Almost every year with the beginning of March Madness, someone will ask the question, “What is a Saluki?”
The Saluki is the mascot of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and the Dawgs, as they are affectionately known, are usually a contender for the NCAA basketball tournament each March.
That invariably prompts someone, somewhere to ask the question, “What is a Saluki?” And, the standard follow-up question, “Why is an Illinois school’s mascot an Egyptian dog?”
The answer is a bit Illinois’ history and a lot legend.
The university is located in deep southern Illinois, a region called “Little Egypt” . Legend, sometimes called state history, claims that early in the state’s history, the central region of the state experienced a horrible drought.
In a story similar to the Biblical story of Joseph going to Egypt to buy grain, the state’s legend claims that farmers had to go south to the fertile region between the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and buy grain to get them through the winter.
After that, the region was referred to as Little Egypt. The city that sprang up where the rivers come together would be called Cairo, though locals pronounce it “karo” like the brand of corn syrup, not like the city in Egypt.
In 1951, Southern Illinois University officially changed its mascot and adopted the Saluki as its new representation. Before that, the university’s mascot was the “Maroon”. Somehow, the dog made more sense.
The Saluki is a sighthound of Egyptian origin, a delicately-boned, long-haired dog. It’s a fast dog, reaching speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. Sometimes, they say it looks as though the dog doesn’t even touch the ground. Fans of Southern Illinois basketball like to think their players don’t touch the ground either.
The dogs are loyal, but skiddish, usually doing well only with a cat companion or another Saluki. And, breeders recommend not having a Saluki if you have any other small indoor pet (except a cat) because the dogs were bred to be hunters. No amount of training can break them from their natural hunting tendancies.
Saluki basketball fans will happily argue that the Dawgs are always in the hunt. And, the metaphor is lately accurate. The Saluki football team, long the disappointment of the university, has made the national playoffs for three years running. Not bad for a school the size of Southern Illinois University.
The basketball team is even better. The Dawgs have made it to the Dance each March for the last five years and seem poised to go again. They have played hard and looked respectable, even winning on occasion, against Division 1 schools with much greater name recognition and recruiting budgets.
But the question still remains, what is a Saluki?
The dog was traditionally used by the Bedoins of the Middle East to hunt hares and gazelles and is one of the oldest breeds of dogs known. There are depictions of the Saluki in Pharoahs’ tombs dating back to 2100 B.C. It is a dog best designed to be at home, inside, with its family at night and running on a large open tract during the day. It’s related to greyhounds and Afghan hounds and was bred in the desert, even though they prefer slightly cooler temperatures.
What is a Southern Illinois Saluki? A fiercely proud dawg, a lot tougher than their Egyptian namesake and ready to fight for their spot as a significant mid-major basketball power.
It’s too early to be calling the Dance tunes yet, but look for the country to be asking, “What’s a Saluki?” come mid-March.