10 Things About Team Mascots

I love sports. Not only am I riveted by the competition and strategy, but I enjoy the ice-breaker that sports often provide. Whenever I’m far from home and begin to feel isolated, sports have always found a way of making me feel connected again.

When I traveled to Europe for the first time, I was fourteen. I traveled with an educational tour group and the only person I knew at the start of the trip was the chaperone from my school. I can be a bit awkward socially, so this was a recipe for disaster. But early in the trip, I wore a t-shirt bearing the logo of my favorite sports team and someone from another school started a conversation with me about it. I was no longer alone.

When I got an internship in New York City in college, I had no idea where to even look for housing. I had a very small stipend to live on and, as you might guess, things are expensive in the Big Apple. My options were limited. Until I found someone from my alma mater, a fellow Bulldog, who had a loft to rent.

Those are just two of a plethora of stories I can share about how sports connected me to someone. In fact, the first time I met my husband he was the referee for my game. Though, to be fair that meeting did not go well and, thankfully, we met again under other circumstances a few months later.

My point is sports are about more than rules and uniforms. Wherever there are sports, there will be a fandom. Wherever there is a fandom, there will be people that fandom connects, for better or worse. So why deny that to your characters? Build them a world in which they can connect through sports. Give them a common ground. An ice-breaker. Or, if necessary, a jumping off point for their animosity. Because that can happen too.

And if you need a bit of inspiration to build your athletic world around, maybe I can help. I am, after all, more than a sports fan. I’m a nerd. Trivia is my jam. And since school is back in session, let’s talk about school mascots.

  1. The term mascot is actually derived from a French word meaning talisman or lucky charm.
  2. Mascots can and in some cases should change. Many schools have voted to change mascots for a number of different reasons over the years. Common reasons include lack of fan support and/or a racist connotation.
  3. The on-field mascot, meaning the human in costume, might change more often than the mascot itself. Two examples: 1 – Ole Miss is officially the Rebels, but their on-field mascot of Colonel Reb was offensive in his design because he looked like a Civil War Confederate. They have changed their on-field mascot a couple of times in the last few years trying to find something that both resonates with the fan base and is less controversial. 2 – At Stanford, each year the students get to redesign the Cardinal (the tree) on-field mascot to their liking. The school has not had an official mascot since 1972 when they voted to stop being the “Indians” out of respect for cultural issues. The school is simply represented by cardinal (the color).
  4. Sometimes schools don’t actually pick their own mascots. A single line from a sports reporter can sometimes stick. Such is the case for my own Mississippi State Bulldogs. Originally Mississippi A&M, the university was first called the Maroons for the color of their uniforms, and then the Aggies because it has a large agricultural school. But in 1905 a sports reporter wrote about the tireless efforts of our “bulldog defense” and the name stuck. And now Bully is a treasured member of the MSU family. In fact, when the first Bully (Bully I) died, his funeral procession was a half-mile long and included the Famous Maroon Band and three ROTC battalions. He was buried under the bench at the fifty-yard line of the football field. The funeral was covered by LIFE magazine.

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    There have now been twenty-one dogs who have played the role of  Bully. 
  5. And sometimes a school can end up with more than one mascot when nicknames or images stick. The University of Alabama earned the official nickname of the Crimson Tide when a reporter in 1907 described how the offense, in their deep red jerseys, rolled down the field like a crimson tide. However, on the sidelines today, and on their logo, you will also see an elephant named Big Al. This stems from another incident in which the Offensive-line was said to be like a herd of elephants as they stampeded over their opponent (in this particular case it was Ole Miss and has led to a rivalry across state lines between the schools).
  6. The mascot and the battle cry are also different. Auburn University is a good example of this. Auburn’s mascot is a tiger named Aubie. However, many people confuse their battle cry-“War Eagle”-with their mascot. The battle cry is separate and there are many different stories about its origin, but the most popular is from a game against Georgia in which an Eagle that had been found wounded on a Civil War battlefield and restored to health escaped its caretaker and swooped over the team. The fans began pointing and calling out “War Eagle” after which the Tigers won the game. The battle cry remains popular to this day.
  7. Not every team at a school shares the same mascot. Long Beach State is officially known as the 49ers. However, their baseball team is the Long Beach State Dirtbags. Why? Because in 1989 their sub-par baseball team got a new coach who would make them practice on a local all-dirt field that was nicknamed “Dirtbag Field”. They practiced extra hours and ended up with a berth in the College World Series. The nickname is meant to represent the scrappy effort of the team in those days and is proudly claimed today by the baseball team, but no other team at Long Beach State.
  8. Sometimes a mascot is about owning and reclaiming a disparaging nickname. Teams at Delta State University in Mississippi, for instance, were officially the Statesmen while being mocked by those around them as “The Fighting Okra” because of their location in a heavily agricultural area, among other things. Today, you can find Fighting Okra merchandise at Delta State because they have decided to bear the name with pride.
  9. Mascots don’t have to be real things. For instance, there is no such thing as a Nittany Lion. Penn State made it up. And they aren’t alone. Virginia Tech uses “Hokies” as their mascot. It stems from a filler word in a school cheer from 1899 because they decided they didn’t want to be “The Gobblers” anymore. It doesn’t stop either fan base from loving their school.
  10. When a team has an on-field mascot (not all of them do), that mascot is often portrayed by more than one person. It’s often a small team of three or four people and each of them has to try-out with a routine before earning a spot on the team. This is, of course, not true at every school, but for many of them. A lot of the costumes get very hot and cannot be worn by a single person for the duration of a football game without risk of overheating.

Part of me really wants to keep going, but this is only a “10 Things” post and my geek is showing. So that’s it for this month, but I’ll be back with more trivia in October!

Better Than Champions

On Sunday evening the Mississippi State University Women’s Basketball team played in the National Championship game. They lost on a heartbreaking shot in the last three seconds. I won’t comment on the officiating, though I want to. As a Bulldog fan, I have loved watching our team play. They work hard and watching them on the court is a beautiful thing.

Off the court, they’re still amazing. Our starting five included the Homecoming Queen, one of the tallest players in college basketball, one of the shortest, the coach’s daughter, and a single mother. They’ve each faced hardships beyond trying to balance getting a college education while busting it to make every practice, every game, every moment count on the court. Together, they are a national story because of their teamwork. Off the court, they’re just as awe-inspiring.

Victoria Vivians is the MSU Homecoming Queen from a tiny interstate town. She wrote an article last year for The Players’ Tribune in which she admitted to being incredibly shy. Being recruited for college athletics, playing on the national stage, and this year being crowned student body royalty hasn’t been easy. Yet, she has handled it with strength, beauty, and grace.

Teaira McCowan is 6’7”. She is a beautiful and talented lady, but she has been open in interviews about not always being comfortable in her own skin. She was 6’4” in middle school. When her brothers would go play basketball outside, she would stay indoors and watch because she didn’t want to be ostracized for her size by other kids. She also talks about being bullied because other kids wouldn’t believe she was their age, believing instead that she had been held back several grades because of her height. McCowan could be a poster child for not letting the bullies get you down. Her teammates jokingly call her a diva, laughing along with her when she gets caught making faces or striking a pose behind them or her coaches during on-court interviews. Now, she’s not just comfortable in her own skin, she’s the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.

Morgan William, whose official height is listed at 5’5”, isn’t tall. When she told her father she wanted to play basketball, he didn’t sugar coat it for her about how hard it would be. But she didn’t give up, and neither did he. William’s father would start her day with extra practices at dawn. Drills, sprints, grueling work. It paid off when she was recruited to play for MSU, but it was a payoff that her father would never see. William unexpectedly lost her father during her senior year of high school. She had to take the court in college knowing her father would never be in the crowd, but she carried him with her anyway. Now, she has played in the national title game twice. And has dedicated a legendary Final Four buzzer beater shot to her dad’s memory.

Blair Schaefer is the daughter of head coach Vic Schaefer. Her father has been voted Coach of the Year by the WBCA. That’s a lot to live up to. And it hasn’t always been easy. As an underclassman, she thought seriously about transferring. She wasn’t getting the playing time she wanted, despite her numbers. Coach Schaefer told her she needed to come to his office just like any other player. He separated his role as her coach from his role as her father. No special treatment. Which is what Blair had to remember as she sat in his office and listened to her coach, her father, tell her that she had work to do. He cited her turnover rate, among other things, as reasons she wasn’t getting the playing time she wanted. It lit a fire under Blair. She took a break after the season was over and came back ready to play. Since that moment, Blair has busted her tail and worked her way into the starting five. Off the court, she scored an internship with Entertainment Tonight last summer. Her teammates have witnessed her work ethic first hand and have no doubt about her chances of success. The team says they can’t wait to see her on camera in the future. Her dad might be her coach, but Blair is a stand-out all on her own.

Roshunda Johnson is more than a college athlete. She’s a mom. Her son, Malaki, turned two last week. It’s a struggle and Johnson has said it isn’t always easy, but she has the support of her family and her son’s father. Stil, there are times, especially when she is traveling for games that she only gets to talk to her son on the phone while he stays with his grandmother. An article from earlier this month in the Clarion-Ledger, the leading newspaper in Mississippi, quoted both Johnson and her son’s father when talking about how difficult it has been to come back to basketball. She’s dealt with pain, both physical and emotional, but that hasn’t kept her from success both in the classroom and on the court.

Each of these women has dealt with their own share of obstacles and struggles. They lost the national championship, but every one of them is a winner. More than that, each one of them is a role model for what determination and hard work can do.

So when or if you see Mississippi State fans, like me, wishing our seniors well and giving the team our support and respect even after coming in second, you know why. Trophy or not, these women are champions. We’ll see them as nothing less. The cry of my alma mater is Hail State. It’s a simple phrase, but it can serve as a greeting, a salutation, a cheer, or that thing to say among ourselves when nothing else seems quite right. Our five starters–four seniors and a junior–have bright futures ahead, but they let us be a part of their journey and it has been awesome. To each of them, I say thank you and Hail State.