Just two weeks ago, 64 colleges and universities across the country were filled with hope, optimism and low-grade lite beer. Now, with the first four rounds of tournament play behind us, only the lite beer remains for 60 of these schools.
Through the usual collage of beat-downs and upsets, buzzer-beaters and blowouts, only four teams remain. As ’80s hair-metal one-hit-wonders Europe would say, “It’s the final countdown.” (I admit, that was a lot of work just to mention Europe.Totally worth it).
Villanova, Syracuse, North Carolina and Oklahoma survived March Madness to see the light of April. If you’re anything like most Americans, your bracket was busted when Michigan State went down in the first round, but if you still have a glimmer of hope, and if you are basing your Final Four predictions on each team’s mascot, you’re in luck. This is exactly the feature you’ve been waiting for.
Will D. Cat
In 1926, Villanova University held a school-wide competition to pick a mascot for its athletics program. Though the voting population would win zero points for originality, they would effectively choose the iconography that would represent them for the better part of this past century. The Wildcat may be among collegiate sports’ most commonplace creatures, but Nova has embodied its fighting spirit quite well. Though the Wildcats are a #2 seed this year, they also hold the powerful distinction of being the lowest seed ever to win the whole shebang, taking the title in 1985 from a humble 8th seeding.
Beginning in 1930, the University’s athletics teams were represented by a series of large felines all bearing the name Count Villan. While it is not clear over what province Villan’s title gave him authority, but the Count’s noble line extended from Villan I to Villan IV.
Surprisingly, the feral jungle cats neither particularly enjoyed life in university captivity nor the experience of being paraded in front of football spectators during the chilly Pennsylvania winters. By 1950, safety concerns led to the end of Count Villan’s reign and the emergence of a mascot from the class of non-landed gentry.
It was around this time that Will D. Cat made his debut. Though the costumed student was less intimidating to opponents then his predecessor, he also rarely attempted to devour his keeper. Like Villan, Will is a bobcat and manifests in a costume generally described as hot, uncomfortable and smelly by its occupants. Mr. Cat appears at football games both home and away, basketball games at home and throughout the playoffs, and even had his own ESPN commercial during the 2010 Tournament.
Today, Will D. Cat makes roughly 250 appearance a year, including this year’s fast-approaching Final Four showdown with #10 ranked Syracuse.
Otto the Orange
Speaking of Syracuse, the Orangemen are this year’s Cinderella story and, believe it or not, the first #10 in history (and only the fourth double-digit seed ever) to make the Final Four. Kudos to the underdogs and their mirthful mascot, Otto.
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. Fittingly for the face of a team that is this tournament’s most successful underdog, Otto’s respect has been hard-won and well-earned.
University of North Carolina
Rameses can be forgiven for having something of an identity crisis. After all, there are technically three of him. The original spirit animal for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels was a Horned Dorset Sheep who first appeared on the sidelines of a football game in 1924. Acquired in tribute to star fullback Jack “The Battering Ram Merritt,” the original Rameses was acquired for a tidy sum of $25.
He made his debut at a pep rally just ahead of a showdown with the Virginia Military Institute on Nov. 8th. Though the game was scoreless deep into the fourth quarter, placekicker Bunn Hackney rubbed the ram’s head for good luck before booting a late-game field goal and propelling his team to a 3-0 victory. Rameses consequently became a fixture on the sidelines and the eventual inspiration for an anthropomorphic variation by the same exact name.
Putting aside the sad story of Rameses XXIII, who was senselessly murdered by a drunken man claiming to have been hungry at the time of the 1996 killing, most who have served under the blue horns have enjoyed lives of honor and dignity. The Rameses lineage also inspired the track-shorts clad incarnation that has been so visible during UNC’s run at the tournament title this year.
The muscle-bound bipedal version of Rameses made his debut in 1988, joining the basketball team’s cheerleading squad midway through the school-year. A senior named Eric Chilton first donned the horned headpiece and, presumably, required far less stable upkeep than his ovine counterpart.
Because Rameses is generally terrifying to children, UNC introduced the softer and cuddlier Rameses, Jr. in 2015. The shorter, fuzzier, and less prone to violence, Rameses, Jr. appears to spend less time at the gym than his older counterpart, which largely affords him the time to stand-in at community events targeting younger fans. Rameses, Jr. is also distinguished by his Air Jordan sneakers, a tribute to UNC’s most famous alum.
And in a side-note, because it is kind of confusing that a team called the Tar Heels is represented by a trio of rams, the word Tar Heel refers to North Carolina’s early importance in the pine timber industry. The booming business meant that many working within the state often carried the traces and smells of tar and turpentine from their work in the woods. At first a derogatory way of diminishing North Carolinians, the state’s residents adopted it as a source of pride during their service in the Civil War.
The state’s residents can also take pride in the fact that the UNC Tar Heels are the only #1 seed to survive the madness of March and reach the Final Four.
Boomer and Sooner and also the Schooner
Technically, the true mascot of the Oklahoma University Sooners is the Sooner Schooner, a covered wagon drawn across home football games by two white ponies named Boomer and Sooner. The wagon itself goes back to 1964 and was a tribute to the conestogas that made the 1889 Land Run on Oklahoma possible. The wagon traverses the field every time the Sooners score a touchdown, with flags waving and pep squad antics abounding.
Naturally, very little of this is possible during a basketball game so in 2005, the Sooners slapped a pair of horse suits on two guys and also called them Boomer and Sooner.
Their hardcourt predecessor was a furry fellow by the name of Top Daug. Despite its not-particularly-intuitive spelling and the fact that it seemed to bear little relation to the theme of either being Sooners or from Oklahoma, Top Daug was pretty popular with the fans. Most probably mistook him for a visiting Hannah Barbara character.
More likely though, Top Daug was inspired by the university’s earliest and most beloved mascot, Mex the Dog. Adopted off the streets of Mexico by a U.S. Army Medic in 1914, Mex joined his owner the following year in attending Oklahoma University. There, Mex took on two major responsibilities: wearing a sweater with a giant “O” on it and ridding the stadium of stray dogs prior to game-time.
So admirably dig Mex perform his duties that when he died of natural causes in 1928, the university closed down for his funeral procession. Today, the horses pretty much run the show at OU.
Interestingly, Oklahoma is a unique case insofar as its animal mascots are generally better behaved than their human counterparts. Just last year, the human Boomer or Sooner (hard to say which) was suspended from his duties for harassing Oklahoma State fans during a game and dumping popcorn on the arch-rival coach’s wife.
So obviously we’re looking forward to seeing what these crazy horses come up with on live national television as the #2 Sooners roll into the Final Four.