Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Part I: EMU's Huron Dismissal Still An Enigmatic Moment

Editor's Note: This is the first 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.

This past weekend this site got a healthy bit of traffic from online chatboards in the aftermath of Eastern Michigan's improbable, NCAA-record-setting 56-52 upset of defending Mid-American Conference (MAC) champion Central Michigan. For the Eagles, the win over the Chippewas was their fourth in five tries over their state rivals to the north, a fact that sits in the craw of CMU backers with obvious discomfort.

No EMU supporter will ever call a football season a failure when Eastern defeats Central, but many of the school's faithful continue to watch from afar because of a watershed decision that continues to defy common sense 18 years after it took place. I'm speaking of the school's decision to eliminate the Huron nickname. I read with amusement this past weekend the way current Eastern students who really know nothing of their school's decision to part ways with the Huron name defend the decision, as well as CMU's glee in rubbing Eastern's nose in it.

Central-Eastern has been an ugly game for both schools in all sports going back to 1984. That was when CMU administrators cast the deciding ballot in a secret vote designed to ensure the MAC's status as a Division-I conference by eliminating EMU from the league. Eastern fought that decision with a court injunction in the same summer the Detroit Tigers started 35-5 en route to their last world championship. Trust me, that's another story on it's own.

The demise of the Huron started quietly during the 1990 football season and quickly became the worst-kept secret on campus, when the 'Marching Hurons' were told to stop playing the old war chant and Huron Fight Song. Ironically, the first game this was noticed was the '90 Central Michigan homecoming game that attracted over 24,000 fans to then-tiny Rynearson Stadium. Eastern was in the midst of an eight-game losing streak during a 2-9 campaign but fought head coach Herb Deromedi's Chippewas with everything they had in a 16-12 loss. EMU was driving towards the CMU endzone when time ran out and I've not witnessed a harder-hitting game at EMU since.

In January 1991, at the height of campus angst over the conversion of Desert Shield to Desert Storm, when there was a campus protest literally every night, the Board of Regents and then-President William Shelton dropped the name Hurons. Shelton was the same man who helped convinced the administration at Kent State University to try to identify itself as 'Kent' in an attempt to distance itself from the history of the 1970 killings of Kent State students by the Ohio National Guard during an on-campus Vietnam War protest.

Does anyone with more than two marbles in their head believe Kent State isn't the same Kent State because it only says 'Kent' on the shirt? That's like renaming Detroit's 12th street as Rosa Parks Boulevard so that no one the wiser will remember the 1967 riots started on 12th Street at Clairemont.

Anyway, that year EMU's men's basketball team, coached by Ben Braun and led by Detroit Northern's Lorenzo Neeley, the Thomas twins from Lansing and Troy High's Marcus Kennedy, thundered to the Mid-American Conference title. The Hurons took the regular season crown and swept the MAC tournament title in Detroit's Cobo Arena. A week later Eastern upset SEC-champion Mississippi State and the Atlantic-1o's Penn State Nittany Lions in overtime to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament at the Courier Dome in Syracuse, New York.

It was in the tournament that the nation's press corps fell in love with the 'no-names'. Because of the previous January decision, the press wrote stories about this team from this funny-named Ypsilanti, and just how do you pronounce 'Ypsilanti', and what's with this 'Ypsi' reference? And, they don't even have a nickname, either! That and 12th man Joe Frasor's ability to land himself in just about every celebratory picture published made Eastern a fresh story, which is the equivalent of sports journalism gold. More importantly, what should have been the proudest moment for Eastern's loyal backers was another opportunity to be irritated and chaffed by the fodder created by the Huron decision. The Hurons lost to top-ranked North Carolina after a gritty upset attempt died in the last eight minutes of the regional semifinal game in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Four months later EMU quietly replaced Hurons with Eagles. Yes, EMU unceremoniously ditched their symbolism with an Indian tribe in favor of a cartoon caricature of one of the Indian's most sacred symbols, the eagle.

The irony in that still makes me shake my head.

For the next few years an overload of bumper stickers, shirts and banners proclaiming "Forever Hurons" and "Once A Huron, Always A Huron" drew the loudest cheers of the night at EMU football and basketball games. Then-EMU Athletic Director Gene Smith, now the current AD at Ohio State University, tried in vain to smooth the ill will with little success. Smith left EMU for Iowa State in 1993, surely thankful to have the Huron headache behind him.

What amazes me is how hard EMU tries to spin this decision today. I was a student on campus during the 1990-91 school year. It was an ugly reaction to the decision, and it only worsened with every attempt EMU made to justify it. First EMU shamed the Huron tribe by trying to impart that the actual Hurons had pressured EMU towards this decision -- it wasn't true. The Hurons, who migrated to Oklahoma, actually sent a letter of support from the tribe's chief on official letterhead. EMU then paraded a purported Indian chief out to say that Indian head logos and nicknames embrace stereotypes that degrade Indians. Fair enough at face value, except the man saying this had a less-than-savory criminal history. Oops. Later, Bill Shelton tried to say no Hurons ever lived in the Huron Valley -- again, a mistruth. Anyone who's read Saint Among The Hurons or knows native American history know the Hurons were in the Great Lakes region and were sadly slaughtered in battle.

Today, the university prints a cautionary tale at every opportunity it gets about the name Hurons being picked in a contest by a student who worked at the former Huron Hotel. The story recants in great detail how the student was 'undoubtedly' influenced by his place of employment, and the runner-up in that contest was 'Pioneers'.

Coming Next: The solution that is most plausible and why EMU could benefit the most from the potential solution.

~ T.C. Cameron is the author of Metro Detroit's High School Basketball Rivalries, due out in August 2009 from Arcadia Publishing


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