Over the weekend, St. Cloud State University hosted a football game. Alumni were encouraged to return to campus. There were barbecue stands and some super-fun events, such as face painting.
At any other university campus in America, you might call this tradition "homecoming." But not at SCSU, which changed the name of homecoming to -- wait for it -- Celebrate! St. Cloud State. The move is part of SCSU's attempt to change its image from a party school to the kind of school that puts an exclamation point on its festivities to try to persuade you that they are super-fun.
Last week, just before the non-homecoming homecoming, the school announced they had hired PR people all the way from California and photographers from Toronto to conduct a new "branding" campaign.
How is this public relations gambit going, you might ask?
So far, not so great.
Miffed at the college for dropping the word "homecoming," much of the town is going on with its own homecoming next weekend, Oct. 8. As they have since forever, most of the local bars are featuring free or cheap breakfast and lots of discounts on alcohol, beginning, as always, by 8 a.m. This is a tradition informally called "kegs and eggs," and it's just the kind of unruly merrymaking that SCSU was trying to get away from.
Entrepreneurial students have also seized the spirit by creating their own T-shirts. One website selling homecoming gear is titled: We Taking Over. SCSU English majors, no doubt.
I can say that because I am a former SCSU student. I spent two memorable years at the school, pulled decent grades, made good friends and decided on a career direction that I regret only when faced with a phone message box filled with crazy-calling. Sorry, PR geniuses, but I chose SCSU for the same reason as many of my friends: We were told that Playboy magazine ranked it among the nation's Top 10 party schools.
Although the claim is apparently a myth, I was able to find plenty of parties anyway, though no more than I did after transferring to the University of Minnesota, and probably no more than you can find in any college town.
Bar owners say the reputation as par-tee town is undeserved, kept alive partly because of memories of a homecoming "riot" in 1988. During that incident, people were arrested and a couch was set afire.
"I call that the fire that's burned for 23 years," said Harry Burns, an attorney who represents the St. Cloud Hospitality Association, which is behind the alternative festivities next weekend.
Burns said area businesses reacted to the school's decision (in March) with "disbelief and frustration. It's a very big weekend and very popular with former students."
So business owners started planning their own homecoming as SCSU scheduled four separate events for Celebrate! The two groups didn't consult with each other, said Dan Wedin, head of the association and owner of Book-Ems Bar (No, I am not making this up).
So, last weekend you had a football game and a concert at the college that wasn't called homecoming, and this week you have a homecoming in the bars without a connection to a school or football game. World, meet upside-down.
Well, the Huskies will play Mankato on Saturday, but don't call it a homecoming game. Bar owners chose the Mankato game because "we thought Mankato fans might travel pretty good," said Wedin.
We pause here to interject the fact that Mankato's own homecoming was punctuated by a drunken riot in 2003. Bring on Booze Bowl I.
I asked Burns if the school and town are at odds.
"It hasn't helped," he said. "To me, it shows that sometimes people in academia can be separated from what's going on down on Main Street."
Hiring consultants to "brand" the school has also been mocked. "Last time I checked, the school had a media department and an art department," said Burns. He paused. "Do you know they have a director of alumni and constituent engagement? Did they have one when you were here?"
No, no, they didn't.
The person who holds that title, Terri Mische, seems very nice, if a bit beleaguered by the controversy. She said Celebrate! drew about 1,500 families, which brought money into downtown businesses, and said the school hopes to coordinate more events with the city in the future.
"The kids loved the inflatables," she said.
Still, SCSU's reputation took a hit from some business owners. MC's Dugout, for example, printed up a T-shirt with the theme "the Grinch that stole homecoming." A photo of the school's president, Earl H. Potter III, has been superimposed onto the body of the Grinch.
"What university doesn't have a homecoming?" asked Wedin. "They made it sound like some horrible, rotten things were going on."
Wedin said many of his former employees come back on homecoming and get together. I asked whether people at Book-Ems wouldn't have been just as happy going to one of the nice events at Celebrate!
He laughed. "I don't think any of my people really want to go to family movie night," he said.
Just remember, partygoers, what happens in Stearns County stays in Stearns County.
email@example.com • 612-673-1702