinois. The Illini want the biggest city to be their territory. Now they have to go out and claim it, even if it remains a multi-year project.