Just about an hour's drive from Pittsburgh, in the birthplace of one of the finest American actors of his generation, an imbroglio about a school mascot is nearing its conclusion.
On Dec. 15, Indiana University of Pennsylvania will present its board of trustees with a new nickname and mascot for its sports teams. If the trustees approve, it will end an era of uncertainty that began in 2005, when the NCAA prohibited the use of offensive team names. The move sanctioned 18 teams, including IUP, for using the name "Indians."
The change has been a long time coming, particularly as regards the use of derogatory terms for Native Americans. Words do matter, no matter how harmless the intentions once upon a time. The word "Indians" may sting less than, say, Redskins. But unlike its brethren in the NFL, the NCAA decided to do something about mascots with the potential to hurt and offend.
Not everyone liked the idea at first. A few years back, the University of Northern Colorado's intramural basketball team slapped back when it adopted the nickname the Fightin' Whites, with a matching fight song: "Take That, Paleface."
According to Robert Davies, vice president of Institutional Advancement and executive director of the Foundation for IUP, "Every university looked at their unique situation. Some decided to go through the appeal process." However, when IUP's second appeal was denied in April 2006, the school began making a change.
(In case you're wondering why the Florida State Seminoles managed to keep their moniker: They established a relationship with the Florida Seminole tribe, who gave the school permission to use the name. Even the NCAA couldn't argue with the logic that, if the Seminoles themselves were not offended, the name couldn't be very offensive.)
To some extent, this was familiar territory for IUP. In the 1980s, the school dropped the Indian mascot, though its team retained the name: It simply went without a mascot until the late 1990s, when it adopted a bear mascot while still calling the team "Indians." Dizzy yet?
Over the past eight months, Indiana University adopted a particularly progressive approach to arrive at what (one hopes) will be its nickname for generations to come.
Academics often have their heads in the sand, but the university wanted the process to be "open, transparent, inclusive and efficient," Davies says. So it took the discussions out of the proverbial ivory tower and allowed the public to guide the powwow, as it were.
IUP polled donors, staff, alumni, faculty and students, and 63 percent voted to change the mascot. After that, things got really interesting, with mascot suggestions flooding in from all over campus and beyond.
According to Davies, officials looked at every suggestion, including "The Flying Squirrels." (Who knew there used to be flying squirrels just up the road?) They considered more than 170 mascots before narrowing the field to five.
Officials weighed a variety of factors, but two were most important. First, the mascot and nickname had to be something the community and alumni could be proud of; second, it had to be marketable. There is mad bling to be made from seat cushions and hoodies, and officials wanted something with a logical connection to the school and which lent itself to a smart graphic. (There goes my friend's suggestion for "the Fightin' Jimmy Stewarts." But what do you expect from a West Virginia alum?)
Once focus groups winnowed the field to three, the school began polling people online, in keeping with the "virtual town hall" idea. People down the street at the Valley Dairy could vote, as could an interested party in, say, Tibet. In fact, Davies says one IUP alum voted from Italy.
With the results in, and assuming trustee approval, one of these three will be the new IUP mascot: the Crimson Hawks (red-tailed hawks live in IUP's Oak Grove); the Grey Wolves (which sadly no longer inhabit the area); and the Crimson Thunder, which would be a much harder graphic challenge than Jimmy Stewart.
A rose is a rose is a rose, but it's big doin's when history collides with 21st-century marketing and NCAA money. Still, I would have dropped some serious coin for a shirt with Jimmy Stewart on the front and "Clarence!" on the back. Who could that offend?