UI panel: Is it time for a mascot?
New athletic director, new football coach — time for a mascot?
Nine years after Chief Illiniwek was officially retired, an Illinois Student Senate committee is studying whether it's time for the University of Illinois to move on.
The two co-chairs of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Exploration of a University Mascot, juniors Alex Villanueva and Mark Schaer, stress that the effort is not to actually choose one — or rehash the Chief debate. It's strictly to investigate whether students, faculty, staff, alumni and members of the community feel the campus is ready for one.
"We recognize that Chief Illiniwek was the symbol and he has been retired," Schaer said.
"This isn't necessarily about trying to replace the Chief but getting something that our sports teams and our fans can get behind."
The students are careful to draw a distinction between the Chief, which the UI and supporters refer to as a symbol of the university, and a sports mascot like Wisconsin's Bucky Badger or Herky the Hawk at Iowa.
In that spirit, interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson has signaled her support.
"The chancellor is very supportive of the effort by the Student Senate to create a first-ever mascot for the university. She's made clear to the group that any such effort should involve a broad coalition of stakeholders and that any concepts created must not contain Native imagery," spokeswoman Robin Kaler said Tuesday.
The effort started last fall, when Villanueva approached Schaer and other students about the idea.
Villanueva, who grew up in Florida and New York, said he didn't even know how to pronounce "Illini" when he was accepted by the university three years ago, and he was puzzled that the school had no mascot.
"I saw that they got rid of an awesome-looking Native American symbol, and I didn't understand the point," he said.
A few months before he arrived on campus in 2013, a student group called Campus Spirit Revival had held an online contest for new mascot ideas, but Chief supporters tried to block the effort. In the end, the category called "no change" got the most votes (1,767), followed by "other options" (1,369). (Among other entries: 191 votes were for a fictional sea monster called the kraken, 138 votes were cast for "corn guy," and a werewolf received 100 votes.)
When Villanueva got involved in the senate last year, he talked to students who supported the Chief but agreed that it probably wasn't coming back. They agreed that they'd like to see something besides the orange "Block I" as a symbol for athletics.
"There are people who miss the Chief but recognize that he's never going to be able to come back. I want to give students, future generations of Illini, something to rally behind," Villanueva said.
Not to mention the marketing possibilities, he said.
Schaer said his father, uncle and cousin all attended the UI, and he grew up as a fan of the Illini and the Chief.
"I didn't really see a problem with it. As I've come here and seen how divisive this issue is ... I've realized that it's important for us to move on," he said. "The NCAA has made it very clear that should we bring the Chief back, the sanctions would be crippling for our athletic program."
The ad hoc committee is holding public meetings at 5 p.m. each Friday at the Illini Union with different groups of stakeholders. Last week, on Unofficial St. Patrick's Day, about 40 students showed up. This week, faculty, staff and administrators were invited to give input.
Future sessions are planned for alumni and community members, and the final session on April 8 will be devoted to student input. But all sessions are open to the public, Villanueva said.
The panel will report back to the student senate in mid-April, after the last meeting, he said. If the consensus is that it's time to consider a mascot, the committee would resume that discussion next academic year, Schaer said.
"We want to see whether or not people believe we're ready to have a mascot. We're not necessarily saying, 'What should our mascot be?' Depending on the outcome of this committee, that's much further down the road," Schaer said.
The 13-member committee includes students with diverse views, said student senate President Mitch Dickey. Members in- clude Ivan Dozier, who until recently was the unofficial "Chief" portrayer who sometimes appears in the crowd at Illinois football and basketball games. Also on the panel are sorority and fraternity members, multicultural advocates and a representative from the Native American House, Schaer said.
Some student senators voted against creating the committee, arguing that "nothing could replace the Chief," Schaer said.
Students who attended the first public session were fairly evenly split on the issue, he said, with speakers from Native American and indigenous groups, the Marching Illini and other groups.
"It's a hot-button issue," Villanueva said. "Our job is to ask the different shareholders on this issue — students, alumni, faculty and staff, the local community — are we ready? If it's going to happen, I want it to be something the vast majority of people can get behind."