George Mason University
Just what exactly is Gunston supposed to be? A seasick bear? Cookie Monster's non-pastry-addicted cousin? A Chuck E. Cheese employee who can't let go of his day job?
It's not entirely clear. Whatever Gunston is, he may be one of the most huggable mascots in all of sports. Or at least he was before George Mason University unceremoniously demoted him after more than a decade of service.
Gunston is a big, green, fuzzy, amorphous creature of unknown genus or phylum. Gunston's friendly nature and shag-carpet exterior made him quite popular with children. But the same could not necessarily said about his reputation among students or alumni. From his inception in the 1990s, Gunston's soft nature seemed almost to reinforce George Mason's reputation as a relatively unknown commuter school.
Gunston bumbled around the sidelines for an athletics program of relatively little repute. That all changed with George Mason's Cinderella run at the Final Four in 2006. Suddenly, nobody at George Mason was all that thrilled with Gunston's adorable antics. The brighter spotlight of national fame was unkind to Gunston, who was largely ridiculed by outsiders for failing to strike fear in the hearts of opponents.
It was thus that 2010 saw Gunston replaced on the sidelines by The Patriot, a seven-foot tall Revolutionary General modeled in the spirit of the Founding Father from whom the school takes its name.
Though Gunston did lose his starting job, he wasn't fully terminated. (You try looking into those big blue eyes and telling the guy he's fired). Instead, Gunston has been relegated to an honorary ambassadorship, appearing at children's events and promoting the university's efforts at conservation and environmental preservation.
western Kentucky University
Of all the amorphous blobs in college sports (and there are many), Big Red has got to be the funniest. Full disclosure: I might have a soft spot for Big Red because I once had an English teacher who looked exactly like this.
At any rate, in spite of not being any particular thing other than his namesake color, Big Red is extremely popular both within the Western Kentucky community and on the national stage. Created in 1979 as an abstract artistic embodiment of WKU school spirit, Big Red is distinguished by his gigantic smile. Don't be deceived by his seemingly pleasant demeanor though. Big Red has been known to swallow whole the heads of those who approach too closely.
Otherwise, Big Red can be found on the sidelines of Hilltoppers games as well as in the spotlight at various national competitions. Big Red has been invited to compete eight times in the Capital One Mascot Challenge, a prolificacy that helped make him the Capital One Mascot Challenge Hall of Fame's inaugural inductee in 2007.
The Blue Blob
Technically, the Blue Blob is a mere sidekick, but in actuality, he is by far the more popular of Xavier's two-mascot tag-team. The Cincinnati-based university's official mascot is a musketeer named D'Artagnan. The school's athletes were first dubbed musketeers back in 1925 but competed without a mascot for the next four decades.
As a gift to the university, the Class of 1965 constructed a real-life musketeer and bestowed it upon the student body. The mustachioed D'Artagnan enjoyed twenty years as the lone costumed attraction on Xavier's sidelines (though mostly at basketball games since the school's football program was discontinued in 1973).
For two decades, D'Artagnan's main function was to make little children cry. For some reason, young fans were terrified by the seven-foot, sword-wielding, pantyhose-wearing Burt Reynolds lookalike. To soften the musketeer's harsh image, Xavier paired him with a friend in 1985. Suddenly, the swashbuckler was hanging out with a dome-headed furball named The Blue Blob.
To create the Blue Blob, designers drew heavily from the work of French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp and notable avant garde performance art collective, Fluxus.
Just kidding. It's basically a walking Snuggie.
But what charisma! The kids love this guy, and who come blame them? Unlike D'Artagnan, Blob carries no weapons, hides behind no questionable mustache, and seems like he'd make a really loyal pet.
As Xavier's basketball program has gained greater prominence, so too has the Blue Blob achieved some modicum of national fame. At the height of his celebrity, Blob appeared in an ESPN commercial, defeating enshrined NFL quarterback Jim Kelly in a game of rock, paper, scissors, then promptly eating his Hall of Fame blazer.
Fortunately, the Blue Blob has not allowed fame to go to his head. He remains ever the humble and eager foil to the more flamboyant D'Artagnan.
Otto the Orange
Without checking too closely into his family tree, I'm reasonably certain that Otto the Orange is a close relation to early ‘80s arcade game superstar Q*Bert. A cheerful orange blob in blue pants, Otto is little more than a walking face with a hat. To his credit, he's actually fairly spry for a citrus.
Also to his credit, Otto is substantially less controversial in nature than his first predecessor, Big Chief Bill Orange, alternately known as the Saltine Warrior. For reasons that should be fairly obvious, Native American students were successful in petitioning the demise of Big Chief Bill Orange in 1978.
This led to a brief flirtation with a wildly unpopular orange-clad Roman gladiator, one who was roundly and routinely laughed and booed off the field.
This unfortunate gladiator would be succeeded by a rogue's gallery of failed mascots, from a man in an orange tuxedo to something called Egnaro the Troll (hard to believe that one didn't catch on).
By 1980, an unnamed and as yet unsanctioned orange began making regular appearances at games. Even still, the university continued its search for a viable successor to the Saltine Warrior, variously considering the candidacy of the orange-cowboy attired Dome Ranger, a giant gnat named Dome Eddie, and a green monster called the Beast from the East.
None could compete with the grassroots popularity of the creature simply known as The Orange. Gradually becoming a fixture at Syracuse sporting events, Otto earned his name in 1990. Even still, the committee designated to name an official mascot in 1995 recommended an as yet nameless wolf in Otto's place.
The student body campaigned passionately on the behalf of their orange, ultimately winning Otto the sole and uncontested claim to mascot supremacy at Syracuse University.
The University of Georgia
Technically, the University of Georgia's official mascot is and has been, for many years, an English bulldog named Ugu. (And Ugu II through Ugu IX). Since 1956, each in a single ancestral line has served admirably in representation of Georgia University athletics.
Beginning in the 1960s, Ugu received assistance from a scruffy gray costumed bulldog of little distinction and no name. Agreeing that this was no way to honor the spirit of those Ugu's now passed, the university recruited an alumnus named Tom Sapp to design a suitable replacement. Hairy Dawg was unleashed at the 1981 Sugar Bowl and led his team to victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and to a National Championship.
Hairy Dawg was designed to intimidate, and I suppose if you're afraid of dogs, he does just that. But honestly, his humongous head and winning underbite make him one of the more adorable bipedal dogs in college mascotting. (Stiff competition, I know). Like his inspiration Ugu, Hairy Dawg is a mascot you just want to dress in a scarf and cuddle with.
But Hairy Dawg has little time for cuddling. He's too busy ranking third overall in Forbes Magazine's list of America's Top 10 Sports Mascots, not to mention competing in five Capital One National Mascot of the Year Challenges over the last 12 years.
The University of Alabama
The University of Alabama came up with the most perfectly logical solution for the fact that it's hard to dress a guy up as a Crimson Tide. They dressed a guy up like an elephant instead. If you have a better idea, I'd like to hear it.
Big Al traces his origins to 1930, when a sportswriter quoted an anonymous football fan who was heard to exclaim at the thundering approach of his team “Hold your horses, the elephants are coming!” (Side note: We're pretty sure that even back then, this anonymous fan would have been considered the dork among his friends.)
Though the nickname stuck, it wasn't until the early 1960s that somebody first took to the field under the weight of a giant elephant head. Melford Espey, Jr. was the first student to don the great mask before going on to serve as a university administrator. The pachyderm tromped its way into Alabama's lore and logo even before it was adopted in any official capacity.
With the approach of the 1980 Sugar Bowl, the University decided it was finally time to give the elephant fully sanctioned status. With direct approval from no one less than legendary Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, Big Al was given his name and a spiffy costume designed by Disney engineers.
The upgrades were clearly a success as, some time in the ensuing years, Big Al landed himself a girlfriend. Big Alice, also a lovable anthropomorphic elephant, often helps Big Al to rally Alabama's rowdy crowds.
Understanding exactly what Gorlok is requires a quick zoological review. Technically, Gorlok has the paws of a cheetah, the horns of a buffalo, and the face of a St. Bernard. Gorlok is, of course, inspired by the part-cheetah, part-buffalo, part-dog creatures that freely roam the suburbs of St. Louis Missouri where Webster University makes its home.
Nah. I'm kidding. Gorlok was clearly culled from the back pages of the Dungeons and Dragons “Dungeon Master's Guide.”
Ok, that's still a lie.
Gorlock was actually forged from a contest which challenged students and staff to create a suitable mascot to represent the Webster community. The first sketch of this mascot was rendered in 1984 and depicted this escapee from the Island of Dr. Moreau brandishing one of those old-timey insecticide hand-pumps (really not sure why).
Students also voted to call the creature Gorlock in recognition of the intersection at the university's heart, Gore and Lockwood Avenues (See, it's not as weird as it sounds). It took four years for the blue and yellow creature in the sketch to become the fuzzy whatever-that-is which now prowls the sidelines.
Interesting trivia, this relatively obscure college mascot came from some fairly accomplished hands. The original Gorlock, who was covered head to toe in blue fur, was designed by a team that included Teri McConnell, responsible for the St. Louis Cardinals' legendary Fredbird.
Gorlock made his official debut in 1988. Once the whole glam look died down, Gorlock lost the blue fur in favor of his more natural gold mane. Since then, this beloved symbol of the Webster community has never looked back (presumably because his head doesn't pivot all the way around).
Artie the Artichoke
Scottsdale Community College
Scottsdale Community College is the only two-year institution with an entry on this list but I think you'll agree that it would be wrong to overlook their contribution to the world of mascotry. Since we recently discovered that the okra (as in the Delta State University's Fighting Okra) is actually a fruit, we can say that the SCC Fighting Artichokes benefit from the best pugilistic-vegetable-themed character in the game today.
Though SCC is named for the nearby Phoenix, Arizona suburb of Scottsdale, it is in fact based on Maricopa Indian land in a town called Salt River Pima. None of this has anything to do with American artichokes however, the vast majority of which are grown in the state of California.
So what's with Artie the Artichoke? In fact, this winsome grinning thistle was borne out of controversy. In the 1970s, SCC gave its students the opportunity to vote on a suitable mascot and nickname for the school's emergent athletics program. The student body used this vote as a platform to express discontent over the school's budgetary priorities. Artie the Artichoke was created with the intention of embarrassing an athletics program that students viewed as diverting funds from remedial education.
Inspired a tactic though it may have been, the move kind of backfired. In the years since his inception, Artie has become a treasured member of the SCC community, beloved by faculty, alumni, athletes, and students alike. While we're not certain who would win in a celebrity cage match between the Fighting Okra and the Fighting Artichoke, we can say that only the latter is the officially recognized mascot of his university.
Virginia Tech University
Turkeys aren't generally known as the strongest flyers, which is probably why HokieBird likes to get around the Virginia Tech stadium by crowd-surfacing. This, and the fact that he can often be seen cruising around campus on rollerblades, suggests that HokieBird is a child of the late 1980s.
This is true, but the story of his evolution goes back more than a century. It was in 1909 when Virginia Tech Coach Branch Bocock began referring to his football players as Gobblers for the voracious manner in which the student athletes consumed their rationed meals. In the years immediately thereafter, a university employee ran with the nickname, training a live turkey to perform tricks prior to game time.
The turkey (and presumably any number of successors) made weekly appearances on Virginia Tech's sidelines well into the 1950s. 1962 marked the first time that a student made the transformation, though most accounts hold that he looked more like a plump cardinal than a turkey. Over the next decade, The Gobbler, as he was known, grew to seven feet in height (most of it through an ever-lengthening neck). By the time he reached full proportion, he had become known by the more pugnacious moniker, the Fighting Gobbler.
With the passage of another decade, and the arrival of 1981, the school's athletics program saw fit to replace the Fighting Gobbler with somebody named Hokie (mostly because the coach at the time didn't care for the image of his players binge-eating). A gradual evolution led to the 1987 debut of HokieBird, a happy-go-luck poultry who looks like he'd be as much at home on an Arby's billboard as in a football stadium.
As a campus tradition, the identity of Hokie is kept secret throughout the school year. The true masked man or woman is permitted to reveal his or her identity by walking at graduation in Hokie's trademark orange feet.
As it turns out, HokieBird has also been a tremendous springboard to even greater mascot fame. Among those who have donned the suit are Curtis Dvorak, who has served as Jaxson de Ville for the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars since 1996, and his immediate successor Todd Maroldo, who has since served as Sir Purr, mascot to the NFL's Carolina Panthers.
Sammy the Slug
U.C. Santa Cruz
On its slimy, slow-moving surface, the banana slug would appear a strange choice to represent an athletics program. But this mollusk is no slouch. Not only does the banana variety hold a distinction as the second largest land slug on earth, but experts say that its mating ritual can last for as long as eight hours!
Behold, therefore, the impressive staying power of Sammy the Slug, who has represented U.C. Santa Cruz in one capacity or another since the 1960s. Sammy's story is told by the stately redwoods that surround the Northern California campus. Since the school's founding in 1965, its students took notice of the striking yellow slimers that patrolled the forest.
It is no accident that the school's students chose this decidedly gentle creature as their unofficial totem. The banana slug shared the student body's relative disinterest in fierce athletic competition. Thus, Sammy's good-natured mollusk charm seemed a perfect fit for the idiosyncratic campus.
Still, by the approach of the 1980s, the university sought to adopt an official mascot. The sea lion was propped up as a challenger to Sammy's status in 1981. In spite of the sea lion's support from campus authorities, the student body voiced its rather strenuous preference for old Sammy. Students continued to root vociferously for the ‘slugs' throughout the decade.
Finally, campus brass relented, placing Sammy and the sea lion in a head to head vote. In spite of his aversion to fierce competition, Sammy annihilated his challenger. In 1986, the lovable yellow gastropod become a made mollusk. As the official mascot for the U.C. Santa Cruz Banana Slugs, Sammy's disarming smile and joyful demeanor have earned him dark horse honors as one of the NCAA's best. Indeed, ESPN placed him in their Top Ten in 2008 and the National Directory of College Athletics once named him the best mascot in all of college sports.