For a symbol that has been absent from the University of Illinois for over a decade, the Chief Illiniwek debate was on full display over the last few weeks, in an argument that needs to be over FOREVER. The Chief is gone, it is never coming back and I say this as a U of I alum who attended after the Chief had been discontinued and attended Students for Chief Illiniwek student meetings, only to then graduate completely opposed to the Chief.
After taking numerous courses surrounding Native American and minority imagery and portrayal in sports and media along with talking with those affected through in-depth interviews, I realized that something that could cause this much pain to people should have no place on campus.
Yet there is a reason those who hold the Chief near and dear to their hearts re-surfaced these last few weeks, as Illinois basketball is likely headed to their 6th straight season without an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Last Friday, in a non-binding referendum, students voted down a proposal to make ‘Alma Otter’ the official symbol of the University. Even PTI displayed the student-generated logo last week. While students came out to vote, the online backlash from alumni and Chief supporters was rampant. And to be honest, no matter if you support the Chief or not, the Alma Otter was a pretty bad choice and makes sense that it was thought up over ice cream at Cocomero on campus as a joke.
— The Daily Illini (@TheDailyIllini) March 11, 2019
On Monday, long-time Chief critic Stephen Kaufman wrote to Chancellor Robert Jones about the sponsorship agreement between the Blackhawks and the U of I that evening where early arriving fans would receive an orange and blue Blackhawks hat with the ‘I’ and Blackhawks logo on the hat. While Illinois does these ‘Illini Days’ with every major Chicago team, the apparent agreement did not include a Blackhawks logo on the initial design, something that seemed to surprise Illinois Monday morning. He argued that this agreement, and dawning the Indian Head logo in orange and blue further proved the University’s continued disrespect towards Native Americans.
Critic of Chief Illiniwek tells @Illinois_Alma administrators that tonight's #Illini / @NHLBlackhawks promotion 'does the campus an enormous disservice.' Story by @jawurth: https://t.co/L0YTii1jRD.#NGMedia pic.twitter.com/BcWD8m2HgB
— The News-Gazette (@news_gazette) March 11, 2019
Once again, Chief supporters decried Kaufman on social media and committed their support for the retired Illini symbol. A symbol that Illinois has been trying to rid itself of for over 10 years, and everything associated with it, such as discontinuing the War Chant at football games last season.
This article is not meant to garner arguments for and against the Chief, even though as you can see, I have made my opinions clear.
The crux of this article is WHY does this argument keep coming to light so many years after controversy and arguments for or against should have ceased to exist?
The reason is that since 2007, Illinois’ primary sports of football and basketball have been non-existent nationally and a complete afterthought in Illinois. And when there is nothing to cheer about on the field, fans try to bring back the good old days to something that makes them happy and nostalgic. The Chief symbolizes an eternal bond between some Illini fans and their teams but is one that has existed for all the wrong reasons both ethically and symbolically.
The Chief is a constant in many Illini fan’s eyes, and the Chief can’t win or lose, it is always there and is something fans can always hold onto. And as the team continues to lose, what do these die-hard fans and alumni have left to hold onto? A symbol that no longer has meaning to many on campus and a symbol that has masked the most time-honored tradition at Illinois, LOSING.
The only way the University of Illinois can rid themselves of a checkered past and the Chief controversy is by winning. As an alum, I do not care if they ever have a symbol or mascot that graces the field or court ever again. I just want them to win. And I think most fans would agree.
There is a reason why when I went to that Students for Chief Illiniwek meeting as a freshman in 2012, that I was the ONLY student in attendance. This will be the third full graduating class since the Chief was retired at U of I. That’s twelve years worth of students who have no connection to the symbol at all, but they do share the same misery of losing as we all do.
While Lovie Smith had to strip down and rebuild the Illinois football program when he arrived for the 2016-2017 season, and Brad Underwood is finally getting his team together for what should finally be an NCAA Tournament team in 2019-2020, Illinois can’t shake it’s losing culture, so thus, fans resort to clamoring for the Chief, as their only outlet.
Future is BRIGHT 😎 pic.twitter.com/gbs6RDg5XG
— Illinois Basketball (@IlliniMBB) March 11, 2019
Since 2007, Illinois basketball has made the NCAA Tournament 4 times not getting past the Round of 32, and in football, the Illini have only tasted 4 Bowl appearances after losing in the Rose Bowl during the 2007-2008 season.
After finally ridding themselves of mid-major hires in Athletic Director Mike Thomas, Head Basketball Coach John Groce, and Lasagna Football Man Tim Beckman, Illinois seems to be finally getting out of the dark ages that have plagued them for over a decade.
While the angry donors continue to call the school with a Chief or bust mentality refusing to donate unless the school brings back the chief, once the team wins again, this mentality will all go away. There won’t be time for Chief supporters to voice their opinions, or student referendums on new mascots, as fans will be more concerned on where to camp outside Memorial Stadium or State Farm Center for sold-out Illinois games.
I can dream, can’t I? But in all seriousness, winning cures all, and the next 2-4 years for Athletic Director Josh Whitman are essential for building programs that can have sustained success and excite a currently apathetic fan base.
When you think of Alabama football, are Crimson Tide donors clamoring for more of Big Al the Elephant at Alabama Games? Or the Blue Devil at Duke games? First, I still don’t understand how the Crimson Tide have an elephant mascot, but I digress.
The answer is NO. All the fans care about is their team winning, and in the case for Illinois, they control their own destiny.
Win, and the university finally rids itself of the Chief controversy. Continue to lose, and the Chief will continue to create headlines across the country every few years, as fans continue to clamor for the past, as they have nothing to look forward to in the present or future.
We’re loyal to you Illinois, so give us something to cheer for and rid some of Illini-nation of their confused loyalty to a disrespectful symbol and allow them to pledge their allegiance to a winning a respectful culture.