We gather here today to mourn the loss of the most infamous cheer in Mackey Arena: “Hail Fire.” Celebrated by some, criticized by many, but never ignored or unheard, the cheer has evolved considerably over its lifetime.
In the grand tradition of the eulogy, we must tell the life story of our honored dead. The tradition began as a song-and-dance routine by the band. The brass would take over the melody and let the percussion and woodwinds dance. A perfectly harmless and classically corny band dance, as all band dances, by their very constitution, must be.
The kernel of controversy, the “IU Sucks” part, was added in an attempt to kill the dance. Surely, the Paint Crew thought, the University would come down on the dance after that addition, and it would be prohibited from Mackey forever and ever amen.
Except that it didn’t. For reasons that nobody can really adequately explain, it became a thing. And it stayed a thing until about a week ago.
Mackey was certainly raucous while Purdue played Green Bay. It always is, but the familiar strains of “Hail Fire” were nowhere to be found. Like a jazz band queueing up an old standard without their star soloist, something was missing. The song, at least for the moment, is dead, and it’s a shame.
To examine my feelings about “Hail Fire” and the Purdue-IU rivalry, we have to go back to my roots. I’m from Toledo, Ohio, about an hour south of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and about three hours north of Columbus, Ohio. I grew up in the firestorm of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. I’ve supported the Buckeyes since the day I learned to speak, but I deeply enjoyed 49-20 largely because my dad, the only other Buckeye in my family, had to endure it next to me.
Toledo has been a crossroads of the Ohio State-Michigan beef since 1835, when the two states fought an actual not-quite war over who had the rights to the land, which ended in Ohio getting the city and Michigan getting the Upper Peninsula. A victor has not yet been determined.
The level of hatred surrounding this game is exceeded only by some Southeastern Conference rivalries. There are four hymns on the holy ground of the Shoe: “Across the Field,” “Carmen Ohio,” “Hang On Sloopy” and “We Don’t Give a Damn for the Whole State of Michigan.”
Legend says Woody Hayes, the General Patton of Buckeye coaches, once claimed that he went for a 2-point conversion at the end of a 50-14 blowout in 1968, “because I couldn’t go for 3!” Hate Week features a heaping helping of “Ann Arbor is a W----” T-shirts, reminiscence about the “Ten Year’s Hate” and Wolverine fans digging up Jim Tressel’s improper benefits scandal like it means anything to anybody at this point.
The point is that there is no end to the vitriol that rival teams can fling at each other. “IU Sucks” is a little toxic and sometimes reads as pathetic. But that’s how rivalries work.
They’re playground spats amplified across entire regions of the country. We spit and kick and say things we probably don’t really mean, and when Hate Week is over, we go about our business. Could we be doing something better with our time? Almost certainly.
But it’s an escape mechanism. When the world is dark and cold, and we don’t know what’s happening, we’ll turn to any flame of certainty for warmth. Sometimes that flame is the knowledge that Purdue could find a way to beat IU even if the entire team was a collection of feral hogs. And it makes us feel better about ourselves.
What happens now? Nobody knows. "Hail Fire" is gone, but students — especially student bands — have a limitless capacity for strange dances and rituals. There will be another, perhaps sooner than we realize. “Hail Fire” is dead. Long live “Hail Fire.”