Friday, December 5, 2008

Part II: Can Eagles Be Hurons and Hurons Be Eagles at EMU?

Editor's Note: This is the second of a two-part post relating to Eastern Michigan University's former Huron nickname, the aftermath and possible solution to a decision that's haunted the Ypsilanti campus since the day it was announced.

In the handful of years that followed the 1991 decision to shed the Huron identity at Eastern Michigan University, a noticeable lull enveloped the Ypsilanti campus as it related to energy and spirit surrounding the varsity sports program. To understand this, one must first understand the summer of 1984 for the the things it represented at EMU not relating to George Orwell or the 'Bless You Boys' Tigers.

The Mid-American Conference membership was concerned the NCAA would strip the conference of its' Division-I status because a football attendance audit for the '84 season loomed. That meant that at least half of the conference schools had to make a minimum number in average attendance per game of the league would slip into I-AA status. Back then the MAC comprised nine schools, and only four schools were locks to make that minimum number: CMU, Toledo, Bowling Green State and Miami. Four schools were locks to miss the mark: Ball State, Kent State, Ohio and EMU. The bubble school was Western Michigan, and this greatly concerned the MAC athletic directors and presidents. If WMU failed, the entire conference would tumble, too. A secret vote was scheduled; Eastern would be sacrificed.

EMU football had been in shambles since coach Mike Stock took over in 1978, mirroring the school. Buildings were boarded up on Cross Street, leading discussion of shuttering EMU altogether. Stock inherited an 8-3 team from Ed Chlebek and floundered by going 3-7 in '78 and 2-8-1 in'79, but that was tame compared to the next three seasons. After beating BGSU 18-16 on September 13, 1980, Eastern lost 27 games consecutively. It took a 9-7 triumph over Kent State at Rynearson to snap a nationally-known streak on November 6, 1982. EMU students stormed the field and snapped the goalposts in half after the game in celebration. Only six I-A or I-AA programs have suffered more (I-A: Northwestern 34, Virginia & Kansas State 28; I-AA: Prairie View 80, Columbia University 44, St. Francis, PA 30).

The Hurons had been a powerhouse in football, basketball and baseball in the late 1960s and early 1970s, allowing the NAIA school to go Division-I. Today making the leap from NAIA to major college Division-I status would be laughable but Eastern, and two years later Central, were that good. To fast forward ten years later and see EMU teetering on expulsion and extinction broke more than a few hearts.

The solution's deciding vote was cast by CMU and it took a court injunction to save Eastern. Coach Jim Harkema rallied his players and their parents to the largest EMU lecture hall, Pray-Harold, in the summer of '84 and laid it out: Either stay, fight and survive -- unanimously -- or EMU would grant every player a release and shutter the program. The Hurons decided to fight and the CMU game, scheduled for October 6th at EMU, was circled in blood.

In '83 Harkema was hired from Grand Valley State and after beating Marshall 7-3, his Hurons lost 14-straight games...until CMU in '84. The Chippewas came calling and the revival of a school was at stake. In front of a sold-out Rynearson Stadium, Central motored to a 16-0 lead, but Harkema and his Hurons would go down fighting. In the second half, EMU was beyond determined, much like the Eastern-Central game a week ago. On the game's final play, Eastern booted a long field goal to tie the Chippewas 16-16.

The message had been delivered: The Hurons would not die quietly. Eastern made the attendance mark and from '85-'89 EMU went 33-20-2, including a staggering 23-8-2 from '87-'89. The '87 team went 10-2 as MAC champions and won the California Bowl over the heavily-favored Spartans of San Jose State. EMU quarterback Ron Adams sent every Chippewa player a postcard from California to back up his guarantee that EMU would win the league after CMU had defeated EMU 16-6. Adams, the Taylor product and toughest EMU quarterback ever, made good on that bet with an exclamation point second to none.

So when the Huron identity was unceremoniously ditched in '90-91, that unique pride, spirit and determination that EMU students and student-athletes alike had come to rally behind died, too. The football team hasn't posted a winning record in the MAC since 1989 but more importantly, EMU struggles to gain a strong foothold with their older alumni. They earn a large gift sporadically, but the annual fundraising efforts resemble a trickle instead of an open tap, and often the bigger gifts are from the same, repeat donors. The school hasn't made enough inroads with the larger alumni base and money talks with more authority than any coach or school president ever will.

So what's the solution? Bring the Huron back alongside the Eagle and mirror Auburn University as an institution with two recognized nicknames. If Auburn can be both Eagles and Tigers, why can't Eastern Michigan be Hurons and Eagles?

First and foremost, EMU can accomplish this without being Indians, because the word Huron encapsulates so much of southeastern Michigan's footprint without being an exclusive reference to a Native American tribesman. This is the easiest solution to make peace with the 70,000+ alumni that believes Eastern alienated their loyal constituency for no good reason other than PC-surrender. I completely agree with those who argue that some Native American symbols foster and encourage negative stereotyping. EMU could be the first school to embrace a history in a new, positive light by rectifying images of years past without running from it's history altogether.

Second, could EMU embrace the old with the new? Maybe a return of the school's discontinued Circle-E with a feather draping of each side downward, encapsulating the phrase: "Our Huron Spirit Soars With Eagles". The school took a sacred symbol of the Native American and turned it into a cartoon caricature. Could a more dignified approach be the right approach in retrospect?

Certainly true is the fact that so many EMU alums have heard the phrase, "Until they bring back the Huron, I'm not giving any money." Facing headstrong into the teeth of an potential economic storm not seen in a generation, EMU might be smart to consider a option that could win over some hearts and pocketbooks simultaneously.

It's ironic to see one institution's Huron decision nearly 20 years ago (EMU) be in such stark contrast to a sister institution's Chippewa decision (CMU) despite the fact the two schools have so much in common as former NAIA schools, fabulous teacher colleges and a long history as strong contributors in the MAC. The bad blood that has followed for so many years is a product of difficult decisions and rivalry that becomes problematic when both schools are after the sweet fruit hanging from the same tree.

On the other hand, it makes for great theater and certainly makes Eastern's visit to Mt. Pleasant next year a must-see game in the MAC for 2009.

~ T.C. Cameron authored Metro Detroit's High School Football Rivalries in 2008 and is writing a follow-up to that title, Metro Detroit's High School Basketball Rivalries, due in August 2009 from Arcadia Publishing.


Blogger EMUAlum said...

Let the Huron logo die on the tawdry altar of sports. The EMU football team has been underfunderd for years. That's the reason for poor performance, not some logo!

December 7, 2008 at 4:06 PM 

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