The University of Denver was founded in 1864, only five years after Denver got its start and the same year a flood threatened to wipe the tiny town off the map. But DU has always had a fighting spirit — and today, both students and alumni are fighting mad over Boone, the once-official, now-very-unofficial image representing the Pioneers.
At this point, the only mascot the DU community might agree on would be a giant, foil-wrapped burrito with legs — inspired by Steve Ells, the DU alum who was quite the fast-casual pioneer when he opened the first Chipotle in an old Dolly Madison store down the street from DU in July 1993. Today that chain has more than a thousand locations, with new ones opening all the time — not only in this country, but across Europe. And these days, the only thing growing faster than the Chipotle empire is the controversy over Boone.
Decades ago, the school commissioned a Walt Disney artist to create an image to go with the Pioneers name — and a goofy, bearded, coonskin-cap-wearing cartoon character named Denver Boone represented DU through Vietnam protests and school strikes, from 1968 all the way to the late '90s. But in 1998, DU administrators decided to do away with Boone after some students pointed out that the character was modeled after Daniel Boone and represented a way of life that had resulted in the death of thousands and the destruction of many Native American tribes. And so Boone was sent off alone into the wilderness, and a red-tailed hawk was brought in as a new mascot.
The hawk never flew, though, and a decade later, students and alumni petitioned to bring back Boone, citing the boost the mascot might give to school spirit. Chancellor Robert Coombe created a committee to examine the idea, and although it was rejected in 2008, DU administrators did agree that groups could continue to use the character's likeness as a "celebration of the past" to push events on campus. And Boone was back as an unofficial mascot, cheering at games; slurping down the Boone margarita at the Pioneer bar; inspiring the founding of Boone's, the restaurant on East Evans that just won our Best Green Chile award in the Best of Denver 2013; and even snagging a Readers' Choice award for Best Mascot in that same issue.
Boone's fans have been very busy.
But Boone's critics have been busy, too, and wound up in a scuffle with campus security when Boone joined a crew filming a Harlem Shake video on campus in February.
"People were kind of afraid when we protested Boone that we were trying to stop community from being built," remembers student Jose Guerrero. "But in reality, we were being excluded from that community as indigenous people. Now we're building community, as well."
On March 13, in the wake of what he called "considerable controversy" that had shaken out after that Boone boondoggle, Chancellor Coombe told the DU community that Boone was again being banished — this time for good. When he'd studied the issue in 2008, Coombe wrote, "It quickly became clear that Boone was a polarizing figure that did not reflect the growing diversity of the DU community, but rather was an image that many women, persons of color, international students and faculty members found difficult to relate to as defining the pioneering spirit." And the compromise to allow Boone to be used as an unofficial mascot representing the school's past had simply not worked out.
At the end of February, the Undergraduate Student Government had voted to "phase out funding from student activities fees used by clubs or student groups for materials bearing the Boone image, effective 30 days after the adoption of a new official mascot," Coombe noted. "As we mount a productive conversation about a new mascot, I hope our thoughts will be forward-looking and reflective of the University that we are to become, rather than the University that we were decades ago. Ten years from now, our student population will be vastly more diverse than it is now, in a way that represents tremendous intellectual potential for the institution as a whole. The real question is whether as a community we will be vastly more inclusive than we are now, with our images and icons, and our mascot, reflective of that rich diversity and inclusiveness. We should challenge ourselves to look to that future."
DU's athletics department quickly took up that challenge; last week, two "spirit" murals at Magness Arena featuring Boone were painted over, and "a nice little piece of history was lost forever," pronounced the LetsGoDU.blogspot. "This is what happens when the line blurs between running a university and acting like a Third-World despot."
Damien Goddard, an alum who runs that blog, says he worked to bring back Boone a decade ago to help improve school spirit — and the school's finances. "Everything we've done with our group has been to get more students to go to the games," he explains. "Schools have discovered that having a vibrant student section is one of the best marketing tools you can have at a university."
The school was happy to accept money raised by alums to paint the murals, he says — but gave those boosters no notice that Boone was being banned. "We're very disappointed in the university we all love," Goddard adds. "There's a lack of transparency in the entire process." In the interest of school spirit, he insists that supporters would be willing to see some adjustments to Boone: The beard could go, and the face painted crimson and gold to match the school's colors — but the coonskin cap should stay, because even Native Americans wore those. But don't expect to see even a politically correct Boone reappear.
"The murals are updated periodically to reflect the changing landscape of athletics at the University of Denver," explains Kim DeVigil, senior director of communications for DU. "One of the murals will be updated to include the women's ski team, and the second mural will hold a space for the official mascot, once chosen."
And who will that new mascot be? An albatross hanging around the administration's neck, as Goddard suggests? A female mascot, which would be "really pioneering," as Guerrero says? A shiny Chipotle burrito? A frat boy passing a roofie? A girl passing out? A we-are-the-world rainbow of happy students?
Or maybe, as one Boone booster suggests, just a big dancing dollar bill.