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Pat Fitzgerald, Tim Beckman fighting different battles

Illinois head coach Tim Beckman right Northwestern head coach PFitzgerald left talk with each other before their teams NCAA college

Illinois head coach Tim Beckman, right and Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald, left, talk with each other before their teams NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Jeff Haynes)

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It’s hardly news that Northwestern, coming off a gut punch of a 5-7 season, is looking up at a collection of presumed contenders in the Big Ten in 2014.

You’ve got Wisconsin, always good to go. And Nebraska, whose prospects for a championship run never fail to entice the imagination. Iowa, too, is widely expected to make some noise.

And that’s just in the Big Ten’s West Division. In the first season post-realignment, the East — think Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State — appears to hold most of the cards. Northwestern? It is what it is after a disastrous 1-7 run through the league schedule.

“We’re not a preseason hype-type place, I guess,” Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said Monday, the first day of the Big Ten’s annual gathering in Chicago of coaches, top players and media.

It was different a year ago, though, when Northwestern was a popular pick to rise pretty high in the national top 25. Whatever factors — injuries, depth issues, mistakes in big moments — conspired to tear that down, Fitzgerald is promising decisive change.

“We’re going to re-establish who we are this year,” he said. “We’re going to get back to where we’ve been, and that’s competing for championships.”

Which brings us, many times removed, to Illinois. The Illini are nobody’s pick to win the West or come close. Third-year coach Tim Beckman is 1-15 in Big Ten play, a record that leads writers across the country to plop the man, fairly or not, on the hottest of seats.

This Big Ten event hasn’t always featured Beckman at his best. Two years ago, standing before the league’s media for the first time, he had to defend himself for recruiting Penn State players in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. In 2013, well, there was an 0-8 league record to talk about.

For some coaches, speaking from the podium is the easiest part of the job. Beckman isn’t an easy-does-it schmoozer, but this time felt different. This time — hot seat be damned — he came off as comfortable and confident.

“That’s the life of a football coach,” he said of the pressure to save his job with a winning season. “If you’re not going to have that life, you shouldn’t be in this profession.”

Maybe Beckman has to take the Illini bowling or else he’ll lose his job. Don’t be so sure that’s the case, but many who cover college football are saying it.

And maybe, just maybe, Fitzgerald’s golden reputation is on the line in 2014, too.

What it felt like Monday was that one of our state’s Big Ten coaches was fighting to preserve his rep and that the other was doing what he has no choice but to do: try to save it.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg



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