Smile Politely

The Kingfisher is taking up space, and we’re here for it

A kingfisher mascot stands with arms spread open. On each side are two people, wearing blue and orange t-shirts. The kingfisher costume is a blue, white, and orange bird. They are standing outside in front of a tent.
The Kingfisher on Facebook

We’ve written many times about the need for a new mascot at the University of Illinois. We’ve also written many times about how the Kingfisher is far and away the best option. This week, we want to offer some praise for the ambitious, organized, and determined students and alumni who have made the Kingfisher something interesting, something fun, and maybe most importantly, something viable as a replacement mascot. 

The lack of a college mascot may seem like a silly thing to spend so much time and energy on, but the mascot functions as a piece of a university’s marketing and public relations puzzle. Here, as it is for other institutions, it’s an embodied symbol of the U of I and its values, a representative and signifier of the university’s culture, and yes, its sports teams. The mascot is a fun representative that removes a layer of formality and bureaucracy — no one wants to see the provost or chancellor running around during the halftime show. It provides access to the idea of the university, especially for younger kids and non-alumni. 

The Kingfisher UIUC was started by students and alumni to propose a viable replacement for the former racist mascot. These young people have spent years of their lives at the U of I and are clearly dedicated to the institution — if they didn’t care about it, they wouldn’t waste their time on this project. It’s really heartwarming and hopeful to have a reminder that university systems are not completely defined by alumni who are far removed from the immediacy of university life and culture. Current students and recent alumni have just as much emotional investment in the institution as those who graduated 40 years ago. 

Just last week, the Kingfisher was hanging out with the U of I triathlon club (yes, it exists) to “help” with training. These videos are meant to be funny and silly, and they are. All Division I institutions do similar things. Michigan State’s Sparty the Spartan, for instance, has been photographed doing one-arm push ups here in Memorial Stadium. Iowa’s Herky the Hawk seems to prefer hanging with cheerleaders, but has also spent Father’s Day with “Grandpa Herky.” Yes, all of these mascots have their own social media pages, because their institutions recognize the corny adventures of mascots is charming. People like the mascots. (Why do you think those ESPN commercials are so effective?) Fans of the sports teams feel connected to the mascot.

Big, big kudos are due to the Kingfisher’s social media team. They are putting in the work to not only brand the Kingfisher, but also disseminate the image, and it’s paying off. Some U of I registered student organizations have already incorporated the Kingfisher into their club logo designs, and the Kingfisher UIUC group has made themselves available to help design for other RSOs. Earlier this year, Dick’s Sporting Goods was accidentally (?) selling Kingfisher gear; last week, NBC Sports included the Kingfisher (with a Block I emblazoned on its t-shirt) in this cartoon marking the start of the Big Ten football season:

There is excitement around the new mascot; that feels undeniable. Whether or not it’s officially adopted by the U of I is another question entirely, but maybe that doesn’t matter as much anymore. Perhaps the Kingfisher will be to the U of I what that big tree is to Stanford: an accepted symbol of the institution, though not an official mascot. The next step seems to be getting the Kingfisher to appear at some sports events, to take up space where many feel there is an absence left by the racist mascot and all that surrounded its appearance.  

There’s been a lot of focus on older alumni and donors as the reason the U of I is dragging its feet on replacing the former mascot. That focus loses sight of something more important and, arguably, ultimately more profitable: the morale of current and future students. It’s clear through the faculty senate vote, the student body vote, and the enthusiasm and excitement on campus that the Kingfisher has the potential to boost morale. The Kingfisher’s acceptance on campus and the excitement around the costumed performer’s appearances is proof of concept. The students and alumni behind the Kingfisher UIUC movement are savvy, and the U of I should want to claim their brilliance as its own. 

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Louise Knight-Gibson, Julie McClure, and Serenity Stanton Orengo.

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