Have you seen the commercial for one of the cell phone carriers set at a tailgate presumably before a big game? You know, the one where the two guys are sitting there playing with their smart phones while person after person comes up to them with a “did you hear…” scenario to run by them, and their response is always “that was so 46 seconds ago.” At one point the exchange includes “Did you hear someone stole the other team’s mascot” and the camera pans to a live tiger eating chips out of bowl on the table nearby. The plot of stealing a rival’s mascot has made its way in several television shows and movies, but it makes me wonder does it ever really happen in real life? I mean, are you really going to risk life and limb for a prank. You know live tigers are nothing to mess with.
According to campus lure, LMU’s basketball rivalry with Carson-Newman includes some wild tales. In passing over the six years I have worked at LMU, I have heard about a statue going missing and other pranks surrounding the LMU-CN games. To dig deeper, I went to one of LMU’s longest tenured employees, Softball Coach and Director of City Park Dan Burns. If his 30+ years as an employee aren’t enough to qualify him to speak about the topic, he also played in the rivalry during his time as a student.
When I asked him about it, Burns immediately started chuckling. “Yeah, there are a lot of stories. I can’t be sure that everything happened as fact, but there has been enough talk about this to reasonably assume at least part of these stories have to be true,” he said.
The most common tale involves a missing statue. Burns places this one some time back in the 1960s when LMU and CN were regional rivals playing in the NAIA division of college athletics. He said that as the story goes, CN students snuck into Harrogate and onto the LMU campus in the dead of night and stole the Lincoln the Lawyer statue that stands outside the Carnegie Vincent Library on the quad. The statue was missing the week before the game and mysteriously returned, facing backward, following the game. Another version of the tale has the missing statue buried somewhere on campus and found the next day. Burns said that in retribution, LMU students stole CN’s stuffed eagle mascot the following year.
A tale that was new to me, was what Burns described as the “chicken years.” He said it became tradition for LMU fans to throw chickens on the court during introductions of the CN players. “Live chickens?,” I asked. “Oh yeah, live chickens,” he answered, laughing. “It was quite a sight. It really disrupted the games too. Five little chickens running around.”
Burns said the chicken rivalry started sometime in the 1960s and carried on until about 1976. During those years, the chickens wreaked havoc at Mary Mars Gym. Every year they would be thrown out during introductions and as you can imagine would run and fly all over the place. They would go back into the stands, pecking at people; they would defecate on the floor, delaying the game as the cleanup occurred and they were often hard to contain once they had been let loose. It was the latter issue that eventually brought the “chicken years” to an end.
At one game the chicken throwers decided that they would make the recapture easy by fastening strings to the chickens, so they could be reeled in after introductions. A fine idea in theory, but it didn’t end so well for one of the chickens. The string worked just fine, except the person who did the reeling used poor judgment and started to whip around the chicken, snapping its neck in the process. Following that incident, the chickens never returned to Mars Gym. In this day and age when you enter a sporting event, you can expect to open your bag or be checked for things like recording devices or weapons, but can you imagine being stopped and checked for chickens?
You might also ponder, why chickens? I know I did. Burns said it was because they are the Eagles and students were saying the team members were more like chickens than eagles. Burns said the rivalry was reciprocal. If CN could expect chickens in Harrogate, the Railsplitters saw a lot of blue jeans and overalls in the stands in Jefferson City. “Being the fine Baptist institution that they were, they liked to think they were more refined and we were a bunch of backwoods hicks,” Burns said. I don’t know, I think I would take the overalls over the chickens.
As both schools changed, the rivalry fell off for a while. LMU moved to the NCAA, while CN stayed NAIA. When CN eventually joined the NCAA, they became a part of the South Atlantic Conference, while LMU was playing in the Gulf South Conference. The teams continued to play in non-conference competition, but all of that changed when LMU joined the SAC. The move meant the two rivals now meet at least twice every year. The rivalry rekindles tonight at Tex Turner Arena. Tip is set for 6 p.m. for the women and 8 p.m. for the men.