URBANA — "Champ" made his official pitch to be the University of Illinois mascot Thursday, with an ROTC student showing up in full costume to greet UI trustees.
UI sophomore Mike Skibski presented the idea for a World War I soldier to represent the Fighting Illini during the public comment section of the board's meeting at the Illini Union.
Benjamin Duban, a freshman nuclear engineering major in the ROTC program, donned the outfit. He said Champ's promoters wanted an ROTC student to wear the uniform.
"I think it's a great idea," Duban said.
The students didn't get any feedback from trustees, whose policy is not to respond to public comments, though Skibski introduced himself to a few afterward.
He said Champ would be a historical figure to be proud of, representing bravery with a "quiet dignity." He would carry a "flag of victory," celebrating those who "sacrificed everything to preserve our country's ideas."
Some have said the proposal might be controversial because of its military ties.
Skibski said there are numerous schools with "fighting" names, including Generals, Colonels, Crusaders, Minutemen, Knights and Spartans, as well as the Fighting Irish and Fighting Scots.
His father, 1987 UI business grad Richard Skibski, also spoke to the board. He said Champ would fit in with the Marching Illini's halftime shows and carry a "mystique" just as Chief Illiniwek did for many fans.
"There is a void there. As alums, we feel it. And I believe the transition from Chief to Champ fills that void," said Richard Skibski, a lifelong Illinois resident.
It also aligns with UI and state history, he said. The Fighting Illini name took hold during World War I, and the state contributed money, food, manufactured goods, soldiers and nurses to the war effort, he said.
Two staunch Chief supporters took another view in their public comments.
Breelyn Fay, secretary of the Native American Guardians, which supports the use of native imagery in sports, chastised UI leaders for eliminating "vestiges of our history" when they dropped the Chief.
Trustees acted after complaints from students, faculty, numerous tribal leaders and the NCAA that the Chief and other native sports symbols are racist stereotypes.
She said trustees must decide whether to compromise and "integrate authentic native culture into our traditions" or follow the "shameful" path of previous administrations.
"Illini Nation is watching," she warned. "And we will never stand by silent or idle. You cannot, you will not unite this community without us."
Dozier, a former unofficial Chief portrayer, argued against Champ.
"We once had a symbol of peace. To replace it with a symbol that glorifies a history of violence ... would be unjust," he said.
Both said students who share their viewpoint face hostility on campus.
"Is Champ going to face the same debate about historical accuracy? Will Illini veterans have to sign off? How many people have to be offended by Champ before we decide it's a bad idea? One? Two? Dozens? Is there a number?" Dozier asked.
Chancellor Robert Jones said later the presentations showed there are "multiple perspectives" on how to fill the void left by the Chief's retirement.
"The one thing that we can agree on is we have to find some way to address that issue," he said. "There will be multiple ideas, and many of those ideas will meet with some resistance."
Until the Commission on Native Imagery finishes its work, Jones said, "we're not ready to decide whether it's Champ or any other kind of symbol that might be the answer."