By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) One week ago Friday, stacks of T-shirts bearing a new Chief Illiniwek logo appeared for the first time on the shelves of a sports apparel store at the University of Illinois.
And before the weekend was over, they had all vanished.
I wrote last week about the new logo designed by the Council of Chiefs, a nonprofit organization comprised of the men who have portrayed Illiniwek. The intent of their design, which depicts the Chief in an abstract orange-and-blue profile, is to help fill a void on a campus where the school’s former symbol is still dearly beloved – and dearly missed.
When the logo made its debut last Friday, enough Illini fans rushed out to GameDay Spirit that the Campustown store sold out of its first batch of the new Chief T-shirts by Sunday. Not everyone was enamored with the new logo, however. Other members of Illini Nation instead vented online at the Chief Illiniwek Facebook page (which has more than 52,000 followers), stating how the new logo simply didn’t do it for them.
Some demanded that the original Chief Illiniwek mark (a trademark controlled by the university) be made available again on clothing at campus stores, with others even calling for the return of the Chief himself to Illinois sporting events.
The one thing that both groups had in common, though, was their passion for Illiniwek, which still burns hot five full years after the Chief was retired by the university under pressure from the NCAA. And while Illini fans both on campus and online had differing opinions about the new logo last week, none seemed to want to see the University of Illinois represented by any other figure than the Chief.
So my question then is, why are people still trying to replace him?
Last fall, Campus Spirit Revival, a registered student organization at the University of Illinois, launched a contest in which it asked students to contribute their ideas for a new school mascot by April 15.
It turned out, though, that the entries received by the organization – which included the likes of “Lean Mean Mr. Soybean,” “Trouble the Tractor,” Abe Lincoln holding a frothy mug of beer, an angry tornado and an unnamed white-tail deer – were so underwhelming (and, let’s be honest, incredibly lame) that on April 12, Campus Spirit Revival announced that it was extending the contest deadline until Oct. 14.
“There’s a silent majority of people who are interested this,” Thomas Ferrarell, the president of Campus Spirit Revival, told the Daily Illini this month, quite unconvincingly. “The students need to prove to the administration that they want a new mascot. Everybody definitely has a stake in it.”
What Ferrarell and his organization just don’t seem to understand, though, is that they could extend their contest deadline for eternity, and it still wouldn’t make any difference. The vast majority of Illini fans have absolutely no appetite for some silly new mascot to prance along the sidelines at football and basketball games like an Illinois version of Herky Hawkeye or Sparty the Spartan.
They never have.
In fact, back on Jan. 14, 1982, when the Illini hosted Ohio State in a basketball game at Assembly Hall, the curtain was raised – and mercifully dropped – on one of the more ill-fated moments in school history with the unveiling of the “Orange and Blue Bird.”
“It was a bird of ill repute the moment it appeared on the floor,” the Daily Illini reported after Illinois’ 51-50 loss in overtime. “When a new-fangled yellow, fine-feathered mascot was introduced to Illinois fans prior to the Illini’s contest against Ohio State Thursday night, verbal abuse was its immediate greeting.”
Decked out in a Fighting Illini T-shirt and blue high-top gym shoes, the “O-B Bird” – likely inspired by the early-’80s popularity of the San Diego Chicken – was heckled off the court. And the next day, with rumors swirling that the bird was an attempt to ease out school symbol Chief Illiniwek, who had just begun falling under attack from critics, campus officials quickly backtracked.
Illinois associate athletic director Vance Redfern claimed the “O-B Bird” was not a mascot, but was created to “get hype and get home-court advantage” at Assembly Hall. Redfern added that he was “a little disturbed” by the reception received by the bird.
Much has changed at Illinois during the 30 years since the “O-B Bird” unsuccessfully tried to flap its wings, but this has not: Any goofy new mascot at Illinois intended to replace the symbolism that Chief Illiniwek represented – and continues to represent to many fans – will still go over like a lead balloon.
“Great traditions, whether it’s homecoming or Chief Illiniwek, are started by students passionate about their school,” said Steve Raquel, the president of the Council of Chiefs, who portrayed Illiniwek in the early 1990s. “Trying to manufacture tradition doesn’t work, and trying to replace a tradition that can never be replaced is even harder.
“Illinois fans just don’t have any reason to replace the Chief. He’s still close to many hearts.”
Which aren’t about to be transplanted to a new mascot.
So just let the Chief’s spirit beat on. It’s not hurting a soul.
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.