GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) - This is the time of the year when a Gopher will take on a Terrier, a Greyhound can get beat by an inanimate object like a Buckeye and there are more Lions, Tigers and Wildcats loose than any local zoo would know what to do with.
One source of the immense national interest in major college sports lies in the identity of the schools themselves, right down to the nickname.
But as the University of North Dakota starts the NCAA Division I men’s hockey tournament this weekend, the jerseys will look a little bare. The NCAA ban of the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo _ deemed “hostile and abusive” by the NCAA _ has officially taken effect despite years of defiance and lingering legal challenges from proud supporters.
That means North Dakota will take the ice in St. Paul, Minn., for its West Regional semifinal game against Western Michigan as, well, North Dakota. The team will don new jerseys without the nickname or the logo for the first time Saturday afternoon. Same for the uniforms of the cheerleaders and band members, too.
“It’s sad that we don’t get to wear it, but at the same we’re trying to win a hockey game against Western Michigan,” said captain Mario Lamoureux, the only North Dakota native on the roster. “If anyone’s focus is on the jersey or what we have to wear, they should change that right away.”
UND ordered 30 new sets of jerseys and socks in each of their three color schemes _ white, green and black _ at a cost of $21,000, said Patrick Swanson, the team’s director of operations.
The NCAA in 2005 told North Dakota and more than a dozen other schools with American Indian nicknames or logos that to avoid sanctions, they needed to change or obtain permission from local tribes to keep them. Most switched, though some like the Florida State Seminoles and the Central Michigan Chippewas received tribal permission.
North Dakota has put up quite a fight.
The state passed a law a year ago requiring the school’s sports teams to use the nickname and logo, which depicts the profile of an American Indian warrior. That was repealed eight months later and then revived in a referendum campaign that fetched more than 17,000 signatures. The referendum is scheduled for June, when voters will decide whether the law should be kept or repealed. The law is opposed by the university, the state’s board of higher education and local politicians, who are ready to put the Fighting Sioux conflict in the past.
Even with the law’s fate still up in the air, the NCAA ban means no use of the nickname or logo in postseason play, or else UND would forfeit those games.
The school also is barred from hosting postseason tournaments even though college hockey’s Taj Mahal, the $100 million Ralph Engelstad Arena, would be an ideal place for an NCAA regional. The arena has at least 3,000 Fighting Sioux logos in the building, including a 10-foot sketch of the logo embedded in the granite lobby floor.
University leaders have expressed concern that the Big Sky Conference, which has accepted North Dakota for its sports other than hockey, will un-invite UND if the nickname controversy lingers. On a smaller scale, Iowa decided not to invite North Dakota to a track meet next month because of the nickname. Minnesota has long held a policy against playing games against the Fighting Sioux, except in hockey where WCHA conference obligations have matched up the rivals on the ice for decades.
Marc Ryan, the associate athletic director in charge of football scheduling for Minnesota, said it’s difficult to speculate about whether the Gophers would have faced North Dakota in recent years had the Fighting Sioux nickname been previously dropped. Minnesota has played several nearby regional opponents from the Football Championship Subdivision including North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State in recent seasons. North Dakota State received $375,000 to come to TCF Bank Stadium.
So the teams themselves have tried to keep their focus on the ice or the court or the field.
“I just stressed to them the right thing is going to happen in the end. It shouldn’t affect us right now,” men’s basketball coach Brian Jones said earlier this month. “They are good young people and care about one another. What they care about is staying together and winning basketball games. As I told them, `A mascot or a logo never scored a point or got a rebound, got a steal or won a game.’”