By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) During the past two seasons, the Illinois football team’s winning percentage was .538. Over at Assembly Hall, the Illini men’s basketball team wasn’t a whole lot better, checking in with a .561 clip.
Turns out that Chief Illiniwek outdid them both.
“The past two years, I think the Chief’s winning percentage is about 80 percent,” said Steve Raquel, president of the Council of Chiefs, a group comprised of the men who have portrayed Illiniwek. “I’m not sure that he’s at 100 percent. We might have lost a football game with him in attendance. But it seems that just about every time the Chief shows up at a game, Illinois wins.”
For those who aren’t aware, Chief Illiniwek – the University of Illinois’ official, embattled and beloved symbol from 1926 to 2007, when he was retired by the school under NCAA duress – is still alive and kicking.
Each year, the Council of Chiefs still selects a student to portray Illiniwek (the current Chief, U. of I. junior Ivan Dozier, is part Cherokee). Fans still cheer him in absentia. And at the occasional Illini football, basketball or volleyball game in Champaign, the Chief will still make a brief appearance in the crowd even though he’s no longer allowed by the school to perform down on the court or field.
So, while the Chief may be gone from Illinois in an official capacity, he’s far from forgotten. And, starting today, he’s about to be remembered in an entirely new way.
In what’s been a long, dispiriting year for Illini fans, filled with frustrating losses, fired coaches and failed administrators, I’m pleased to finally share some good news. Great, even, for those who still cherish Chief Illiniwek and the proud tradition that he represents.
As many Illini fans know, during the past few years it’s been almost impossible to find any Chief-related apparel at stores in Champaign-Urbana, or even via the Internet. Despite having retired the symbol, the university has retained control of Chief Illiniwek’s familiar round headdress logo and has pretty much restricted it into oblivion.
Today, however, the Council of Chiefs, a non-profit 501c(3) organization, is unveiling a new Illiniwek logo, which will be made available on select merchandise today through an exclusive in-store agreement with Champaign retailer GameDay Spirit. Merchandise featuring the new logo will be available online at GameDaySpirit.com next week.
“Even after five years, the love for the tradition continues to be strong,” Raquel explained. “The development of the new logo is our way to return the spirit of the tradition as we know it in a new and meaningful way – one based upon helping others in their time of need.”
Raquel said that the Council of Chiefs has spent the past year working on the development of a new logo with Kurt Wisthuff, an alumnus of the University of Illinois Marching band and president of the Chicago design firm Arc Group Ltd.
Seeking something far enough away from the Chief’s original look so as to not infringe on any university copyrights, but with an identity that’s still immediately recognizable for fans, the new logo that was decided upon depicts the Chief in an abstract profile shot with alternating orange and blue strips running across its face.
For those wondering about an impending backlash from the university, Raquel said the school’s administration has been made aware of the Council’s development of this new logo and did not object.
As part of this new Chief merchandise line, a special series of shirts will be released next week via GameDay Spirit with the new profile logo representing the letter “E” in phrases such as “FOREVER,” “LIVES” and “REMEMBER.”
Raquel said the logo’s flow evokes the movement of Chief Illiniwek’s dance and also offers flexibility for the Council going forward. I happen to think the new logo’s profile also resembles the western edge of Illinois’ state border, although Raquel said that wasn’t intentional. It’s merely a nice additional perk.
“We wanted to have a logo that can change and evolve over time,” Raquel explained about the Chief’s new look. “One that can be expressive and be incorporated into messages and words.”
In a refreshing – and much belated – twist on the Chief tradition, Raquel also said that a portion of the proceeds from all apparel sold featuring the new logo will also be used to support service-based projects and scholarships.
I’ve long believed that was something the university itself should have done itself decades ago. But sadly my alma mater failed in adapting the Chief into a true educational and fundraising tool that could have benefited both university students and Native Americans.
However, with the Council of the Chiefs picking up the Illiniwek mantle that the university dropped five years ago, it’s uplifting to see fresh thinking applied to a symbol that remains so meaningful to Illini Nation that the Chief’s name is still bellowed at by the crowd at halftime of every football and basketball game in Champaign.
“This new logo is the first step of keeping the tradition alive and helping alumni feel connected to the university in ways that they haven’t in the past,” Raquel said. “People all over the world continue to ask about getting Chief apparel. And since the Chief began in 1926, the tradition has continued to evolve.
“Even if he’s no longer official, he’s still very important to U of I fans and alumni.”
And now, in an unofficial incarnation, he’s officially back.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.