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Illinois seeks new mascot 9 years after Chief Illiniwek's removal

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URBANA, Ill. -- Nine years after it retired Chief Illiniwek under pressure from the NCAA, the University of Illinois will begin the search for a new mascot, interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson said Monday.

Wilson announced the first tentative steps in a campus-wide email and said she will soon appoint a committee of 10 to 12 people to figure out how to decide on a mascot and how long that process will take.

The plan is not to replace the Fighting Illini nickname the school's teams now use, campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said. But the school wants to select a mascot to be on the sideline and at events.

Wilson acknowledged that the process could include "challenges." Many students and university graduates would like to see Chief Illiniwek return. Some wear Chief-themed shirts to sport events and chant "Chief!"

"I am optimistic that this initiative will help build school spirit and loyalty beyond athletics," Wilson said in her email.

The reaction on social media was swift and, for the most part, opposed to the idea.

Joshua Evans is a 2000 graduate of the university who expressed his disapproval on Twitter. In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, the Shawnee, Kansas, resident said he doesn't oppose the idea of a new mascot. His wife is a Kansas graduate, and having a mascot such as the Jayhawk can be appealing, he said.

But given the history at Illinois, "I just don't know if there's going to be a real logical, widely accepted mascot that people are going to be excited about. It just seems kind of forced to me and unnatural," he said. "I can see it's going to be mocked and ridiculed as a joke."

At an Academic Senate meeting Monday, Wilson said the mascot would not be something that would lead to ridicule, Kaler said.

In its report, the student committee acknowledged that most alumni interviewed and many current students oppose the idea of a new mascot, but the committee concluded that the benefits, such as the potential to create campus unity, outweigh those concerns.

For years, American Indians and the NCAA pushed the university to do away with Chief Illiniwek, which had been portrayed since 1926 by a student in a buckskin costume who danced at football and basketball games and other events. Many American Indians found those dances and the portrayal offensive. The tradition's defenders still maintain that the Chief was meant to show respect to American Indians.

NCAA sanctions imposed in 2005 barred Illinois from hosting postseason events. Two years later, the university retired the chief.

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