By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports
When the football teams from Northwestern State and Stephen F. Austin meet for the first time in four seasons Saturday evening at Turpin Stadium, they’ll play without the largest trophy in sports at stake, lacking the regional and national fanfare accompanying the rivalry for six decades.
Officials from both universities decided to retire a wooden statue known as “Chief Caddo” which has gone to the winner of the NSU-SFA football game since 1961. At 7-foot-6, 320 pounds, the “Chief” was the biggest physical prize globally in sports, not just college football. They said Wednesday a decision on “how best to commemorate this rivalry” will be determined by a combination of students, athletic staff and the university presidents.
For much of the historic series, the schools were in the same conference, first the Gulf Star (1983-86) and then the Southland (1987-2021), and during that time the NSU-SFA football game concluded the regular season schedule just before Thanksgiving each year.
As the “Battle for Chief Caddo” was staged on the same weekend as other storied college football rivalries, such as Ohio State-Michigan, Harvard-Yale and other time-honored series, it garnered coverage from national media and was nearly uniformly featured on ESPN’s popular GameDay Saturday morning show.
Northwestern president Dr. Marcus Jones and Stephen F. Austin interim president Gina Oglesbee issued a brief joint statement announcing the decision Wednesday afternoon through their respective athletic media relations offices. Subsequent rampant posters on social media decried the move, although others offered differing perspectives.
The statue and the name “Chief Caddo” have been retired since the last football meeting in 2019, the schools’ leaders said, although there was no public acknowledgement of that until Wednesday’s statement. A letter dated November 16, 2020 from Tamara M. Francis, chairman of The Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, and an April 19, 2021 NSU Student Government Association resolution both requested the tradition be discontinued. It was unclear when exactly the decision was reached.
Stephen F. Austin won the 2019 meeting in Natchitoches, and therefore retained the trophy until the next matchup, which was expected to be the following year until the COVID-19 pandemic struck and few colleges – SFA yes, NSU no – played football that fall. The following spring, SFA withdrew from the Southland Conference to join the Western Athletic Conference, and the rivalry game was suddenly off the schedule.
Former NSU athletic director Greg Burke and his SFA counterpart, Ryan Ivey, later agreed to resume the series with a 2023 game in Natchitoches and a 2025 meeting in Nacogdoches, Texas.
Officials at SFA last week told Chris Mycoskie of ESPN+ that the statue was no longer on display and said it is in storage. The future of the statue is uncertain.
A combination of factors led to the statue being retired, including sensitivity to the region’s Native American population, along with the NCAA’s emphasis on eliminating mascots and traditions which some consider demeaning. The issue quietly drew serious consideration just over a decade ago, during the administration of NSU’s longest-serving president, Dr. Randy Webb.
A couple of nearby universities, Arkansas State and UL Monroe, jettisoned Indian mascots during that time. Prominent professional sports franchises in the NFL (the former Washington Redskins) and Major League Baseball (formerly the Cleveland Indians) have adopted new brands. Other pro teams (the Atlanta Braves) and major college powers (Florida State Seminoles) have not.
In 1960, the universities began the tradition when they agreed to commission a statue of a mythical Native American chief whose tribe was settled in the locations that later became the English-speaking communities of Natchitoches and Nacogdoches, where Northwestern and Stephen F. Austin are located.
The purpose was to pay tribute to the Native Americans who not only first settled the region, but provided safety for the early white settlers in the area. Historians say that if not for the Caddo tribe, the Spanish and French colonists who came to the region would not have survived onslaughts of Apache and Commanche warriors from the west and the Natchez from the east. Also, French and Spanish writers of the era reported Caddo chiefs were master diplomats who made it possible for the two European colonists to live as neighbors while their mother nations were at war against each other.
The statement issued by the presidents late Wednesday afternoon:
“As the Northwestern State and Stephen F. Austin football teams prepare to face off this Saturday, they do so with a focus on embracing our rich history and shared heritage while looking forward to the future.
“Following the teams’ most recent meeting in the 2019 season finale, the antiquated wooden statue known as ‘Chief Caddo,’ which was awarded to the winner of the NSU-SFA football game since 1961, was retired.
“The universities are engaged in ongoing discussions about how best to commemorate this nearly century-old rivalry, which began in 1924. Student representatives, athletics staff and presidents of both institutions will play pivotal roles in shaping this commemoration.
“The teams are scheduled to complete a two-year, home-and-home contract with a 2025 game at Stephen F. Austin.
“Northwestern State President Dr. Marcus Jones and Stephen F. Austin Interim President Gina Oglesbee made the joint announcement.”
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