Correction appended: Due to an editing error, this story originally mispelled the acronym NCAA.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Banned by the NCAA, University of Illinois mascot Chief Illiniwek has danced his last dance.

After last night’s game against Michigan, the school will retire the mascot, which has been decried as a racist portrayal of Native Americans.

The Chief wears an elaborate costume with a flowing feathered headdress, face paint and a brown tunic and pants. He has drawn protests from some fans in Ann Arbor when Michigan played Illinois in the past.

Following a decision handed down by the NCAA in August 2006, the Chief will no longer be allowed to dance. The NCAA declared that the Chief was a hostile and abusive image and banned Illinois from hosting any postseason competition.

The University of Illinois filed two appeals to the sanctions, the most recent coming at the beginning of January. But the NCAA rejected both appeals.

“We’re subject to sanctions by the NCAA, and the feeling was that we tried as much as we could to get an exemption to that policy,” University of Illinois spokesman Tom Hardy said. “The feeling was to make the announcement and have this be the last performance so that fans would know it’s happening and those who care about the tradition know it’s happening.”

Fans chanted “Save the Chief!” as the seconds ticked off during Illinois’s win over Northwestern Sunday. Usually portrayed by an Illinois student, Chief Illiniwek has performed at halftime of football, basketball and volleyball matches since 1926.

Last night, many in the crowd at Assembly Hall wore shirts with either “Save the Chief” printed on them, shirts with an image of the Chief and shirts that simply said “Chief.”

The performance at halftime featured a special video saluting former portrayers of the Chiefs as the scoreboard displayed their names. The Chief, currently graduate student Dan Maloney, performed his regular routine of dancing around the court, except for a slight variation at the end. During the point in the routine at which he usually leaves the floor, he instead returned to the court, bowing to all four sides of the arena while the crowd screamed its support. He then exited through the tunnel, and as the cameras faded, appeared to struggle to hold back tears.

“The biggest difference tonight eyes were on the court and who were clapping along,” said Aaron Dubnow, president of the Orange Krush, the Illinois student fan section. “Every eye in this building was watching, and every pair of hands was clapping.”

Dubnow said Maloney’s show of emotion wasn’t surprising.

“He’s very into his role as the Chief, which he has to be,” Dubnow said. “This is hard for him, because it’s something he’s grown into over the course of the year.”

The NCAA sanctions have already prevented the Illini from hosting postseason activity – their men’s tennis team was not allowed to host its seventh straight NCAA Tournament. The sanctions might have also come into play if Illinois wanted to host an NIT Tournament game at the end of this basketball season as well had the Chief not been retired.

The NCAA ruled that the school would still be able to use the name “Illini” because it is short for Illinois,and the athletes can still use the name “Fighting Illini” because it is a reference to the school’s spirit.

“We’ve also had people who have expressed their support for this action, saying it was time for the tradition to move along,” Hardy said. “As much as they cherish this tradition, their love for the university is much deeper, and goes beyond the tradition.”

But many fans at the game were not accepting of the Chief’s demise. Numerous alumni and supporters referred to perceived hypocrisy of the NCAA, by banning Chief Illiniwek but allowing the Florida State Seminoles to keep their name and mascot, Chief Osceola, who charges down the Seminole field during home football games and hurls a burning spear at midfield.

“I guess the question that we have here is that if Chief Illini is hostile and abusive, then why isn’t Florida State and the Seminole hostile and abusive?” University of Illinois alum Steve Schilling said. “You can’t have it both ways.”

Some went even further.

“What bothers me more than if it’s offensive or inoffensive is the fact that a minority has made a change that goes against the majority opinion,” said retired University of Michigan employee Nancy Testory. “Removal of the symbol is more racist than keeping it.”

During pregame warm-ups, Illinois players wore commemorative shirts in honor of “the last dance” of Chief Illiniwek. On the backs of the shirts was a picture of the Chief and the words “Courage. Honor. Tradition.”

– Mark Giannotto contributed to this report.

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