Hold That Lion

The stories behind Louisiana"s University Mascots

photographs courtesy of universities

They come in assorted shapes, sizes and colors, the final products of their creators’ imagination.
They are the mascots.

As part of the autumn’s weekend sports spectacle known as college football, mascots are part of the sideline pageantry that blends in with the atmosphere and excitement of the game itself. These “Muppets” have the vitality of cheerleaders and are as essential to the fans as the dance teams and marching bands.

A professionally made mascot costume costs between $900 and $1,200. The head is, of course, detachable, and the hands are made in a glove style to overlap the suit’s sleeves. Suits are made with the comfort of the wearer in mind, especially in the cases of those who incorporate acrobatics into their skits.

Men and women who wear the mascot costumes are carefully selected. Although they may appear to be little more than big, weird-looking animals cavorting around looking silly, they are there for the crowd’s amusement. And they have fans just like the teams they represent.

Louisiana has its share of costumed characters and live animals that give the athletic teams their identity. But who are these mirthful creatures?

LSU Fighting Tigers (aka Bayou Bengals)

Name: Mike

Origin: When LSU met Tulane in its very first football game in 1893, this Baton Rouge-based military seminary was without a nickname, though, according to researcher Marty Mule, the New Orleans newspapers referred to the team as “the Baton Rouge boys.” Three years later, the team adopted a greyhound named Drum to share mascot duties with a pelican. A more demonstrative nickname was needed as the team became more successful. A new mascot was chosen, drawn from the Civil War fame of two Louisiana Confederate brigades consisting of New Orleans Zouaves and Donaldsonville Cannoneers dubbed the “fighting band of Louisiana tigers” by other Southern troops because of the fighting spirit displayed at the Battle of Shenandoah.  LSU’s nickname became more closely matched with the state’s military heritage in 1955 when it evolved into the “Fighting Tigers.”

At the Game: The university acquired its first live mascot in 1924 when an alumnus donated a cub named Little-Eat-’Em-Up. The original Mike came to the school in 1956. His ride through the stadium before home games in a mobile cage became a football tradition –– that is, until the animal protection agency, PETA, strongly urged the university to “retire” Mike to a permanent on-campus habitat and replace him with a student dressed in a tiger costume. Since 2005, a student dressed as the striped carnivore has served as Mike VI’s sideline surrogate –– although the actual Mike still makes the occasional cameo.

Tulane Green Wave/Pelican

Name: Riptide

Origin: This unique team name, the Green Wave, came almost as an accident. Although Tulane began playing intercollegiate football in 1893, from that time to 1919, the school’s athletic teams were known as “the Olive and Blue.” In 1919, the Tulane Weekly campus newspaper began referring to the football team as “the Greenbacks.”

But for more than 50 years, the alternative name “Green Wave” was symbolized by a logo of a pelican riding a surfboard. Then in 1955, local cartoonist John Chase, who drew covers for the Tulane football programs, created a little man wearing a top hat and named him Greenie. When Rix Yard became the athletics director in 1963, he felt Tulane needed a tougher symbol for its teams. Working with the manager of the Tulane bookstore, he arranged for a new mascot to be created. Several sketches were submitted, and the angry-looking wave was adopted in 1964.

The block “T” with waves became the Tulane athletics logo in 1986. Today, the logos feature a “T” with a modern wave as a primary mark. A new pelican mascot was introduced and given the name Riptide by a vote of Tulane students.

At the Game: Over the past 25 years, Tulane mascots have been depicted by a life-size sea god in the image of Proteus, complete with a triton, and in the image of the tough wave, unofficially known as Gumby, until the pelican riding a surfboard was re-introduced in 1998.

Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns

Name: Ragin’ Cajun

Origin: Legendary football coach Russ Faulkinberry, not particularly fond of the original Bulldog mascot, heard the words “ragin’ Cajuns” while speaking to a Lafayette Kiwanis Club. He instantly latched on to the moniker and instructed the school’s sports information director, Bob Henderson, to refer to his Southwestern Louisiana football team by the name. It made sense; 42 of his team’s 45 players came from areas within driving distance where English was considered a second language. All of Henderson’s press releases dropped the name Bulldog. Soon, the local newspaper, radio and television shows referred to USL as the Ragin’ Cajuns, which was made the official nickname for all athletic teams in the mid-1970s.

At the Game: The university tried unsuccessfully to depict a Cajun as a mascot. “How do you dress someone up as a Cajun?” asks former sports information director Dan McDonald. “You could bring someone out with six teeth and wearing an old ugly hat, but that would be degrading to the heritage of the Cajun people.” Even today, ULL fans have not endeared themselves to a mascot running around in a hot pepper costume. The best mascot was purely unofficial. Area oil rig designer Russell Heim purchased an old chicken suit at a costume shop and capitalized on the national popularity of the San Diego Chicken character by performing his own skits at the games.

As “the Cajun Chicken,” Heim’s skits included dressing as Michael Jackson and dancing to “Beat It” and scaring fans with a plastic spider at the end of a fishing rod –– and got more bizarre on one occasion when he danced with a female blowup doll. “He was wildly popular with the fans and kids,” McDonald says. “No one knew what Russell looked like, but he was one of the most famous guys in town.”

Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

Name: Tech XX

Origin: Ruston legend has it that the mascot was chosen because of a chance encounter between a stray, hungry bulldog and five Tech students on their way home in 1899. The dog was sitting under a tree on the edge of the campus. After the students fed the homeless animal, it followed them back to the house they occupied. That night, a fire broke out in the house. The barking bulldog ran from room to room, waking all the students but one. Before they discovered one was missing, the dog ran back into the smoke-filled house. But the missing student had escaped through the back door. Its attempt to save the remaining student cost the dog its life. After the fire had been extinguished, the students found the dog’s body, covered it in one blue and one red jacket and buried their hero near the spot where they had found it. The story spread, and when Louisiana Tech fielded its first football team in 1901, it honored the little bulldog by adopting the name as its mascot.

At the Game: Today the athletic teams wear the colors blue and red in recognition of the dog. By a unanimous vote of the student body, the first mascot was named simply Tech. When the Bulldogs play their first football game in 2010, Tech XX will patrol the sidelines for the third season. Tech XX was four months old when he made his debut. He was purchased from a Missouri breeder through a local pet store. He resides at the home of a Ruston veterinarian, Patrick Sexton.

Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks

Name: Ace

Origin: For 75 years, the university carried the nickname “Indians” in recognition of the university’s legendary football coach Jim Malone, who was part American Indian, and of the Ouachita tribe that inhabited that quadrant of Northeast Louisiana. The mascot carried the proud name of Chief Brave Spirit. But as the tribe faded into history over time, so did the mascot; it was retired under the threat of NCAA sanctions in 2006.  Considered “abusive and offensive,” the Indian mascots affiliated with 16 other colleges came under the threat of NCAA fines and penalties.

Like the others, Louisiana Monroe accepted the NCAA mandate to rename its mascot under pressure. The exception was Florida State, whose nickname “Seminole” was spared through arbitration. But that came a few days after the Monroe university’s board had unanimously voted to make the change. An online poll available to students, donors, faculty, alumni and the public produced three semifinalists: Bayou Gators, Bayou Hawks and Warhawks. The selection committee chose Warhawks in honor of Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault, who was born in Texas but reared in Waterproof, La. Chennault commanded the American Volunteer Group of pilots whose Curtiss P-40 fighter planes were dubbed Warhawks. But the group, which protected Chinese interests against invading Japan prior to the start of World War II, became better known as “the Flying Tigers.”

At the Game: Before the name change, the Indian mascot enjoyed a colorful history. Most remember a rare 1992 fistfight with his demon counterpart at Northwestern (Louisiana) State in Natchitoches. During an interaction between the two mascots, an altercation broke out. As television cameras rolled, Chief Brave Spirit ripped Vic the Demon’s head off, and the two crashed to the ground behind the end zone. Security police quickly ended the melee with both mascots claiming victory. After being called on the carpet, the two made up and shook hands, and a year later when the rival football teams met again, the NSU band played the Rocky theme song as the cheerleaders from the two schools presented each mascot. But footage of the brawl was widely broadcast around the U.S. and appears on blooper shows to this day.

Northwestern State Demons

Name: Vic

Origin: In 1923, when the university was Louisiana Normal College, devoted to training educators, the school’s president and coach offered a $10 prize to students who participated in a contest to give the school a nickname and mascot. Among the unusual suggestions were Gridiron Knights, Groundhogs, Cyclops, Professors, Boosters and Royalists. Two stood out to a committee for voting: Braves and Demons. The students chose the latter. The name Vic is short for Victory.

At the Game: Boasting the devilish mascot uniform and sporting the slogan “Fork ‘Em” (much like Texas’ “Hook ‘Em Horns” gesture), Vic the Demon is a fixture at all NSU sporting events. In 2006, his alter ego, David Ammons, 22, a senior graphic design major, was injured during the first half of Northwestern State’s game against Southeastern Louisiana. He was lying on his stomach on the floor near the NSU pep band, doing a stunt. One of the pep band members, who often teamed up with Vic during the games, ran over and appeared to fall on him as an impromptu part of the skit –– and then Ammons didn’t get up. Fearing a spinal injury, medics took Ammons to a local hospital where he was later released with no serious injury.


McNeese State Cowboys

Name: Rowdy

Origin: The university’s namesake, John McNeese, was a successful cattle grazer and mercantile businessman. In 1873, he ended up in Imperial Calcasieu when he decided to end his cattle drive to New Orleans via the Old Spanish Trail at the Sabine and sell his cattle, which were starving due to the drought. Lake Charles Junior College was named for McNeese when it became an accredited university in 1950. The first mascot of McNeese was a palomino pony named Mac secured for the student body by the Rally Ranglers. After Mac’s demise, several other ponies took his place. The basketball team chose the cowboy as the mascot in the mid- 1940s due to the popularity of rodeos and the fact that the McNeese campus was formerly a farm. Later, the school mascot was a student dressed in cowboy gear riding a horse.  In 1982, Rowdy was born. 

At the Game: The Rowdy costume consists of an oversize, full-length cowboy costume with a large hat and exaggerated features. The costume includes an ice-pack vest and a fan in the top of the hat for ventilation. Rowdy was named after Clint Eastwood’s character on the television show Rawhide. As the story goes, Rowdy was on a cattle drive out west when he stopped in Lake Charles and decided to stay. Rowdy likes to do back flips, crowd-surf and ride his trusty ice chest down the hill into the hole at football games.

Nicholls State Colonels

Name: Tillou

Origin: The first Nicholls State Junior College football team in 1950 called itself the Buccaneers. But when it became a four-year university in 1956, the students selected the name Colonels. The choice recognized the university’s ROTC program in which the highest rank a cadet could achieve was that of colonel. A year later, the school’s librarian designed a little colonel decal featuring “Col. Nick” and a uniform for a young boy to wear at the games. It was mistakenly thought of as a Confederate uniform because the university’s namesake was a brigadier general in the Confederate States Army before becoming Louisiana’s governor in 1876. During the early 1980s, the mascot was given the name Tillou, one of Nicholls’ middle names.

At the Game: In 2007, the administration put a new face on its venerable colonel mascot, whose previous depictions were retired in 2004 amid concerns they recalled a gray-uniformed Confederate officer and the Old South. Although met with criticism from those at the school and in the surrounding community who were in favor of preserving the original colonel mascot, the retirement of the mascot was considered vital to the public relations outlook of the university and its solidarity with the University of Louisiana System’s policy on discrimination.

Nicholls State President Stephen Hulbert banned the old colonel from the university and tasked student leaders with working on a suitable replacement. That process lasted six years. The new Col. Tillou was introduced to the campus community in August 2009, sporting a bright-red uniform topped off with a contemporary-style military officer’s cap.

Southeastern Louisiana Lions

Name: Roomie

Origin: As a Hammond junior college at the time, Southeastern adopted the team name Lions in 1931. The mascot was nameless until a local businessman and Southeastern fan donated a live lion in 1962 and needed a name for him. Suggestions narrowed down to Lobo and Grego. In a 1963 election, the students chose Lobo. According to the university brochures, this created an awkward situation: a lion given the Spanish name for wolf! But when beloved biology professor Hollis “Roomie” Wilson died in 1964, the mascot was given the name Roomie.

At the Game: From 1962 until his retirement, Roomie lived in a campus dwelling and presided over home football games in a mobile cage. The lion spent the off seasons in the Audubon Park Zoo until he died in 1975. He was replaced with a costumed student. When football was reinstated in 2004 after an 18-year hiatus, a tradition began at Strawberry Stadium of the new Roomie leading the players, coaches and the marching band through a stream of tailgating fans two hours before each home game.


Southern Jaguars

Name: Lacumba

Origin: The agricultural college, founded in New Orleans in 1880 and then moved to Baton Rouge by its president, Joseph S. Clark, in 1912, was originally known by the uncomplimentary nickname Bushmen. But by the early 1930s, the faculty changed the moniker to Jaguars.

At the Game: The university acquired a live jaguar in 1971 from funds collected at a fundraiser. The name Lacumba was chosen through a contest held exclusively for Southern students. The first feline mascot was retired to the Acadiana Zoo in Lafayette in 1991 and replaced by Lacumba II. A large comfortable habitat was built on campus for visitors to see the jaguar in her natural setting. A student outfitted in a Lacumba costume is her game day stand-in.

Grambling State Tigers

Name: Jacquard

Origin: Legend has it that the founders of the college, a majority coming from the Baton Rouge area, chose the team nickname to emulate LSU.

At the Game: Jacquard, a costumed student, patrols the sidelines and dances with the band.

Louisiana College Wildcats

Name: Alex

Origin: The nickname is attributed to the school’s first star athlete, athletic director and coach, Simon Tudor, a native of Georgetown, Ky., who was fond of the University of Kentucky’s wildcat mascot. Tudor gave the school its nickname in 1910 and chose blue from the Bluegrass state as one of its colors. The wildcat is also indigenous to the woods of Central Louisiana.

At the Game: At first a captured animal became Louisiana College’s symbol. “At one time we had a caged wildcat at our games,” recalls Billy Allgood, retired Hall of Fame coach and athletic director. “Later, it was replaced by a mounted wildcat donated by a local taxidermist.” Each year a male or female student is chosen to wear the wildcat costume. To be eligible, the student must maintain at least a 2.0 grade point average. Alex (short for Alexandria, the university’s neighboring city) leads the football team onto the field, waving a LC banner at all home games, and performs sideline antics. Coincidentally, a World War II Naval fighter ace named Alex Vraciu scored 19 kills against Japanese aircraft and vessels while flying an F4F Wildcat.

 

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