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Why your mascot sucks: University of Illinois

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The Fighting Illini mascot may be the most cringe-worthy of all time…

NCAA Football: Michigan at Illinois Michael Allio-USA TODAY Sports

Origins

The University of Illinois nickname of Illini, a call-out to the state’s namesake, first appeared in 1874 when the campus weekly newspaper changed its name from The Student to The Illini.

All signs point to the term being coined and not formally assigned by the University. The term was used to describe many things: the campus, its students (both current and former) and faculty.

However, if it wasn’t for the newspaper, who knows if the athletic teams would have had a nickname/mascot.

In 1898, the football team was referred to as “The University of Illinois Football Team.”

Easy there Illinois, clearly their creativity showed no bounds…

Although, I am sure they would have held a contest and likely been the Illinois Lincolns. Which would have been a great honor—the man killed vampires.

Oh, and the whole freeing of the slave things too….

Luckily there was no need for a contest, as the athletics department started to use Illini to refer to its teams in the early 1900s. The term Fighting Illini began to be used consistently in the 1920s after its first appearance came in 1911 in a newspaper article.

“Only a small crowd turned out to see our fighting Illini chase the Gophers back to their holes.”

Huh, that’s funny… 108 years later and they still just have a small crowd on hand to see them do things…

The average attendance for Fighting Illini football games in 2018 was 36,151 per game and their stadium’s capacity is almost twice that, at 60,670.

Fighting Illini became a popular term for both athletics and those from Illinois that went off to fight in World War I. The term was officially adopted as the school’s nickname between 1921-1930.

Chief Illiniwek

The Fighting Illini mascot, Chief Illiniwek, first appeared in 1926 when the assistant director of bands at the school got the idea of having a Native American war dance performed at halftime of football games.

The first performance ended with a drum major, dressed as the University of Pennsylvania’s mascot, who met Illiniwek at midfield with a peace pipe and the two walked off the field arm in arm.

The Chief appeared at a variety of Illinois sporting events and wore Native American garb and a headdress with feathers dyed the school colors.

While the Chief Illiniwek costume had been re-made many times, it was revised most recently in 1982 by a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe. Their chief, Frank Fools Crow, sold the costume to the marching band and presented the regalia during halftime of a football game at the request of the assistant band director.

The original costume contained real eagle feathers in its headdress. Because that is a big no-no by pretty much everyone, not to mention the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Act (to name a couple of laws), the feathers on the headdress were replaced with dyed turkey feathers.

I don’t know about you, but there is just something about seeing a caucasian person dressed up like a Native American that makes me feel... uneasy...

Controversy

Controversy? What? When? Where? Why?

Beginning in the 1970s, the Chief was a subject of debate at the university. Many considered removing him as mascot for obvious reasons, but his inclusion in university athletics was loved by many.

In 1988, Charlene Teters, who founded the National Coalition of Racism in Sports and Media, began protesting the use of the Chief. She was a Spokane American Indian and did not believe the mascot was appropriate after seeing the mascot at a Fighting Illini basketball game.

Teters said that reducing the tribal leadership position of chief to a mascot and then displaying that mascot in clothing and trinkets to be sold “does not feel like honor or respect to us.”

However, despite Teters and her protest, the Illinois state legislature passed a resolution in support of the Chief, and the Honor the Chief Society was born.

Regardless of the resolution and the society, national pressure to retire the chief still existed from many Native American organizations who viewed the Chief as someone who misappropriates and misrepresents Native American culture and perpetuates harmful racial and ethnic stereotypes.

However, a 1995 ruling by the United State Department of Education did not find that the mascot violates the civil rights of Native American students. That same year, the Illinois state legislature approved a bill making the Chief the official symbol of the university.

The end of Chief Illiniwek

Even with all of the support, the Chief’s days were numbered. In 2000, the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma filed a resolution for Illinois to cease the use of Illiniwek. The Peoria Tribe originated in Illinois but was relocated to Oklahoma.

Like Central Michigan another school featured in this series, Illinois was placed on an NCAA list of schools with “hostile or abusive nicknames” in 2005.

Upon review, the NCAA determined that use of the mascot and of the Native American logo was no longer allowed. The university appealed the decision a couple of times but was denied. They then announced that Chief Illiniwek would no longer be used, following the 2006-07 basketball season.

The Chief was officially retired on March 13, 2007.

The retirement ended an 82-year run as the school’s mascot. In all, 36 different students portrayed Chief Illiniwek and not one of them, was of Native American heritage…

NOT ONE!

However, the only woman that portrayed the Chief grew up on a reservation and was considered an “honorary princess of the Osage Indian tribe.”

Regardless of him being removed as the school’s mascot, there are still some that are hold onto him and still dress as him.

New Beginnings?

What was originally created as a joke almost became the school’s mascot.

Alma Otter narrowly lost by a vote of 3,807 – 3,510 and missed its chance to become the school’s mascot earlier this year. I know that the Alma Otter featured above is a mock-up, but that otter looks like it has seen some shit...

If you ask me, Illinois students really Illinoised the bed on this one, OTTERS ARE AWESOME!

Have you ever seen an otter and not been instantly happy? While river otters are super awesome, sea otters are stupid awesome.

Sea otters hold hands with their mates as they float in the ocean, so they do not drift apart AND they each have their own favorite rock, which they use to open shells and keep in a special pocket, under their arm.

Not to mention, the otter could also be their next point guard…

With a 25-36 (11-25 B1G) record the past two seasons under their current coach, they could use one…

Champ, another potential mascot for Illinois is a nod to the Illini students who fought and died in WWI. Champ was created my Mike Skibiski, a student at UI. Champ is dressed in a blue and orange military uniform.

No news has been reported on Illinois’ mascot-less-ness since March of this year.

If the school is still looking for a new mascot and is not down the the Alma Otter, may I suggest Lovie Smith’s beard?

There is no way he doesn’t keep snacks in there.

I’m guessing he may not have a job much longer, so he should be free to attend more school events than what his schedule currently allows.

Regardless of what route Illinois chooses, they will certainly be in a better and less cringe worthy place than they were from 1926-2007.

Year of mascot suckery to date

Mascot Suck Index / Rankings

Suck Ranking University Mascot Mascot Suck Index
Suck Ranking University Mascot Mascot Suck Index
1 Kent State University Flash the Golden Eagle 90
2 University of Illinois Chief Illiniwek 89
3 Michigan State University Sparty 63
4 Northwestern University Willy the Wildcat 62
5 University of Michigan N/A 60
5 Central Michigan University N/A 60
5 University of Southern Florida Rocky the Bull 60
8 University of Wisconsin - Madison Buckingham U. Badger 0