Last week, a student panel at the University of Illinois, my alma mater, produced a report that suggested the university should, at long last, consider a mascot. As a model, it suggested Sassy the Squirrel, the official mascot of the University of Illinois College of Admissions. Sassy is on Twitter. This is Sassy.
The notion of Sassy the Squirrel being the new mascot of the University of Illinois athletic program … well, it didn't go over too hot.
My name is.. no.- Robert (@ALionEye) April 15, 2016
My sign is.. no.
My number is.. no.
You need to let it go.
Nah to the ah to the, no, no, no pic.twitter.com/S1GX8aLtrf
Would prefer death over 'Sassy the Squirrel' to be completely honest. https://t.co/fs1zHGXsy2- The Champaign Room (@Champaign_Room) April 15, 2016
#illini ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT: We created all this goodwill by hiring Lovie. How can we screw it up?- Fake Lou Henson (@FakeLouHenson) April 15, 2016
DUMMIE: SASSY THE SQUIRREL!!!!
But it's important to remember the context here.
Chief Illiniwek was the school's mascot/symbol/dancing boy for 81 years, from 1926, a time when we didn't think much about what Native American mascots really represented, until 2007, a time when we finally recognized the problems (some of us, anyway). The university, under pressure from the NCAA -- an organization those in Champaign instinctively distrust, for many good reasons, mostly stemming from the sham Bruce Pearl case in 1989 -- finally retired the Chief in February 2007 and banned his image from University apparel a month later.
In a moral sense, and in a practical one (the NCAA had threatened to ban Champaign from hosting any more NCAA events until it divested itself of Chief Illiniwek), the decision was really the only one the university could make. But timing-wise, it couldn't have been worse, because it gave the Chief power it never would have had otherwise. It led to the practice of Illini fans -- including students who, today, were eight years old when the Chief was last a part of the school -- wearing "CHIEF" T-shirts and the bizarre ritual of the band playing the song "Three-in-One," which the Chief used to dance to at halftime, as the crowd looks forlornly at an empty arena floor, remembering him wistfully. The decision turned the Chief into a martyr, which made him immortal in a way he never would have been otherwise. His "Last Dance" remains a flashpoint in Illini fan history, something they weren't ready to let go of.
To be entirely honest, as a University of Illinois alum, I'm actively embarrassed that this jumping caricature was once the public representation of a school I love very much. It strikes me as sort of insane, with all that hooting and whooping and high-leg kicking, that it was ever allowed in the first place. But I didn't always feel that way.
My own history with the Chief is a somewhat complicated one that ended in simplicity. When I was kid, I thought Chief Illiniwek was the coolest thing in the world, the most inspiring, honorable mascot any team could have. I had the Chief logo somewhere on just about every piece of my clothing. I believed this mostly because I was a teenager and I didn't know anything outside of my tiny Central Illinois farm town, and because I loved Illinois athletics.
When I eventually went to school at the University of Illinois, and joined the Daily Illini staff, I was introduced to opposing viewpoints, which, you know, is the primary purpose of college. People pointed out how offensive the Chief dance was, how it had no basis in Native American culture, how it was a white appropriation of Native Americans, and so on. I understood these viewpoints, but mostly saw them for their news value rather than taking any stance myself; the Chief was the primary debate in Champaign even in the mid-90s, and as the sports editor and the managing editor of the Daily Illini, I dined out on them every opportunity I could. (When I interviewed new Illini head coach Lon Kruger in 1996, I asked him his thoughts on the Chief controversy. "There's a Chief controversy?" he responded. Man, I wrote about that for weeks.)
But I never felt emotionally connected to either side of the argument, until one day, when I had to meet with members of the Illinois Pan-Hellenic Council. After the meeting -- and college kids should never, ever have to sit in meetings -- one blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Norse bro pulled me aside.
"Hey, what's up, I'm the Chief."
"I see your basketball stories in the paper all the time. I'm the Chief, yo. Fuckin'-A, right?"
I turned to a fellow editor at the paper. "I think I hate the Chief now."
Still, I've never been a vocal critic of the Chief, if just because I don't live in Champaign anymore and there are larger issues in my life for me to worry about (such as: "Should I make my fantasy baseball keeper league head-to-head, or roto this year?" and "Brunch, anybody?"). But more than anything else, I just wanted the issue to go away. All told, I don't want my university to have a controversy about their mascot/symbol/whatever, or to have angry passive-aggressive mini-protests at halftime, or to have students wearing CHIEF T-shirts to celebrate a dancing dope they're increasingly too young to even remember. It has been nearly a decade since the Chief went away, and he's not coming back. Your "protests" are seeming less and less about your love for Illinois sports and more some sort of Trump-ian fight about political correctness. And that's fine. If you believe that, we can still be friends. But I don't want to have to think about this fight every time I go to an Illini game. I just want to watch and root for my team.
Which is why we have dumb animal mascots in the first place. A mascot isn't supposed to mean anything: It's just supposed to be some silly thing to keep children occupied while the rest of us are screaming at unpaid undergraduates making millions for their coaches and shoe companies. This is why "Wildcats" is such a popular name. What's a "wildcat?" Who knows? It's the most generic, dull team name -- and that's why it's perfect. You don't think about it. You just watch your team as some poor college kid sweating off his/her beer from the night before jumps around and poses for pictures. That's all I want from a mascot. That's all anyone should want from a mascot.
(I also wouldn't mind an occasional mascot fight, now that you mention it.)
I don't want to be embarrassed by my school's mascot/symbol; I don't even want to think about it. And I certainly don't want everybody wearing shirts honoring a mascot that went away a decade ago, bringing a fight into an arena where there really doesn't have to be a fight at all. I just want a dumb animal mascot so we can all move on.
It doesn't have to be Sassy the Squirrel. (It really, really doesn't have to be Sassy the Squirrel.) But I want my school to be a normal school with a silly normal mascot that no one has to think about anymore. I'm envious of all you schools, with your Bulldogs and your Ducks and your Banana Slugs. I don't want to debate mascots. I just want to watch the game.
So yeah, if it'll get us closer to that: Give me the damn squirrel.
Email me at email@example.com; follow me @williamfleitch; or just shout out your window real loud, I'll hear you. Point is, let's talk.