Not Going For the Gold

May 22, 2005

Two weeks into his freshman year at Marquette, Kyle Murphy decided to get a tattoo. "Not just any tattoo," he says. "I wanted something meaningful." So Murphy bought a notebook embossed with the Marquette Golden Eagle, which he showed to a tattoo artist, who took one look at the bird's many small details and said, "The bigger you go with this, the lower the price." And that is why Murphy now has on his back a Golden Eagle the size of a salad plate.

That was three years ago, and life was good until last May, when a wealthy graduate-school alumnus named Wayne Sanders ended his commencement address by offering to give Marquette, Dr. Evil--style, one million dollars--to be matched by one million dollars from another alumnus--if the university dropped its 10-year-old Golden Eagles nickname and once again called its teams the Warriors. That was Marquette's nickname when Al McGuire coached the basketball team to the '77 NCAA title (and when I graduated in '88).

The audience reacted in stages, like a rocket. "There was stunned silence, laughter, then unbelievable clapping," says current basketball coach Tom Crean. "I'm not even sure people heard the money part. They just heard the name Warriors."

In 1994, with Native American mascots falling out of favor, Marquette had abandoned its 40-year-old Warriors nickname for Golden Eagles, a mascot so benign and generic it is shared by 14 other colleges, from Oral Roberts to Southern Mississippi. The university's own poll showed that 77% of alumni and 38% of students wished the Eagle had never landed. Ask Murphy how many other Golden Eagle tattoos he's seen, and he says, "None."

But Sanders, the retired CEO of paper-products giant Kimberly-Clark, which makes Kleenex, Cottonelle bath tissue, Huggies diapers and every other absorber of human effluence, found there was one tide that paper--even two million pieces of it--can't stem. And that is the tide of political correctness.

Marquette immediately rejected his $2 million offer. But school officials did say they would revisit the possibility of becoming Warriors once again. So Marquette spent the last year polling students, faculty and alumni and meeting with tribal leaders in Wisconsin before announcing, earlier this month, that it had reached a decision. "The Warriors nickname could not be separated from past imagery," concluded Board of Trustees chair John Bergstrom, alluding to the 10 years that the Warriors' mascot was called Willie Wampum.

And that's when the Board announced that Golden Eagles was also dead. Marquette would have a dynamic new nickname. Out of the blue came Marquette Gold. As with Sanders's commencement address, stunned silence and laughter followed this announcement. But this time there was no clapping.

Marquette Red might have flown: Red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy was a 1935 graduate of Marquette. But Gold?

Setting aside the question of what to call an individual member of the Gold--a Goldmember?--there was that hollow ring. "I really can't picture an announcer saying, "Marquette, the Gold," says Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade, a former Golden Eagle. Nobody else could either. Marquette Gold sounds like something Cheech and Chong would smoke in Milwaukee, or a prestige credit card, or a shade of towel purchased from Pottery Barn.

Nationally, reaction to Gold was swift and punishing--with an emphasis on pun. However unsuitable it was as a sports nickname, Gold proved to be perfectly suited to (and highly versatile in) unflattering headlines. MARQUETTE LAYS GOLDEN EGG. FOOLS' GOLD. GOLD IS PANNED. As chemistry majors noted, MU had become Au. For Marquette alumni, it had come to the ultimate indignity: We were being laughed at by Badgers.

So last week, after an emergency meeting of the Board, Marquette abandoned Marquette Gold, which joined New Coke in the Mausoleum of Bad Ideas. Gold became the George O'Leary of nicknames, lasting six days on campus. Marquette will poll students, faculty and alumni and have a new nickname in place when its teams join the Big East on July 1, at which time we will have our third mascot in eight weeks. Fourth if you count the Warriors T-shirts still worn at basketball games. Indeed, given all the soul-searching and the hand-wringing of the past 11 years, I think we should become the Marquette Worriers.

"I'll always be a Golden Eagle," Dwyane Wade said last Thursday. And so, inescapably, will Kyle Murphy, whose parents still didn't know about his tattoo. "I figure this is how I'll tell 'em," he says of Tim and Myrna Murphy of Eau Claire, Wis. "I'll just hand 'em the magazine."

Though he had just emerged from his microeconomics final, Murphy was sounding philosophical. "A girl came up to me the other day and gave me a hug," he says. "And she was good-looking, too. So it hasn't been all bad." ■

• If you have a comment for Steve Rushin, send it to rushin@siletters.com.

Marquette Gold joined New Coke in the Mausoleum of Bad Ideas. Gold became the George O'Leary of nicknames, lasting six days on campus.

COLOR PHOTOSIMON BRUTY

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