Lions and Tigers and Bears
(and Zips and Banana Slugs and Purple Cows) — Oh, My!.
To explore the history of the college sports mascot, to genuinely investigate how we've evolved into a culture that can rally tens of thousands of stadium-goers with live buffaloes, flaming spears and dancing anthropomorphic ducks, we must start at the very beginning and reach back to … uh, early 1880s France, apparently.
That's when the French debuted an opera named "La Mascotte," a title that translates loosely into "lucky charm." Mostly obscure now, "La Mascotte" concerns a poor Italian farmer whose crops refuse to grow until he's visited by a mysterious and lovely stranger named Bettina. His crops thrive, his luck turns, and his life shines. By the 1900s, the term had jumped the Atlantic and become known as a talisman that brought good fortune; by the 1970s, it had come to mean a grown man in a chicken suit. But the centurylong history of the mascot can be described in one very 2017 term: branding. "A mascot is the personification of a school's brand," says Michael Lewis, a marketing professor at Emory. "They work because they give something for the community to rally around, something for everyone to have in common. Everyone at the University of Florida knows about the Gators. Everyone at Texas A&M knows the collie. It's a social point for the university and the community."
It's not clear when teams began using live animals to roar, prowl and intimidate their opponents — not to mention fans in the lower sections — but the inaugural mascot of college sports may have been Handsome Dan, an especially lucky bulldog who belonged to a member of the Yale Class of 1892. (The bulldog is also one of the most enduring — last fall, Yale announced its 18th iteration of the still quite Handsome Dan.) References to a live mascot at Arkansas appear as far back as the early 1900s, when the school switched its nickname from the Cardinals to the Razorbacks; today's mascot, Tusk, can trace his lineage back through a single family line of mascots dating to the 1960s.
But the early '60s also began a shift from live to costumed mascots, the first of which were (probably) Brutus Buckeye and Major League Baseball's Mr. Met, who both debuted in 1964. The idea truly took flight with the dawn of the San Diego Chicken, who hatched on the wings of a 1974 radio promotion and quickly was followed by the Phillie Phanatic in 1977. (Both mascots drew from the popularity of the Muppets; the Phanatic was even designed by the creator of Miss Piggy.)
In short order, pro teams, colleges and high schools began looking to their own la mascotte to bring their team great luck. Unlike the original, though, mascots have been of little help with crop production.
BIG FACE ON CAMPUS: Uga, Georgia's iconic bulldog, might be the most coddled animal in the NCAA. Since his 1956 debut, Uga has enjoyed access to an official golf cart and an air-conditioned doghouse; he also has a Hollywood credit in the film version of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."
Others You Know: If you're up for it, Tusk (Arkansas Razorbacks) will give you a kiss. In 2008, Arkansas athletics even established the Tusk Fund, a fundraising effort for its live mascot program. Ralphie (Colorado Buffaloes) is notable for a few reasons: 1. She's the only 1,200-pound buffalo on Earth named Ralphie. 2. She's superfast. 3. She requires a team of handlers, as befitting a 1,200-pound buffalo named Ralphie who is superfast. Bevo (Texas Longhorns) is a 2-year-old steer that clocked in at 1,100 pounds at last fall's football home opener — and he's still growing. Bevo doesn't do a whole lot during games, but that's probably safest.
A Few You Don't: Peruna, a black Shetland pony, has appeared at every Southern Methodist Mustangs game for more than 70 years. And yes, South Carolina has an official live gamecock, and his name is Sir Big Spur. Meanwhile, North Alabama is home to the only live lion mascots in the country — and Leo III and Una live right on campus, in a 12,764-square-foot specially built lion habitat.
Advantage: Fewer live animal mascots these days mean those still in the game make their fans especially proud. Plus, real animals generate more human fondness.
Disadvantage: Requires a handler, trainer and someone to handle the poop.
People in People Suits
BIG GUYS ON CAMPUS: Sparty, the muscular guardsman of Michigan State, debuted in his current form in 1989 and went on to gain national fame by co-starring in a 1996 "SportsCenter" commercial in which he helped carry ankle-damaged Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug.
Others You Know: He's not exactly fluffy, but Lil' Red is inflatable, and recognized as one of two mascots at Nebraska. (The other is Herbie Husker.) Wake Forest's bow-tied Demon Deacon tools around football, soccer and basketball games on a spiffy motorcycle. And Pistol Pete and his giant head currently roam the sidelines of the Oklahoma State Cowboys.
A Few You Don't: In past years, the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos — their students were big fans of Argentine cowboys back in the day — were represented by Gaucho Joe and a character known as the "Fantom of the (Thunder) Dome." These days, the school has Olé, a masked figure with a richly developed mustache. Elsewhere, when founded in 1887, Whittier decided its intimidating, strong mascot would be a … writer. And that's why Johnny Poet wields his mighty pen to this day.
Advantage: Human mascot costumes are much more convenient for carrying gymnasts and/or riding motorcycles.
Disadvantage: Generally your least cute option.
A Wacky Home of Their Own
In the summer of 2003, Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Randall Simon achieved baseball immortality by going to Milwaukee and knocking over a sausage. It was late in a Pirates/Brewers game, during Milwaukee's legendary mid-inning sausage race promotion, and Simon took the occasion to lean over the dugout railing and bop a college student named Mandy Block — or, as she was soon to be known nationwide, The Italian Sausage — with his bat. Simon was fined $432 and questioned by the police; he later apologized to Block and, upon a return to Milwaukee, bought Italian sausages for an entire section. His Major League Baseball career ended shortly thereafter, but his place in history was secured.
Yet the story, in all its weirdness, ended in something more. Disgusted with the sausage-based indignity, David Raymond sprang into action. The original Phillie Phanatic from 1978 to 1993, Raymond used the occasion of Simon's mascot abuse to found the Mascot Hall of Fame, an online tribute to the mascots of America and a group that for years drew thousands to an induction ceremony in Philadelphia. Since its inception, the hall has been online only, but next summer, it'll jump to real life when the physical Mascot Hall of Fame opens in the Chicago suburb of Whiting, Indiana. Befitting a monument to costumed dancing bears, the Mascot Hall of Fame won't be a quiet, staid affair with plaques and quiet reverence. It's designed to be a lively, color-splashed interactive facility for the under-12 crowd. Artist renderings show a lot of bright purple and green and the hall's mascot, Reggy, peeking over the entrance under a mop of french fry hair.
The idea, says Mayor Joe Stahura, is to merge the hall with Whiting's already witty, off-kilter brand — this is, after all, a city that hosts an annual Pierogi Fest, complete with a parade that features a Twirling Babushka Brigade. "Pierogi Fest is this wacky thing with all these characters, and it's just us kind of poking fun at ourselves," Stahura says. "The idea just hit me as a great fit. We want people to come here, spend some time, visit the lakefront. And there's nothing in the country right now that honors mascots."
The fundraising campaign is "in full steam," Stahura says. The museum will host design-your-own-mascot exhibits, as well as playrooms, sports exhibits and educational components about the science and physics of putting on a 30-pound costume. The Hall of Fame's own mascot, meanwhile, is being designed by Build-a-Bear.
Fuzzy Animals on Two Legs
BIG FACE ON CAMPUS: Tons to draw from here, but we're going with the Oregon Duck, mostly because it sprang from an official agreement with Walt Disney himself. Seeking to replace its original mascot — a live duck named Puddles who had taken to regularly attending home games — the school in 1947 entered into a handshake agreement with Disney to name Donald as its mascot and establish the only mascot duck in the NCAA. [The Miami (Florida) mascot, Sebastian, is an American white ibis. Entirely different.]
Others You Know: In short, there's a zoo, across all divisions: Gus the Gorilla (Pittsburg State), Willie Warhawk (Wisconsin-Whitewater) and Swoop the Eagle (Eastern Michigan), to name a few.
A Few You Don't: Though its teams are known as the Ephs (rhymes with "chiefs") in honor of founder Ephraim Williams, Williams College's mascot is the Purple Cow. In 2011, Reader's Digest voted it the "Most Lovable College Mascot," and to be fair, purple cows are pretty cute. The Akron Zips are represented by Zippy the Kangaroo, a pretty elegant animal solution for a team known as "Zips." The TCU Horned Frogs are represented by the intimidating, dinosaur-like SuperFrog. And when UC Santa Cruz wanted to join Division III in 1980, the application required an official nickname. The chancellor submitted "Sea Lions," thinking it sounded more sophisticated than the "Banana Slugs" nickname students had used informally for years. But six years later, the replacement hadn't caught on. The chancellor acquiesced, and UC Santa Cruz has been the Banana Slugs ever since.
Advantage: Cutest option.
Disadvantage: Fluffy suits can get very hot.
Mascots Entirely Unrelated
to Their Team Nickname
BIG FACE ON CAMPUS: North Carolina introduced its horned mascot, Rameses, in 1924 as a toast to a member of the football team known as "the Battering Ram." The word "Hoya" is derived from the cheer "Hoya Saxa" — which roughly translates into "What rocks" — but Georgetown picked it up anyway, and added an English bulldog named Jack in 1962. Miami (Florida) in 1926 adopted an ibis as the official mascot for the Hurricanes. According to folklore, the ibis can predict both when hurricanes are imminent and fading.
Others You Know: The Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee ride on a winged mythology-inspired horse named Lightning. Smokey, the bluetick coonhound of the Tennessee Volunteers, is a lovable icon who occasionally has snapped at his own teammates. (Mascot's gotta protect himself.) Reveille (Texas A&M Aggies) has been a fixture at home games since 1931; cadets address the collie as "Miss Rev, ma'am."
A Few You Don't: The Indiana State Sycamores feature Sycamore Sam, which is a blue and white woodland creature that in no way resembles a tree. The St. Bonaventure Bonnies adopted a wolf mascot, Bona Wolf, in 1999. And the Bradley Braves travel with … a gargoyle named Kaboom!
Advantage: Great conversation starter.
Disadvantage: Having to explain a gargoyle to the kids.
Animated Inanimate Objects
BIG FACE ON CAMPUS: Syracuse's Orange has had a name since 1990 — it's Otto. The Orange was almost a penguin. And an orangutan. And a troll. Elsewhere, the official website of the Ohio State Buckeyes reports that, "According to folklore, the Buckeye resembles the eye of a deer, and carrying one brings good luck." Ostensibly, so does putting a giant tan-and-brown head on a guy in a striped T-shirt during football games. It sounds weird, but something is working: Brutus Buckeye turned 50 in 2015.
Others You Know: In need of a mascot for its Hilltoppers, Western Kentucky in 1979 settled on Big Red, a furry red blob created by a student. Purdue's official mascot is a mighty locomotive called the Boilermaker Special, but the school is unofficially repped by the Sparty-esque John Henry character named Purdue Pete. The Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech is a spiffy 1930 Ford Model A, done up in a snappy gold with white trim to convey class and swagger. And Wichita State's WuShock — the mascot of its remarkably named Shockers — is described by the school as a "big, bad, muscle-bound bundle of wheat."
Behind The Story
A Few You Don't: If Delta State were to embrace its student-chosen alter-mascot, the Fighting Okra, this category would make a tremendous gumbo when combined with the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's hot pepper, Cayenne. Still, the official Delta State mascot is Mr. Statesmen, a costumed man in a suit. Tulsa's Golden Hurricane are represented by Captain "Cane, a superhero mascot who wields the theoretical power to summon weather, though not the power to explain what hurricanes are doing in Oklahoma. Also, Pepperdine in 2006 introduced a redesigned mascot pulled from its past, Willie the Wave, who works the crowd in Jimmy Buffett shirts and board shorts.
Advantage: You'll probably have the only mascot of its kind.
Disadvantage: You'll possibly be equated with dancing produce.
More Human, Less Costume
BIG FACE ON CAMPUS: The mascot-without-a-full-bodysuit draws jeers and cheers without a mask to hide behind. And the Notre Dame Leprechaun pulls off the green suit-and-knickers look with charisma and aplomb.
Others You Know: Chief Osceola of Florida State thrusts a flaming spear into midfield from atop a glorious Appaloosa named Renegade. And since 1934, West Virginia has played home to the Mountaineer, an appropriately outfitted and magnificently bearded mascot who rolls in with full coonskin cap and rifle. (Note: The school maintains the beard is not required.)
A Few You Don't: The Saint Louis University Billiken may resemble a very short Buddha, but he was designed by a Missouri art teacher and illustrator in 1908 as a talisman of luck. It's unclear when the Billiken became linked to the school, but he's definitely the only one in the NCAA.
Advantage: Huge savings on dry-cleaning bills.
Disadvantage: Tryouts are not for the weak-hearted.
No Mascot Whatsoever
BIG FACE ON CAMPUS: As it turns out, Stanford's Tree is not the official mascot but a member of the band, which somehow makes less sense. Stanford has no official mascot. The Indiana Hoosiers have no official mascot, owing to the fact that those outside the Hoosier State have to constantly be reminded what a Hoosier is. (And within Indiana, entire books have been devoted to the origins of the term "Hoosier," and none has found a definitive answer.)
Others You Know: In addition to being a misnomer, the Big Ten is unusually low on mascots. Illinois retired its Chief Illiniwek in 2007; the school officially launched a mascot search in the spring of 2016. Michigan dabbled in the field of live wolverine mascots in the '20s, but problems arose when handlers realized the animals could … uh, chew through their cages. Today, the school's athletics department eschews the entire idea, deeming mascots "unnecessary and undignified."
A Few You Don't: Cornell's Big Red Bear is unofficial; the school has no true mascot. And though it is not part of the NCAA, teams from the New College of Florida bear mentioning in the no-mascot category. They compete as the Null Set, or [ ]. "For the record," the school's website reads, "New College officially competes in intercollegiate sailing, as a member of the Intercollegiate Sailing Association of North America, South Atlantic division, and in 2013 actually qualified to compete in the national championship."
Advantage: More TV time for the pep bands and cheerleaders. Also, way lower chance of being mauled by a wolverine.
Disadvantage: Someone's gonna think of one for your school anyway. Best to get out in front of it.