Before you skim through this column to get to my thesis, I want to explain a bit about why I decided to write this piece.
During the fall semester of 2015, I was a junior at the University of Illinois and a member of the Illinois Student Senate (now the Illinois Student Government). A friend, who is also fellow senator, approached me at the first meeting that fall and asked me a simple question: “What if we had a new mascot? We’re never getting Chief back, and I feel like it might be time.”
I thought it was a pretty intriguing idea. I grew up with the Chief and he was beloved in my home up in Rockford, Illinois. In 1967, my father graduated from the College of Commerce — now, the Gies College of Business — and he said he would get goosebumps when Chief Illiniwek came out onto the field or court for the halftime performance. But I also knew that it had been nearly a decade since Chief was retired, and maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to investigate after all.
After several months of planning and preparation, we formed an ad-hoc committee to investigate whether or not stakeholders (such as students, alumni, athletes and community members) were interested in a mascot. Our purpose was not to determine what a new mascot should be, but rather if there should be one at all. The committee was slated to meet eight times over the course of that spring semester.
In short, it ended up being a semester from hell. I learned very quickly that there were two vocal opinion groups:
- Those who felt a new mascot needed to be implemented immediately because, without one, the ‘harmful climate’ proliferated by Chief Illiniwek imagery would continue.
- Those who refused to even consider the idea of any symbol or mascot other than Chief Illiniwek.
Our meetings were hearing-style, with portions of the meeting reserved for students, faculty, alumni, athletes, and others to give comment on why they felt we should or should not have a mascot. It often deteriorated, despite our best efforts, into a shouting match between the two groups. There was name-calling. Tears were shed. At one point I was threatened with a lawsuit. My co-chair and I received hundreds of emails over the course of the semester, some friendlier than others.
At the committee’s end, we wrote a report explaining our findings and we voted to recommend that the administration move forward and select a new mascot. As a co-chair, I abstained. I should have voted “no.”
Due to the nature of our meetings and the dialogue surrounding the committee, I became more and more convinced that the time was not right to move forward and try to select a new mascot. I don’t believe enough time has passed since Chief Illiniwek was retired, but more importantly, a mascot is not something that can be forced onto a fan base — especially one as passionate and established as the University of Illinois’.
I continued working on the issue, and we presented our report and further research to then-Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson. We studied several institutions that had similar issues with a Native American mascot and tried to select a new face for their athletic teams. Stanford University, Bradley University, St. John’s University and the University of Central Arkansas were included on this list. What became apparent was that when an old mascot was removed and a new one was quickly put into place via a popular vote, the outcome was not good.
I believe three conditions need to exist before Illinois can even think about a new symbol for athletics:
- An entire generation must go by,
- Our revenue sports (men’s basketball and football) need to be experiencing success,
- And it needs to happen organically.
The third point here is the most important. We can try all we want to put out a list of mascots and have people select what they think is the best idea, but unless it has real significance it will not stick. Plain and simple.
So, when I recently read about a student senator’s pursuit to put a student referendum question about selecting “Alma Otter” as Illinois’ new mascot, it was not only laughable, but an initiative that has no basis in reality.
It felt like an attention grab.
Passing with 21 “Yeas” and to a few claps from the Illinois Student Government, there will be a question on the Student Body ballot this semester:— Stephen Cohn (@stephen__cohn) February 28, 2019
“Do you approve of making Alma Otter an official symbol of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.”
In the same News-Gazette article above, the idea of a WWI soldier as the new mascot is presented as well. This is an idea we came across several times during our committee, due to the historical significance of Memorial Stadium and the actual origin of the name “Fighting Illini.”
Another current alternative to Alma Otter is a World War I doughboy named “Champ,” as he has been named by the student who will present the idea to the Board of Trustees. Champ has the advantage of being a meaningful reference to our past, rather than a result of a meme.
However, the issue still stands that instead of developing organically, one person has decided to take matters into his own hands to come up with a new mascot. Simply presenting an idea will not lead to a peaceful or successful transition of athletic imagery.
With each year, more and more first-generation Illini enter the Champaign-Urbana campus. With each year, there are fewer Chief Illiniwek shirts adorned by students on the Quad. With each year, the chants of “Chief” at the conclusion of the Marching Illini’s halftime performance grow a bit quieter.
I believe that a majority of Illini fans would actually be okay with a new mascot in due time. We’ve gone a long decade without a symbol when there had previously been one since 1926. Even my father, who loved the Chief and was disenchanted with how the University handled retiring him, felt that eventually something new should be implemented.
But I will continue to believe until proven otherwise that the three conditions need to exist before a new mascot can be put in place: time, success, and organic formation of the symbol itself. If it’s forced, it won’t end well.
You don’t have to support the pro-Chief group, but do you really want to embrace an otter?
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