Is Northwestern “Chicago’s Big Ten Team?”
Some people have taken offense to Northwestern’s motto of “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” By some people, I mostly mean the Tim Beckman coaching staff. And in a lot of ways, Illinois does have a right to be mad. There are more Illini alumni in the area and from a purely historical standpoint, Illinois has been, well, Chicago’s Big Ten Team.
There’s a lot that goes into that title. For Northwestern’s marketing purposes, they probably care most about grabbing the casual Chicago fan and turning him or her into a Northwestern fan. That’s part of the equation, no doubt.
But perhaps more important for players and coaches is in the recruiting battles. The Chicagoland area is a hot bed for athletic talent. Chicago is more known for its basketball, but Illinois football, while maybe not New Jersey or Texas, is still a relatively prospect rich state.
Both programs make a big deal of recruiting the state and Chicago especially, but, of course, only one team is claiming to be “Chicago’s Big Ten Team,” and that’s Northwestern.
But how true is that right now? It’s hard to deny the uptick in recruiting for Northwestern under Chris Collins, and, belying the last couple of years of on-field performance, Northwestern’s football recruiting has been very solid in recent years too. There seem to be more and more real impact players on the Wildcats coming from Illinois, and more specifically, the Chicago area. But is Northwestern the big kid on the block when it comes to owning Chicago?
The data is pretty split.
“Chicago’s Team” isn’t in Illinois
And it’s not even in the Midwest. It’s been a very long time since the best prospect in the state stayed local. Jereme Richmond was the last top ranked Illinois prospect according to ESPN to stay in state, and that was all the way back in the 2010 recruiting class when Richmond went to play at Illinois.
Things get a little weirder when you realize that Jereme Richmond committed in 2006.
But, as a rule, the best basketball prospects from Chicago and Illinois skip town. For every Richmond or Brandon Paul (the top Illinois recruit from 2009 who also went to Illinois), there are more players like Anthony Davis (top recruit from 2011 who went to Kentucky), Jabari Parker (top recruit from 2013 who went to Duke) or Jahlil Okafor (top recruit 2014 who went to Duke). This year, the top 3 recruits from Illinois and 4 of the top 5 recruits from Chicago are leaving, headlined by 5-star point guard Jalen Brunson who’s heading to Villanova.
Illinois is much closer to owning the state in basketball, but neither program pulls in the biggest fish. Illinois and Northwestern do have recruiting battles over the second tier of Illinois athletes. Under Chris Collins, Northwestern is 1-1 in direct recruiting battles against the Fighting Illini over Illinois athletes. NU grabbed Vic Law in 2014 and Illinois got Aaron Jordan in 2015. If we stretch the scope into the Carmody Era, Illinois’ lead expands.
The fact of the matter is that Illinois is still the big dogs in the state when it comes to recruiting, even with Rapolas Ivanauskas coming in 2016. Illinois may not pick up Anthony Davis, but they’re usually right there when it comes to that next tier of Illinois athletes. Northwestern recruits in-state seem to come from one more step down on the ladder. Edge Illini.
Tim Beckman is still getting worked
Of Northwestern football’s 114 targets who received scholarship offers, guess how many went to Illinois?
Guess how many players NU offered went to Illinois in 2014?
The answer to both questions is 0.
The theme has been, at least recently, that if a player can go to Illinois or Northwestern, he’s not going to go to Illinois. And, even more so, the Wildcats have been more likely to pull in the top level recruits in the state than the Fighting Illini, accentuated by NU pulling 4 of the top 25 players in the state in 2014. Illinois got just one, Nick Allegretti, who was ranked 25th in the state.
In recent years, Northwestern has beaten Illinois to the signatures of Clayton Thorsen, Matt Alviti, Justin Jackson and Parrker Westphal, and a couple of NU’s biggest pickups in next year’s class, Jordan Thompson, Cameron Green, and Flynn Nagel, were snagged despite Illini interest. People have levied criticisms on the Northwestern coaching staff, but one thing you can’t say is that they aren’t kicking Tim Beckman’s behind with regularity off the field. Big edge Wildcats.
It’s hard to say that either team has an indisputable claim on being “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” Both teams’ football and basketball programs aren’t where they’d like them to be. Northwestern has been out of a bowl game for two years and out of basketball postseason for three years now. Illinois football is still atrocious, and John Groce found a way to miss the tournament with Rayvonte Rice, Nnnanna Egwu, Kendrick Nunn, and Malcolm Hill all on the same squad.
In basketball, both team’s arrows seem to be pointed straight up. NU loses two role players and brings in, for their standards, a pretty darn good class. Illinois, however, will have to replace Egwu and Rice, but bring in a top 15 recruiting class (that might go to top 10 if Marcus Lovett commits).
Right now, the Illinois-Northwestern seems to be more lip service than genuine rivalry. But as the gap between the programs close in both football and basketball, don’t be surprised if the rivalry gets ratcheted up another level. The battle for Chicago will be fought on the field as much as on the recruiting trail, and it’s still unclear who’s going to come out on top.