To early Illinois Indian tribes, the word “Illiniwek” meant “we are men,” or “the complete man.” Football Coach Bob Zuppke is believed to have been the first person to use the expression “Illiniwek” in describing the strength of the character of his teams: “The complete man, the strong, physical man, the intellectual man, and the spiritual man.” The name “Illiniwek” would later prove the perfect complement to the symbol chosen to represent the tradition of Illinois’ athletics.
In 1926, two Eagle Scouts, Lester Leutwiler and Ralph Hubbard, combined their extensive knowledge of Indian lore in the creation of “the Chief” – a symbol to represent both honor and tradition at the University of Illinois. Over the years, the Chief has served as a symbol of belonging for hundreds of thousands of men and women, all proud to call themselves “Illini,” and prouder still to honor the tradition for which the Chief stands.
On October 30th, 1926, Chief Illiniwek made his first appearance at Memorial Stadium. Portrayed by co-creator Lester Leutwiler, the Chief thrilled a crowd of nearly 60,000 spectators with an authentic Indian dance during half time of a football game against the University of Pennsylvania. As the dance concluded, Chief Illiniwek met his Pennsylvania counterpart – who was dressed as a Quaker – at the 50-yard line, and offered a peace pipe. The moment proved an unforgettable one– the Chief became an instant success and his performance a regular event.
Soon after the Chief’s inaugural appearance, the “March of the Illini” and the “Pride of the Illini” were composed to integrate the marching band with the halftime dance. These marches, combined with the singing of “Hail to the Orange,” came to be known as the “Three in One”…a stirring halftime tradition that has remained intact since 1928.
Chief Illiniwek embodies the attributes we value as alumni, students, and friends of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The tradition of the Chief is a link to our great past, a tangible symbol of an intangible spirit, filled with qualities to which a person of any background can aspire: goodness, strength, bravery, truthfulness, courage, and dignity.
The list of men and women who have honorably portrayed Chief Illiniwek are as follows:
Lester G. Leutwiler
A. Webber Borchers
William A. Newton
Edward C. Kalb
Idelle Stith Brooks
James A. Down
William G. Hug
Gaylord “Dean” Spotts
Ronald S. Kaiser
John W. Forsyth