Bored of Trustees, Chief Illiniwek stirs

Today’s Wisch List newspaper column from the Kankakee Daily Journal


Bored of Trustees, Chief Illiniwek stirs



Aug. 1, 2009

The Chief is dead.


Or, is it long live the Chief?


“Chief Illiniwek is not dead,” said Steve Raquel, who portrayed the University of Illinois’ beloved – and vilified – symbol as a student in Champaign during the early 1990s. “The university just isn’t recognizing him due to NCAA restrictions.


“But, we have a Chief on campus. We have an assistant Chief on campus. We have a Chief outfit. And we have opportunities to dance.”


And now, perhaps, new life.


Ignored thus far in the swirl of the high-profile admissions scandal that continues to engulf the state’s flagship school – and now threatens to swallow its administration whole – is the saga’s potential impact on the future of the embattled Chief Illiniwek who, you might be surprised to learn, is still battlin’.


“We find it all interesting,” Raquel, of Naperville, said on behalf of the Council of Chiefs, a group comprised of Illiniwek’s former portrayers. “Very interesting.”


On Tuesday, University of Illinois trustee Lawrence Eppley – who chaired the school’s Board of Trustees in 2006 when it made the controversial decision to retire Chief Illiniwek as the university’s symbol – became the first casualty of the admissions scandal when he stepped down and urged his fellow board members to follow suit.


“The public’s confidence in the University must be restored,” Eppley wrote in his letter of resignation to Gov. Pat Quinn, “and one way to begin to restore that confidence is to make a clean start.”


Eppley’s acknowledgment of responsibility in the secretive admissions process that, according to the Chicago Tribune, saw more than 800 politically connected applicants gain preferential treatment since 2004, was a far cry from his claim two weeks ago when before the Illinois Admissions Review Commission he said of his role, “It seemed benign back then.”


As a U of I alum who wasn’t politicked into school and a longtime defender of all things Chief, I almost choked on the irony of Eppley’s apparent worldview:


Clout, benign. Chief Illiniwek, anything but.


But, if anything, we know all too well in this state that politics plays a role in most everything. And that includes college, as the Tribune has reported that, in 2003, Eppley was handpicked by Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s inner circle to serve as chairman of the U of I Board of Trustees, allowing him to leapfrog more veteran trustees and then serve in the powerful role for six years rather than the customary two.


In recent years, it’s been the opinion of many Illinois alumni, including myself, that politics have seeped far too deep into the university’s decision-making.


That’s coming to light now through the admissions scandal, but it was just as apparent when Chief Illiniwek was eliminated in spite of enormous popularity throughout the state.


Raquel said that at the time of Illinwek’s ouster, the Council of Chiefs didn’t feel that the university did enough to find a compromise and “Because of political reasons and to keep people’s jobs, they bowed to pressure.”


You don’t say.


On Wednesday, Tom Livingston, a member of the alumni association’s board of directors and a former Chief Illiniwek, told the Illinois Admissions Review Commission that his group would like to have a bigger role in recommending trustee candidates to the governor. Currently, the governor appoints all nine trustees but a push is on to fill at least six of those positions through election.


“If the selection process for trustees goes back to a vote of the Alumni Board, it’s at least feasible for the board to be open to revisiting the issue of the Chief,” Raquel said. “In the past, we’ve felt it was very politicized.”


In his July newsletter, Honor the Chief Society co-founder Roger Huddleston wrote about the admissions scandal, “The players that seem to be in the hottest water are those that were most responsible for the attempted elimination of Chief Illiniwek. It gives me no joy that these individuals seem to be reaping what they have sown, not only with the Chief but with other unethical actions.


“I do believe the greatness of our traditions as a wonderful university committed to excellence will prevail.”


Many hope that those traditions might again one day include Chief Illiniwek, as the symbol remains as revered as ever.


“You won’t believe how many people ask about the Chief dancing at their weddings,” said Raquel, who explained that all such requests are politely declined, including that of former Illini quarterback Kurt Kittner who earlier this summer married ex-Illinois tennis player Leila Cehajic.


A week ago, in an editorial for the Champaign News-Gazette, Urbana native and U of I alum Roger Ebert called Chief Illiniwek “the “world’s greatest sports symbol.” And last fall, thousands packed Assembly Hall to watch the Chief perform at an event staged by the Students for Chief Illiniwek organization.


On Oct. 10, thousands likely will again when current Chief Logan Ponce reprises the role at the Hall following Illinois’ homecoming football game.


The Chief Illiniwek situation features multiple complications, including the NCAA’s current ban of Native American imagery and the lack of a true remaining Illini tribe for the university to approach for support, as Florida State University did with the Seminoles.


The recent events at U of I, however, have given hope that a potential regime change in Champaign could return Illiniwek from the underground.


“We are keeping the tradition alive,” Raquel said. “And hoping the Chief might still return.”




Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *