Feb. 16, the University of Illinois announced in a press release that Chief Illiniwek, the 81-year-old tradition at the University of Illinois, would be retired after halftime of the Feb. 21 mens basketball game. For Illini Nation, this news, while expected, brought a bitter disappointment.
Four generations of Illinois fans have enjoyed the tradition of Chief Illiniwek. My grandfather, who first enjoyed Illini football while watching Red Grange run for four touchdowns against Michigan in 1924, enjoyed the introduction and tradition of Chief Illiniwek. He first took my father to a game in the 1950s, leading my father to attend the University of Illinois, graduating in the 1960s while watching such Illini greats as Dick Butkus and Jim Grabowski. He became a season ticket holder in the 1970s, and has gone to virtually every home game since then, even when we lived in Pennsylvania for two years. Our exposure to Chief Illiniwek as children inspired us to learn more of our own heritage, as we are descended from a Cherokee grandmother on my mothers side. We looked at Chief Illiniwek with great respect, along with the fans who surrounded us every Saturday in the fall.
Despite the portrayal of the Chief as a hostile and abusive symbol by the NCAA and some in the media, for those fans who made the University of Illinois their home, the Chief was a time-honored symbol of pride, honor, integrity and excellence. Indeed, the decision came after years of public debate that made the Chief a hotter political topic than the decreasing funding of our flagship university. Indeed, at the end of the debate, a vocal minority succeeded in forcing the University of Illinois to retire the Chief. As fans of the University, and of Chief Illiniwek, we were sad to see that day come, but we were hopeful the final resolution of this debate would allow us all to move on and focus on the real issues impacting our beloved University, such as state funding, continued focus on educational excellence, and continuing the growth of the University of Illinois as the premiere public research university. Unfortunately, our hopes were dashed when, in the days after the announcement, the Chief detractors again dominated the media with cries of its about time. They continue to raise the issue, vowing to eliminate the name Fighting Illini, a name that predates the Chief by several years. They will want to eliminate the famed Three-In-One, the music that accompanied the Chiefs halftime dance for 81 years. With the Chief now retired, the Chiefs foes will still not let him rest in peace.
What gets lost in the debate is that while Chief Illiniwek may no longer appear on the field or court, he will never go away. The spirit of Chief Illiniwek will continue to live on. Whether its Red Grange, Dick Butkus, Jim Grabowski, or any of the other football players who take the field for the Illini; whether its Johnny Red Kerr, Kendall Gill, Deron Williams or any other basketball player to take the court; whether its the multiple Nobel Prize winners on the University faculty; whether it is the students, alumni and fans of the University of Illinois, the Chief will live on. His virtues of pride, honor, integrity and excellence will live on.
The Chief has been taken from us, and perhaps it was time. But whichever side of that debate you land on, the fact is he is gone, and it is time to move on. As supporters of the University of Illinois, we would like to let the Chief retire with honor and dignity, and move the debate to more important issues facing the University. We hope those who opposed Chief Illiniwek will let the Chief retire, and instead of fighting against each other on the issue of the Chief, we can fight together to facilitate continuing excellence at the University excellence of which we are proud. We hope we can work together to continue to make the University of Illinois one of the premiere universities in the world where people from all races and nationalities come together in the pursuit of that excellence, honoring each other for their differences and their contributions. What better way to honor the spirit of Chief Illiniwek?
Caledonia, Ill., resident James H. Waddell is president of the Rockford Area Illini Club.
from the April 4-10, 2007, issue