CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Just after the end of Chief Illiniwek's final performance Wednesday night, the giant screen above Assembly Hall showed a glimpse of emotion few, if any, Illinois fans had seen before.
Dan Maloney, the graduate student who portrays the stern-faced and controversial American Indian mascot, stood in a tunnel just off the basketball court, grimacing to fight back tears.
After 20 years of pressure from activists who found the chief mascot offensive, the university last week decided to do away with Illiniwek and his dance after Wednesday night, when the Illinois men defeated Michigan in their final home game of the season.
Maloney had said part of his job as chief would be to hold back his emotions on the night of his final dance. On Wednesday night, he said he only cracked when he saw his parents, sister and two brothers waiting for him in the tunnel.
"I could see the look on their faces, how much this meant to them," he said. "That moment caught me by surprise."
The school's decision to end the mascot's run led the NCAA to lift sanctions that had barred Illinois from hosting postseason sports since 2005. The NCAA had deemed Illiniwek — portrayed since 1926 by students who danced at home football and basketball games in buckskin regalia — an offensive use of American Indian imagery.
In the eyes of orange-clad students who waited outside Assembly Hall in chilly weather for hours ahead of the game, the decision robbed the school of a piece of its history.
Jonathan Bluenke, a junior from Crystal Lake, said Chief Illiniwek will be missed most on the football field at Memorial Stadium, where Illini fans haven't had much to cheer about the past few years.
"If we were down by like 30, people stuck around for the chief," said Bluenke, who sat with another student in the cold shadow of Assembly Hall. "Honestly, that's like what you hear in the stands."
But, while acknowledging he isn't a sports fan, one activist who worked to convince the university to get rid of the chief questioned whether a mascot was integral to the experience.
"Does having a mascot or having a flag, does it change the devotion to the team?" asked John McKinn, a Maricopa Indian who is assistant director of academic programming for the school's Native American studies program. "I don't see why it would."
Under the plan announced last week, the university still will be able to use the name Illini, because it's short for Illinois, and the nickname Fighting Illini, because it's considered a reference to the team's competitive spirit, school officials said.
Neither of those ideas sit well with McKinn and others who opposed the chief. They say they next want the university to end the use of the names.
The university hasn't said whether it will choose a new mascot. Board of trustees Chairman Lawrence Eppley said last week that was a possibility, but said the impetus wouldn't come from the board.
On Wednesday night, few fans seemed interested in a replacement.
As Chief Illiniwek took the floor for the last time, a video montage of chiefs past played above the court. After the halftime dance, hundreds of students and others in the normally orange-filled arena shed their shirts in favor black T-shirts worn underneath, mourning the loss of the chief.
"To me the chief is spirit," said Paul Bruns, a retiree who worked for the university for 38 years. "Why did (American Indians) dance? They danced for spirit."
Maloney said he would like to see the Chief Illiniwek regalia — made by an Oglala Sioux, Frank Fools Crow — become part of a museum. Fools Crow sold the regalia to the university, but some members of the tribe recently have asked for its return. Maloney said he will keep it until told to do otherwise.
Maloney, assistant chief Logan Ponce and their predecessors want the Chief Illiniwek image and related history to be celebrated by the university. Maloney and Ponce also say they plan consider further legal challenges to retain the mascot.
But as he posed for pictures with fans after the game, Maloney stayed positive.
"If this is the last time, and I stress if, I couldn't think of a better way for it to end."