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Nickname that defines an era

The legacy of Charles Kupchella's presidency at UND will undoubtedly be tied in many minds with the recent history of the Fighting Sioux logo dispute.

The legacy of Charles Kupchella's presidency at UND will undoubtedly be tied in many minds with the recent history of the Fighting Sioux logo dispute.

Kupchella, who announced Thursday he will retire in one year, has been UND's president during eight years that saw the issue move from a campus dispute to a lawsuit against the NCAA with national implications.

Kupchella's own public reactions to the nickname and logo issue also evolved over the years.

Soon after his arrival on campus in 1999, Kupchella told students and community members he hoped to find a "third way" solution to the nickname dispute, and argued that, by working together, the university and American Indians could find a logo both could take pride in.

Many on campus read his statements at the time as sympathetic to American Indians and others who were offended by the Indian head logo and nickname.

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But as the years passed, an amicable end to the dispute became increasingly less likely, and Kupchella's position became increasingly fixed.

As Kupchella enters the final year of his presidency, any chance of an internal solution to the nickname and logo controversy seems to have been subsumed by the external pressure of a NCAA mandate barring the logo's use in postseason play.

When Kupchella was asked about the logo during the news conference Thursday announcing his retirement, he referred, as he has many times before, to an open letter he wrote to the NCAA in June.

In that letter, Kupchella called the NCAA's policy banning most American Indian nicknames and logos illegitimate. He charged the policy was carried out capriciously and called those carrying it out self-righteous.

If there was a change in Kupchella's personal attitude toward the logo, many speculate it happened in December 2000.

That's when UND benefactor Ralph Engelstad sent Kupchella and members of the State Board of Higher Education a letter, made public after a request by The Associated Press, stating he would abandon the then $85 million hockey arena he was then building and let what had been built deteriorate if Kupchella abandoned the Fighting Sioux nickname.

The day after receiving the letter, the state board voted unanimously to retain the logo, cutting short Kupchella's planned decision on the nickname and rendering moot the recommendations of a committee he'd charged with exploring the nickname issue.

Engelstad's letter came after a series of e-mails Kupchella sent to members of the state board, outlining a plan to cease using the nickname after a series of years.

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In an e-mail to then-board President William Isaacson, Kupchella wrote: "I see no choice but to respect the request by Sioux tribes that we quit using their name. To do otherwise would pit (sic) the university and its president in an untenable position."

Ralph Engelstad Arena was dedicated Oct. 5, 2001, at a total cost exceeding $100 million, and about 300 people marched in protest at the opening ceremony. Kupchella and others have always maintained there was no condition on the arena gift requiring the nickname be retained.

In the years following the opening of Engelstad Arena, the nickname dispute reared its head often but without the groundswell that followed the NCAA action banning American Indian logos in postseason play in August 2005.

On behalf of UND and the state board, North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem filed a lawsuit Oct. 7 against the NCAA and later won a temporary injunction allowing the continued use of the Sioux logo and nickname until the matter is resolved in court.

That court date is tentatively set for Dec. 10, less than two months before Kupchella's proposed retirement date.

The nickname dispute will not end with the coming trial and future presidents will undoubtedly have to face the issue. But with his presidency book-ended by major nickname conflicts, Kupchella's legacy will likely remain more tied to the nickname than that of any of his successors.

Marks reports on higher education. Reach him at (701) 780-1105, (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or jmarks@gfherald.com .

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