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Know Your Foe: Illinois State Redbirds

September 4, 2012

Since this is EMU’s first football game against Illinois State since 1981 — far longer than this blog has been around! — it’s time for an edition of Know Your Foe!

Cook Hall: Illinois State’s crennellated gymnasium. Photo by William Wesen, CC-BY-SA 3.0

Illinois State University, founded as Illinois State Normal School in 1857, is the oldest public university in Illinois, and is located in the town of Normal, with the town taking its name from the school in 1865. Illinois State is considered a “national university” that grants a variety of doctoral degrees and strongly emphasizes research; it is also recognized as one of the top ten largest producers of teachers in the US according to the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education. The Illinois State athletic teams, known as the “Redbirds” compete in the Missouri Valley Conference and the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Total enrollment for the school is a smidge over 20,000, with about 18,000 undergraduates and 2,500 graduate students.

Famous alumni include film critic Richard Roeper, former professional baseball player Dave Bergman (played for the 1984 World Series champion Detroit Tigers), NBA coach Doug Collins, basketball coach Steve Fisher (yes, that Steve Fisher), actor Gary Cole, actor John Malkovich, and actress Laurie Metcalf. Also, their current athletic director is Matt Lauer, but no, it’s not that Matt Lauer. A fascinating tidbit from school history is that for the first four years, from 1857 until 1861, classes were held at Major’s Hall in Bloomington, Illinois, the building at which Lincoln gave his famous “Lost Speech” in 1856. The convention at which the speech was given concluded with the creation of the Republican Party, and many attendees subsequently rated it the greatest speech ever delivered by Lincoln.

Similarities to EMU, in addition to the history as a normal school, include a successful forensics team (Illinois State boasts three National Forensics Association team championships, compared to EMU’s ten), and a crenellated gymnasium (although EMU’s was demolished years ago).

Illinois State Redbirds

When I heard Illinois State’s former nickname was the “Teachers”, I immediately pictured this.

Originally nicknamed the “Teachers” — ’cause, you know, it was a teachers’ school — in 1923, Illinois State athletic director (and football head coach) Clifford E. “Pop” Horton changed the team to the “Redbirds”, with help from local sports editor Fred Young. In the 1970s, Horton recalled the change:

When I came here in 1923, the teams then were known as the “Teachers.” Since the school colors were cardinal and white [chosen in the 1895-96 school year], I thought it would be a good idea to call the team “Cardinals.” So I tried to introduce that name.

Fred Young was responsible for changing us from the Cardinals to the Redbirds. Because the St. Louis baseball team was also the Cardinals, there was a case of possible confl ict in headlining an athletics event. By calling our team Redbirds, it was easy to identify them with the University, so he gradually shifted over to the Redbirds.

I don’t recall exactly when the shift took place, but we were known as the Cardinals for a very short period of time.

Like EMU, although they field many sports, the Redbirds’ greatest athletic successes have come in baseball (1969 NCAA College Division national champions) and men’s track and field (six individual NCAA national champions). Although they’ve competed in the Missouri Valley Football Conference (formerly called the Gateway Conference) for nearly 30 years, they’ve only one a single conference championship, in 1999.

Reggie Redbird

Costumed mascots at Illinois State date to at least the 1960s, but the current mascot, “Reggie Redbird”, was created and named (for baseball great Reggie Jackson — who has no connection to the school that I can find) in 1981. Reggie seems to be way into social networking, including Twitter (this morning’s tweet: “Hey mother nature I don’t know who spilled your Apple Jacks but how about a nice cold breeze here & there? It’s like a sauna outside!!”), Pinterest, and Facebook. I don’t know how all that works with wings instead of hands, but I guess Swoop manages alright.

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