The Mascot Mess: A history of CMU’s controversial mascot

Central Michigan lines up against Western Michigan prior to a snap in their game on Nov. 11, 2012. (Courtesy photo by the Western Herald)

Central Michigan lines up against Western Michigan prior to a snap in their game on Nov. 11, 2012. (Courtesy photo by the Western Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | Managing Editor | Central Michigan Life

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. — As a mascot, the Chippewa name has gone through the Central Michigan University student body, the NCAA and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribal council members.

The origin of the name was presented for a variety of reasons, with one of the main intentions being an increase in showmanship and pageantry from the student body.

However, members of the tribe are against the use of their name and image as a mascot because it reflects a negative meaning toward their culture and heritage.

In the beginning, the Central Michigan Teaching School was without a mascot in the early 1920s.

The school began a two-year search for a name while only playing six games a year in football.

Then in 1926 in the archives of the student newspaper, Central Normal Life, there was a suggestion for Central to as adopt the name Dragons.

“Whenever they played against Alma there was a Dragon that came out and breathed fire,” said Bryan Whitledge, reference assistant at the Clarke Historical Library. “Seemed to be an interesting thing. But it only sticks for a year.”

In 1927, Central went with the name Bearcats.

A group of fans proposed the nickname Wildcats, because CMU’s mascot, “should be a brave-fighting mascot that once roamed the woods of Michigan.” However, some felt Wildcats was too close to Wolverine, a name the University of Michigan had made their own, so Bearcats was used instead and would stay for another 14 years.

When the teaching school evolved into a college, it allowed for the name to change once again on May 28, 1941.

According to a former Central Michigan Life article, there was an investigation of campus opinion and approval of a name change for Central Michigan college athletic teams.

The historical helmet designs for CMU from 1960 to 2014. (*1) Worn during the 2013 home game versus Michigan State. (*2) Worn during the 2013 home game versus Toledo. (Courtesy of CMU Athletics)

The historical helmet designs for CMU from 1960 to 2014. (Courtesy of CMU Athletics)

CMU’s line coach, Lawrence “Doc” Sweeney, wanted a new name for the team that would bring about more “showmanship and pageantry.” The change of name was brought to the governing board for students – known today as the Student Government Association.

“Coach Sweeney cited many reasons, and there were few objections,” Whitledge said. “Some of the reasons were that the Bearcat means nothing. The name offers nothing in the way of background for showmanship or pageantry.”

Sweeney had made the argument that the name Chippewa is geographically correct, since at one time the Chippewa Indian Tribes were scattered around this particular area.

For years the U.S. government school brought thousands of Native Americans into the territory, Sweeney said. However, the U.S. government schools he was referring to were the boarding schools, including the one just north of town.

This was the first argument against the name change when it was first proposed, because those schools took Native American children from their families and assimilated them to a different culture.

In the 1940s, Chippewa was the name of the university’s yearbook and the river that flows through town.

“He said, ‘it opens up unlimited opportunities for pageantry and showmanship for the band as well as athletic teams. The Indian chief would be an outstanding marker for athletic uniforms,’” Whitledge said. “‘The Indian pow wow could replace a pep meeting.’”

Sweeney wanted Native American ceremonies to be used on many occasions, school flags and pennants could be made much more attractive.

It was an idea of creating a Native American as a mascot.

Other universities take the hint

At the time CMU was considering a name change, other schools did as well ­– but for different reasons.

In the 1970s there was a national movement about the use of native imagery for sports teams, which included Stanford University.

At Stanford, the mascot was a Native American in the 1930s called the Big Red, and then in 1972 the symbol was dropped and they changed their name to the Cardinals. Now they are known as The Cardinal, where their mascot is a tree with bulbous eyes at football games.

“You saw a lot of universities using similar aggressive Native American symbols for their mascots,” Whitledge said. “Then, just like that, there was this shift toward being politically correct.”

The University of Miami (Ohio) made the transition from the Redskins to the Redhawks, becoming the first MAC school to change their mascot in more than 30 years.

Eastern Michigan University used to be the Hurons, which they picked in 1929, named after a local tribe in the thumb of the state.

In 1988, the university issued a report at Eastern about the negative connotations that come with the use of it. The name Eagles was officially adopted in 1991.

The logo for the Eastern Michigan football team from 1976-1990, prior to its mascot name change to the Eagles. (Courtesy of The Eastern Echo)

The logo for Eastern Michigan from 1976-1990, prior to its mascot name change to the Eagles. (Courtesy of The Eastern Echo)

Around the same time this was taking place at Eastern, CMU took another look at the name that had been in place for more than 40 years.

In 1989, there was a moratorium – a suspension of activity – about the use of native imagery for the Chippewa mascot.

“In that time the administration issued a directive prohibiting all Indian-themed imagery being used from athletic teams,” Whitledge said. “So the spear and the Indian head, which had been used for the previous 40 to 50 years were now no longer allowed.”

After banning the spear on the helmet, CMU also investigated the use of the name Chippewas for a three-year period beginning in 1989. However, the administration that instituted this folded, and a new university president was brought in, leaving the issue of the nickname unanswered.

In 2005, the NCAA put 18 universities on a list of schools that used hostile or abusive mascots and imagery.

This list included the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, Illinois Fighting Illini, Florida State Seminoles, Utah Utes as well as CMU.

Rob Wyman, director of athletic communications, said when the list was put together all it did was clump together the schools with Native American nicknames.

“The NCAA designated all those for review. I believe it was before Dave (Heeke) came here through Rich Morrison and through president Mike Rowe,” Wyman said. “They worked hand-in-hand with the tribe to talk to the NCAA and present our case, and I believe we were one of the first, if not the first school granted removal from that list.”

Those put on the list were not selected for having done something improper, but made to stymie the outcry that had picked up over the last decade.

Tribal leaders – including their chief – and the leadership of the university travelled together to the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis to argue why it should remain the way it is.

“Our university was improperly highlighted by the NCAA,” said Dave Heeke, CMU’s athletic director. “We were granted as one of the relationships that could continue and that would not be sanctioned by the NCAA in any way.”

The mascot for Florida State introduces the team by riding to midfield with a burning spear. (Photo by Christopher Holder).

The mascot for Florida State introduces the team by riding to midfield with a burning spear. (Photo by Christopher Holder).

This was important because the NCAA governs any postseason play outside of football, which includes March Madness. No logos or mascots could be present during the games. If a university was on this list they could also not host postseason events.

“Here at CMU, that would mean a MAC tournament game,” Whitledge said. “At some place like Florida State or Illinois that was a really big deal. These type of events bring in tons of money to the university, and is a reason to recruit kids to their school.”

While CMU was granted an exception by the NCAA, Florida State and Utah received similar exceptions. Calls made to Florida State and Utah athletic departments were not returned.

The other 15 either changed their mascots or convinced the NCAA to take them off the list.

Even though Heeke was not athletic director at the time, he had been watching the situation unfold. Now he intends to make sure CMU is not known for having a hostile mascot.

“It is not taken lightly in any way,” Heeke said. “I emphasize it’s NOT a mascot. It is incorrectly used by the media and others when they refer to it as that way. We don’t have a mascot at Central Michigan University.”

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on April 26, 2014)

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3 thoughts on “The Mascot Mess: A history of CMU’s controversial mascot

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  2. Not sure where the author got information but the Tribe is not opposed to the use of the Chippewa name as CMU’s mascot. Further, the institution has never been named Central Michigan Teaching College.

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