On a clear day you can see forever. And where better than from the sidelines of Memorial Stadium on a crisp autumn afternoon, as Orange and Blue players swarm the field and the fans pulse loud and brilliant in the stands? Ask any varsity cheerleader at the University of Illinois, whether present or past, and she/he will tell you there’s no thrill, anywhere, anytime, like taking the field on game day.
Go! I-L-L! I-N-I!
With well over a century of history and an unprecedented 45 members on the 2019–20 team, cheerleading at Illinois has never been bigger or better. Or as much fun to watch. Ever at the ready at varsity games (basketball as well as football), team members spring like impalas in motion during pauses in play—tumbling, stunting, bouncing, dancing, moving and cheering in sync with music by the Marching Illini, waving pompoms, doing push-ups (when the Illini score), lapping the Block I flag around (also when the Illini score).
And looking good. Indeed, looking good runs deep in the cheerleader ethos. Choreographed steps and spinning tumbles that mere mortals can’t even parse, much less do themselves. Eye-catching uniforms. Glorious smiles. Heart-stopping stunts. But deeper still in the cheerleader identity—wait, make that louder still—is the primal sound of screaming for the team. In 1888, as varsity football was in its beginning huddle at Illinois, the University called for an official “college yell.” A professor of Greek even parsed optimal vowels and diphthongs for composing the ideal chant. Plenty of suggested ditties came pouring in. The winning composition, to be heard in the stands for uncounted Illini games to come, went: Rah! Hoo-rah! Zip, Boom, Ah!/Hip-zoo! Rah-zoo! Jimmy, Blow Your Bazoo! Ipzidyiki, U of I !/Champaign!
Other yells, likewise both nonsensical and addictive, joined the game-day din during the first years of varsity football at the University of Illinois. So did “gayers”—students adept at roaming the sidelines, flinging epithets and insults at the opposing team and its supporters. Cheering could only improve from there, and it did. In 1903, R.C. Matthews—known for his big school spirit, oversized sweaters and nickname “Red,” later shared by the immortal running back, Red Grange—convened a team of some 150 male students for practice, assembling them in the bleachers and instructing them to yell in unison—and to yell louder if Illinois began to lag. Matthews’ efforts proved successful and were later described by a Daily Illini writer as “the first attempt at systematic cheerleading at any university.”
Innovations ranging from pompoms, megaphones and uniforms to tumbling, stunting and fundraising arrived in the decades to come. Perks such as varsity letters, game tickets to share with friends and family, and the occasional meal with the football team have flowed and ebbed over the years. The hard work has only increased. Head varsity cheerleading coach Stephanie Record, ’94 LAS, MSW ’01 (herself a former Illini cheerleader) has led the team to national rankings six times since she took the post in 1994. The weekly time commitment for team members is upwards of nine hours of practice, weight-training and mandatory study time—a figure that doesn’t count the games themselves or travel time or special events. As part of the UI Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, “Cheer” (as insiders call it) benefits from coaching and access to athletic training and tutoring facilities, as well as uniforms, workout clothes and equipment from Nike, the official provider of apparel and footwear to varsity athletes. Institutional support does not extend to cheerleading scholarships or academic credit for cheerleading activities.
Until Sept. 30, 1950, when four co-eds bounded onto the Memorial Stadium field to root for the Illini at the football season opener, cheerleading at Illinois was an all-male proposition. (The women’s show of spirit was rewarded that day with a 28–2 win over Ohio State.) More than half a century later, male cheerleaders are definitively outnumbered at Illinois. Just eight of the 45 members on the 2019–20 cheerleading team are guys. While women flock to the sport from top-notch high school programs in cheerleading and gymnastics, college cheerleading tends to attract men who were athletes in high school and want a dialed-down involvement in the varsity scene. In other words, they are mostly there for the fun. And they’re great at holding up the women in the cheerleader action category known as “stunting.”
Very vertical and very charismatic, stunting happens when cheerleaders balance other cheerleaders high in the air, atop shoulders or even (eek!) hands. Stunting tends to capture the crowd’s attention. So scary, yet so apparently effortless. (Eek!) One stunt favored by Illini cheerleaders has two standing men who form the bottom layer of a pyramid. Four women ascend to stand on the shoulders of the men. In the middle of the formation await two more men and a woman. The men toss the woman to the top of the pyramid. The middle two women catch her feet to allow her to stand atop the pyramid (Eek!).
But beyond the pyramids, the tumbling, the push-ups, the flag-running, the pompoms, the dancing, the uniforms, the good looks—captivating as they all are—is the college spirit that cheerleading amplifies for the fans. Like the young men and women of its team, Cheer at Illinois is an embodiment of the eternal youth that flows through college life and varsity sports.
So join with the cheerleaders of the University of Illinois and give a great big college yell.
Go! I-L-L! I-N-I!