Meet Bill Durham, the Bainbridge man behind FSU and College Football’s greatest tradition

Published 7:00 pm Wednesday, May 8, 2024

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Florida State University has a long-standing relationship with the Seminole Native American Tribe. The school’s moniker, the “Seminoles,” and symbol, the side profile of a Native American, is derived from the tribe.

One of the most well-known nods to their indigenous friends is the pre-game tradition at FSU home football games: Osceola and Renegade.

In the pre-game ritual, an FSU student in traditional Seminole garb wields a flaming spear and leads the football team onto the field on horseback. The rider gallops to the middle of the field, rears his horse back and drives the flaming weapon into the ground, typically sending the crowd into an excited frenzy.

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“It never gets old,” said Bainbridge resident and longtime FSU fan Erwin Harrell. “My first game was in 1976… It’s just as exciting now as it was the first few times I saw it. It’s something to behold.”

The tradition celebrates the Seminole culture that defines the university and was voted the best NCAA Football Tradition in the country by ESPN’s SportsNation in the 2011 season. Though it may be the “greatest spectacle in college football,” according to FSU, most fans are unaware of its origin— and the ties it has to Decatur County. 

Bainbridge native and creator of the pre-game tradition Bill Durham has always been “fascinated” with Native American history. As a young boy, he engrossed himself in books about Native Americans and hunted for spearheads on the Flint River.

“When we played Cowboys and Indians,” Durham said. “I always wanted to be the Indians.”

Durham’s passion evolved as he got older, and he developed empathy for the displacement of Native Americans in colonial America.

“I’ve always had a feeling of the plight of American Indians,” Durham said. “This was their world. This was their country.”

Durham graduated from Bainbridge High School and attended Florida State University, where he incepted the idea for FSU’s pre-game ritual.

As a student on the university’s homecoming planning staff, Durham developed the concept for Osceola and Renegade to incorporate Seminole representation into the school’s annual festivities. But he was denied when he tried to get permission to incorporate it.

“Everywhere I went, I got turned down,” Durham said. “So I just disbanded the idea.”

More than 10 years later, Durahm’s idea got a second chance when FSU hired legendary head football coach Bobby Bowden in 1976. 

In his career after college, Durham did professional work for Bowden, and they became friends. One night, the two were talking football during a business meeting. Bowden brought up the pre-game ritual at West Virginia University football games, the school he was hired from. There, the team’s Mountaineer mascot would come out before games and fire a musket to excite the audience. 

he expressed interest in a similarly flashy tradition for FSU games, and Durham gave him the same pitch for Renegade and Osceola that got turned down years ago.

“I said, ‘Well, I’ve had this idea since I was a student,’” Durham told Bowden. “The more I talked about it, the more excited he got. He was sitting on a couch. I was sitting across [from him]… He kept easing off that couch, he got so excited. He said, ‘Will you make that happen?’”

With the green light from Bowden, and assistance from Bowden’s wife, Ann Bowden, Durham just needed the approval of the Seminole tribe to turn his idea into reality. He set an appointment with Howard Tommie, the tribe’s chairman at the time, and laid out his plans for the pre-game ritual.

“I told him what I wanted to do,” Durham said. “He loved the idea.”

Durham’s top priority was that the tradition always honored the Seminole tribe and its history. To ensure that, he vowed that the tribe would always be involved in the tradition and the process of choosing the student to portray legendary Seminole War Chief Osceola.

“I made him three promises,” Durham said. “That promise was: It will always be a young male that represents the spirit of Osceola, he would be a good student— from the get-go, they have to maintain a 3.0 grade point average, or they’re gone— and he would be of good character.”

The conversation ended in a handshake, and the era of Osceola and Renegade had officially begun. Durham debuted the tradition in the 1978 college football season, and it has been a staple of FSU home games ever since. 

The creation of the performance was collaborative, with members of the Seminole tribe helping create the outfit riders would wear. The names of the tradition, Osceola and Renegade, are intentional and honor the tribe. 

Osceola is the Seminole tribe’s most famous war chief. He was born in a Creek Indian village near the Tallapoosa River in what is now eastern Alabama, according to the Florida Department of State. 

As a child, he was among many Creeks who retreated to Florida after the Creek War (1813-1814) and joined the Seminoles. During the 1820s, Osceola became known as a successful hunter and war leader. His warriors defeated U.S. troops in several battles early in the Second Seminole War.
Renegade, the name for the horse, comes from the Spanish word for the Seminole, “cimarrón,” which means runaways or renegades, according to Durham. All horses in the tradition are of the Appaloosa breed. Durham said each Renegade is carefully selected, and he and the rest of the Renegade team train each horse for the ritual, including teaching them to rear up.

Durham chose the Appaloosa breed because they have a strong history with Native Americans. 

“We use the Appaloosa because it is the only breed of horse that is really attributed to Native Americans,” he said. “They did not create the breed, but they saved the breed.” 

As Durham told it, the Nez Perce Chief Joseph preserved over 1,000 of the horses during the later days of the Indian Wars. 

Despite the Seminole Tribe of Florida supporting the tradition, the NCAA took issue with it. In 2005, the NCAA banned FSU’s use of the Seminole name and any imagery associated with it. The decision was reversed soon after when the Seminole tribe personally endorsed the University’s depiction of them. 

“When the NCAA jumped all over FSU, and they were jumping over schools that had anything to do with Native American names… they, of course, had FSU in hearings,” Durham said. 

The Seminole Tribe stood up for the agreement they had made.

“The Seminole Tribe explained to them that they were all for our program and that we did it with permission,” Durham said.

As of the 2023-2024 season, the tradition had 16 riders and six horses. Durham said one rider stands out: his son.

Allen Durham was chosen as the eighth rider in the tradition’s history, something he had wanted since a young age.

“[Allen got involved] when he was a little tiny boy,” Durham said. “He talks about watching me in our garage making the first spear.”

Durham said if his son ever tried out for the role of Osceola, he wanted to be as removed from the process as possible so as not to delegitimize the selection.

“If he got chosen to be the rider to be, I didn’t want anyone to hang on him, ‘Yeah, that’s ‘cause of your dad,’” Durham said. “So, in the finals… I would not attend the last presentation, and I tried to get judges that didn’t know him… He earned it.”

Allen Durham occupied the role of Osceola from 1992 to 1994. Bill Durham had led the pre-game ritual for nearly 30 years, and, in 2002, chose to pass the duties on to Allen, who’s been running it ever since. 

There are many families that have established businesses and traditions that have been handed down to their children. Osceola and Renegade stand out as one that has grown to gain not just regional, but national acclaim.