Well, here we go again. It seems like it's once again time for Illinois to talk about a mascot. It's been a few years since the spectacularly ill-fated Campus Spirit Revival movement showed that the student body just doesn't want one. Of course, failed attempts to create a mascot run deep at Illinois. On January 14, 1982, the "Orange and Blue Bird" made his first and last appearance at halftime of an Illinois basketball game. The reception was so negative that campus officials more or less disowned the O-B Bird.
But why have a mascot at all? Illinois has managed to play countless games throughout history without a goofy caricature roaming the sidelines with the cheerleaders. Just within the Big Ten, Michigan and Indiana do just fine for themselves as teams and as brands without assistance from an anthropomorphic animal or cartoonish man-character. Compared to a vibrant tailgating scene and a team the casual fan has some faith in, a mascot won't move the needle on attendance. The insurmountable home-court advantage Illinois Basketball enjoyed in the early 2000's wasn't due to any mascot, and the introduction of one won't pack the State Farm Center like those teams did in those days. From a merchandising and branding standpoint, a mascot is unlikely to become the primary logo for Illinois. Just take a look at the primary logos used on the Big Ten website:
Only Iowa, Michigan State and Penn State use something other than a letter (or letters) as a primary logo, and though I often see mascot-based secondary logos on fans of many of these teams, the Block I is an identifiable logo unique to Illinois in college football. Given all this, why does Illinois keep trying to make mascots happen? Why all this fuss about mascots?
Simple. It's never about a mascot. It's always about Chief Illiniwek. The former spiritual ambassador of Illinois athletics and his associated logo have failed to simply disappear in the nine years since being discontinued by the university. Every time I see an article like the one linked in the first sentence, it always comes back to Chief Illiniwek.
It concluded that a mascot could provide considerable marketing and branding appeal, boost school spirit, appeal to younger students and fans, and help combat continued use of offensive images of the Chief
I guarantee that this committee wasn't brainstorming ideas on how to boost the Illinois brand and reach out to a young generation of future Illini fans. It all started with the question of "how can we make Chief Illiniwek go away faster?"
Introducing a mascot is not the answer. Students arriving on campus now and getting decked out in Chief gear aren't doing it because there's no alternative, they're doing it because they want to believe Chief Illiniwek is still around. If anything, developing a new mascot by committee or focus group will make support for Chief Illiniwek even stronger and more visible.
My advice to those who truly want to promote campus unity and school spirit: recognize that the University of Illinois is more than Chief Illiniwek and rally around our logo, our colors and our teams.
My advice to the administration, if they really do want to move on from Chief Illiniwek, is to definitively state that Chief Illiniwek is no longer a symbol of the University of Illinois and that this administration will not be revisiting the issue, and that the University neither has nor is seeking to add an official mascot.
No mascot will ever gain completely universal acceptance (not all Stanford fans love the Tree, for instance), but perhaps someday, some enterprising and energetic fan will come up with some costume to wear to a football game and become a fixture, and the student body will say "hey, why don't we make that an official thing?"
Some alumni wanted to "move on" from the Chief, with one writing, "The Chief provided alums with many wonderful memories, but he is no longer around. Think of all the memories we are not having without a mascot."
I know people who were students during the 1997 season and you know what their memories are? Not winning a single game. Somehow, the presence of the Chief failed to summon much more than 30,000 for a home conference game against Michigan State.
Trying to force the mascot issue the way people have been doing will just continue raising the Chief Illiniwek debate.My position on that debate is beyond being pro or anti-Chief: I am sick and tired of talking about it. I'm sick of revisiting everything. I've explored every angle in great detail, and more than anything I just want this debate to stop. I love the University of Illinois more than I've ever loved Chief Illiniwek, and I'd rather talk about great things the engineering school is doing, music school graduates I know who have gone on to tremendous accolades, or the football team getting ready to win. If the Lovie Smith era lives up to the hype and the basketball team can make it back to the dance, maybe we'll all be too busy talking about the wonderful memories and exciting times they've provided to debate the merits of a cute cartoon squirrel on the sidelines
"But what's a Fighting Illini?"
One with fighting spirit associated with the University of Illinois.
"Yeah, but what's a Fighting Illini look like?"