CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) _ The student who had just performed Chief Illiniwek's last dance stood in a tunnel just off the basketball court, still in costume and grimacing to fight back tears.
After 20 years of pressure from activists who found the University of Illinois mascot offensive, the school did away with Illiniwek and his antics. Dan Maloney, a graduate student who portrays the controversial American Indian mascot, performed for the final time in front of students and fans at a men's basketball game Wednesday night.
``If this is the last time _ and I stress if,'' Maloney said. ``I couldn't think of a better way for it to end.''
The school's decision 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 cavorted at home football and basketball games in buckskin regalia _ an offensive use of American Indian imagery.
But 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 at football games, 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,'' Bluenke said. ``Honestly, that's like what you hear in the stands.''
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 want the university to end the use of the names.
The university hasn't said yet whether it will replace the chief with another 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 on video screens above the court. After the halftime dance, hundreds of students and others in the normally orange-filled arena shed their shirts to reveal 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.''