Unofficial grows from promotional to controversial

Josh Birnbaum

Josh Birnbaum

By Alissa Groeninger

In 1996, Scott Cochrane, the owner of 10 local bars, started an event to allow students to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at school.

St. Patrick’s Day usually falls during spring break, when most students are off campus, and many wanted to find another way to celebrate, said Eric Meyer, owner of Kam’s. While Meyer did not create Unofficial, he initially latched on to the event.

In addition to the green beer the bar uses during the days around St. Patrick’s Day, Meyer played Irish music, had dancers doing Irish jigs and paid homage to other Irish traditions.

“We used to participate in Unofficial in terms of making it a fun event,” Meyer said.

But the event has changed over the years, said University police Lt. Skip Frost.

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“It’s gone through several mutations,” he said.

Frost said that Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day became a serious issue for the department seven years ago when the event took place on the same day as a College of Engineering open house that brought in prospective students.

“They were having to struggle their way through those in green shirts who were intoxicated by noon,” he said.

Champaign police Sgt. Scott Friedlein said a house fire occurred 10 to 12 years ago on Unofficial, which warned the department that the event was growing. Three years ago, an alumna died in a motorcycle accident during Unofficial, said Robin Kaler, University spokeswoman.

“As the years progressed, we’ve seen (the event) increase,” Friedlein said.

Champaign Mayor Gerald Schweighart said the bar owners used to advertise to bring non-University students to the Champaign area.

“It was advertised as a totally drink and drunk fest,” Schweighart said.

Meyer said the number of students from outside the University made the event reflect poorly on the campus community. Scott Cochrane, the bar owner who started Unofficial, agreed and said people from outside the University and Urbana-Champaign community do not treat the facilities and the communities with respect.

“It turned into this ‘let’s go to Champaign and raise hell,'” Cochrane said.

Of the individuals given notices to appear in court last year, most were non-University students.

“When you lose that localized aspect, it becomes a much more difficult event to manage,” Friedlein said. “You have people coming in who don’t have the care and concern.”

Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing said Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day is not a serious problem for Urbana because the city only has one bar close to campus.

She said Urbana has helped Champaign and the University in any way it could.

In 2003, the University police department and administration thought too many students were showing up to class intoxicated and being disruptive, Frost said.

“I think that is the most idiotic thing,” Cochrane said.

To combat that behavior, security guards and representatives from the Dean of Students office were stationed in education buildings to make sure no alcohol or intoxicated students entered classrooms and lecture halls.

After years of long bar lines forming before 7 a.m. and the need for medical transportation for intoxicated people before noon, Schweighart asked the bars not to open before 11 a.m., starting in 2005.

Frost said Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day led to substantial injuries, illnesses and the need for police during the 2006 and 2007 celebrations. In 2008 there were fewer arrests, although more notices to appear in court were issued.

Frost said the University Police Department knows that enforcing strict penalties in the bars will cause people to go to private parties.

The Champaign Police Department is going to focus more enforcement on apartment parties, especially those that are profit-motivated.

“They probably have it under control,” said Emily Elsenbast, senior in LAS. Elsenbast added that Unofficial during her freshman year was a little bit wilder than subsequent years.

Schweighart said the bar owners have not advertised the event this year and said Cochrane stopped student papers at other schools from advertising with the name Unofficial. Cochrane owns the copyright to the event’s name.

“When the event took new legs of its own, probably four years ago, five years ago, we kind of backed off,” Meyer said. “It’s become a sore eye in the community.”

With continued police presence and fewer ads, Schweighart said he expects the event to be milder than last year.

“Have fun but act responsible,” Cochrane said. “It’s a few kids who mess it up for everybody.”

He said that for the most part the bars were manageable and safe on Unofficial last year.

“Next year I intend on not even talking about Unofficial,” Schweighart said.

Allyce Husband, sophomore in LAS, said that although authorities are “doing a lot of crack down on it,” she thinks that no level of enforcement would put an end to Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day.

“I don’t think what they’re doing will stop people,” she said.

Other large-scale drinking events at Midwest schools

Indiana University

Little 500

The event draws thousands of people, and MTV once hosted their spring break at the event. Little 500 is centered on weekend bike races. Parties and concerts take place on campus during the week before the bike races.

University of Wisconsin at Lacrosse


The event takes place over two weekends and celebrates the cities brewing history. It used to be about binge drinking but has become more family-oriented in recent years, as you cannot drink on the grounds from Sunday to Wednesday.

University of Wisconsin at Madison


The event is a Halloween celebration that fills a main campus street. Live bands and food vendors are on hand. Beginning in 2006, attendees have to pay to get onto the street.

Southern Illinois University

Unofficial Halloween

The celebration occurs the weekend before the actual holiday because the bars and liquor stores are closed on Halloween because of violence at past celebrations. Celebrators attend the bars, parties and haunted houses.

Iowa State University


The weeklong event features a parade and an open house of campus facilities. The event is the largest student-run festival in the United States. Entertainers perform at night and Diana Ross, Billy Joel, the Goo Goo Dolls and the Black Eyed Peas are among the guests that have performed.