T. Lynn Williamson, the soft-spoken Southern lawyer who built the University of Kentucky cheerleading squad into the best in the nation, knows a thing or two about cheerleading as image-building and public relations.
To illustrate the point, he recalls a face-off several years back between his squad and the squad from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas--hair frizzed out like cotton candy, plunging necklines, fringe dangling from tops and bottoms.
"Here they were with their sequins and fringes and low-cut necklines," Williamson remembered Friday with amusement. "And here we were with our blue turtlenecks up to here and bows in the hair and curls.
"I want the total, all-American, clean-cut-looking kids," he went on. "Kentucky is a very conservative Southern state. You want the image that goes with your football team, your basketball team, your school!"
Cheerleading, after all, has busted into the major leagues--a fact illustrated amply by the elastic bodies hurtling through the air near Shamu's pool at Sea World today during the National Collegiate Cheerleading Championships.
Cheerleading has blossomed into a brave new world of cheerleading scholarships and cheerleading shoes and cheerleading camps. There are three-hour practices and cheerleading philosophies and enough athletic tape to wrap the planet Jupiter three times around.
Gone are box-pleated skirts, bulky sweaters and saddle shoes, and cheers that begin with "Gimme an A." In their place are tapered uniforms, dance routines, and Phil Collins tapes, and handsprings worthy of that grinning girl in the Wheaties commercials.
Even the lexicon has stretched to accommodate the new culture--one of basket tosses, toe-touch jumps, table tops and partner stunts. A 2-2-1 with a back flip off is big this year. There are chairs, highbirds, double backs and other "elite stunts."
Long, complex cheering is out: Too complicated for the fans to follow. It runs counter to the aim of good cheerleading, theoreticians say, which is to fire up the crowd and focus attention on the game.
Verbal minimalism is in:
"Go Big Blue. State. Go. Fight. State. Fight."
Or, even sparer: "B.E.A.T. Go. Cats."
This afternoon, the 250 cheerleaders that make up the 16 cheerleading squads and two dance teams chosen as the top in their leagues are to compete before an audience of 3,000 Southern California high school cheerleaders for the title of national collegiate champions.
The competition, to be taped for broadcast Jan. 24 on the cable sports network ESPN, begins at 1 p.m. in the Nautilus Pavilion. Each team--ranging from the University of Utah to Appalachian State--will perform a three-minute routine including choreographed dance, stunts and cheers.
Scores are due in around 3 p.m. Then the champions in the various divisions will be crowned. At the practice Friday, aficionados speculated on the top contenders: North Carolina State, Ohio State, University of Utah, and the defending champions, the University of Kentucky.
"They're competing for bragging rights to be the best team in the nation," explained Jim Stimmel, a 26-year-old sports trainer who works for the United Cheerleading Assn. (UCA), which organized the event. "When you're best in the nation, everyone is inferior."
"This is their chance to be recognized," said Jeff Webb, president of the UCA. "This time, they're the team."
Webb, a 36-year-old entrepreneur from Memphis with the compact body and vise-like grip that characterizes cheerleaders, is credited with bringing cheerleading out of the dippy dark ages of the '50s and '60s into the athletic, coeducational present.
A student at the University of Oklahoma in the early 1970s, Webb became a cheerleader for some of the usual reasons: Guys in his fraternity had done it before him, it provided a rare opportunity to travel, and "it was a real big thing to do on campus."
In 1974 he founded UCA and ran his first 12 five-day summer cheerleading camps. Last summer, 40,000 cheerleaders attended 160 camps--picking up new stunts, learning safety tips and attending seminars on subjects like how to plan good pep rallies.
Now Webb has a uniform company churning out sleek new cheerleading gear. He pitched a cheerleading shoe--wide at the middle to prevent sprained ankles--to Converse a while back. Now cheerleading shoes are commonplace.
College cheerleading is completely co-ed: Women out front doing dance routines and flying through the air; men behind, lifting, spotting, catching and yelling. The moves are gymnastic, highly synchronized, sometimes almost robotic. Motions are sharp and on the beat.
Each squad seems to have a reputation, shaped by the skills of its 12 to 14 members. Some said the University of Utah is renowned for its dancers, its creativity and its hot music. The University of Kentucky is known for its blondes.