Marketing / 10.01.18
Three Cheers for the Mascots! It Wouldn't Be College Game Day Without 'Em
Anyone who has attended a college football game has a favorite memory involving a mascot. For the student reading this, it could be the Badger or the Nittany Lion or the Blue Devil who photo-bombed you and your friends just as you were taking a group shot. For the parent, it could be the time Herky the Hawkeye or Cocky the Gamecock made your bored little one giggle, smile and high-five. Or, it could just be the video of that feisty University of Oregon Duck giving a sideline beatdown of the Houston Cougar that went viral a few years back.
Mascots are brought out at college football games and other campus events to pump up the home crowd, stoke school pride and make everyone smile. Their antics are often in the spirit of good fun and humor. Brennan Garcia, Director of Ticketing Services at Kansas State University (KSU), remembers the day KSU's Willie the Wildcat became a mascot legend.
"It was after a win against our in-state rival," he said, beaming at the memory. "Willie went out to midfield to do his signature 'K-S-U- Wildcats!' cheer. It was so loud that car alarms were triggered off from the fans yelling! That was a very cool moment."
Mascots are also used to help market teams and colleges to younger audiences — children and toddlers, in particular. After all, it's never too early to make some little sports fan dream of being a future alum. Among the most popular with the children is the University of Colorado Boulder's Chip the Buffalo, according to Lindsey Edwards, Spirit Coordinator for the University.
"Chip attracts all fans from little kids up to your grandma, who gets caught flirting with him at events," said Edwards. "He has also been self-titled as the best selfie taker out there. Need something for the Instagram? Chip’s your guy."
Staying in the state and giving Chip a run for his money is Klawz, the bear mascot for the University of Northern Colorado. According to John Rhodes, Athletic Ticketing Manager, this bear is more teddy than terrifying.
"Klawz is big friendly bear. He loves to make you laugh, and he’s great with kids,” Rhodes said. “His soft fur makes bear hugs a big hit. He's just a good mix between intimidating and friendly for our younger fans especially. Klawz is agile and is oftentimes seen busting a move or racing kids."
Rhodes continued, "One of my favorite memories of Klawz was when he joined the Denver Outlaws [a professional lacrosse team] for Mascot Day. He got to be part of their game day and interact with lots of kids from various day cares and summer programs. Watching the excitement levels and hearing the screams and laughter as he made each of them feel involved in the big day was awesome. He got more hugs than I could count. Klawz isn't just about filling a suit. It's about creating memories for these kids who associate mascots with schools and teams. It creates a connection."
Not all mascots are head-to-toe costumed animal characters, to be sure.
"Willie the Wildcat is able to interact more with fans due to him not being in a full costume,” Garcia said. “He is a man-cat, so there's no full-body suit. He dresses according to the sport he is attending, all the way to the formal events at which he appears. Anything from leading his signature cheer to body surfing through the student section, our mascot adds to the experience as the No. 1 fan of K-State."
Other mascots are flesh-and-blood crowd rousers who, on game day, literally become the human face of the university. East Carolina University's (ECU's) Steve the Pirate is one of the more well known. North Carolina actor Steve Whetzel portrays him. And while Whetzel is neither a student nor an alum, he is all about team spirit.
"I think the ECU fans are the best around," Whetzel said. "They have welcomed me from day one and are aware that I give my spare time promoting the team. I’ve never turned down a photo opportunity with a fan and always try to go out of my way to make them feel special. I think they see the passion I bring to the role and that gets them pumped up."
There is indeed an ambassador aspect to many college mascots. That has certainly been the case with UCLA's world-traveling Joe and Josie Bruin, two high-spirited bears. One of their most memorable moments was traveling to China with the UCLA Spirit Squad in the summer of 2015 for the Shanghai Tourism Festival, according to Alicia Peters, the UCLA Spirit Squad’s mascot program assistant.
"Not only did Joe and Josie get to perform in the festival's main parade; they also got to tour China for 10 days,” Peters said. “Taking pictures with their international fans on the Great Wall of China was an insurmountable experience. Joe and Josie treasured the honor of representing UCLA internationally."
Mostly, though, mascots are brought out at home games to hike up the entertainment with their timeless antics and comical hijinks. Not only does the University of Colorado Boulder's Chip the Buffalo generate smiles and laughs by riding in the Snowboard Team Halftime Rail Jam, but he also isn't afraid to eat fans' food.
"Like most buffaloes, Chip eats a lot!” Edwards said. “Unlike most college mascots, Chip can actually eat. If he asks for your hot dog at a game, be careful. He's serious!"
Other times, mascots accidentally add slapstick, pratfalls and other silliness to the proceedings. Whetzel recalled one time in which things didn’t go exactly as planned.
"I once came out of the tunnel amid the team's purple smoke, stabbed my sword into the field, took a few steps toward the onlookers on the field and tossed my hat as I had done numerous times,” Whetzel said. “When I turned back to pick up my sword, the smoke was so thick I couldn’t find it! Little did I know, the coach in his enthusiasm to get on the field ran out early and tripped on it. Picture me hunched over in the purple smoke, pumped-up football players storming out of the tunnel as I search for my blade! Fortunately, the smoke concealed my efforts and I was successful in my search. The coach, on the other hand, took a good ribbing from the press about the incident."
People love a good origin story. And many college mascots have quite the tale to tell. Whetzel had been performing with a stage combat troupe, dubbed The Shadow Players, for about nine years by the time he got the gig in 2009. He and his fellow cast members were performing at the annual Greenville Pirate Festival in Greenville, North Carolina, when the event coordinator informed him that ECU was in search of a new mascot.
"Since I performed as a pirate nine months out of the year, I already had the gear," he recalled. "So, I added purple and gold, ECU’s colors. I came out of the dressing room doing the crossed sword and gun stance I do when I enter the stadium. Apparently, they liked what they saw, because I'm on my tenth season!"
Peters loves telling Joe the Bruin's origin story, which harkens back to a time when many more colleges than now used live animals as their mascots.
"He began as a live female black Himalayan bear cub in the 1950s," she said. "Kept in a secret location, the bear cub would run out in front of the rooting student section during games, sporting a yellow sweater with a large 'Bruins' spelled out on the front. However, the furry cub grew too large to handle, weighing in at 200 pounds and towering over six feet on its hind legs. After she escaped from her pen once, her keeper sold her to the circus in early 1951."
She added, "A similar scenario reoccurred in the early 1960s. The first Josephine Bruin originated as a four-month-old, 18-pound Malayan sun bear from India. However, she grew too quickly and was given to the San Diego Zoo in January 1962. From there, the idea of live mascots died quickly out of practicality and students took on the responsibility as official mascot. In the mid-1960s, several students were selected to take on the role of Joe Bruin, who was joined in 1967 by a costumed Josephine — or Josie, as she became known. Today, Joe and Josie are the faces of the university!"
The idea of live mascots hasn’t entirely died out. At the University of Colorado Boulder, Chip the Buffalo isn’t the only face of the school: Ralphie the real buffalo is another symbol of Buff pride. Ralphie leads the football team onto the field on game day, and even opponents love to see her — accompanied by a team of variety student-athletes called Ralphie Handlers — zoom around the end zone. The Ralphie Program has been funded exclusively through donations from fans, proving that this is something fans just can’t bear to part with.
Indeed, whether it's a furry face, a feathered face or a human face, mascots are often what people far and wide think of first when they think of a college or university. You can build multi-million-dollar stadiums, launch all sorts of apps and social media pages, switch team colors, and change team uniforms. But in the end, it's still a person in a low-tech, old-school costume that inspire the masses to "Go Bruins! Go Pirates! Go Wildcats! Go Team!"
Tags: Sports, Stadium