Smells Like Team Spirit? The Ten Worst College Mascots
by Annie Tucker Morgan
College sports are meant to connote seas of color-coordinated outfits, rowdy fight songs, and heartwarming school spirit. But when your athletic department’s mascot is a slug, a covered wagon, or a vegetable, it can be tough to conjure up the outpouring of pride needed to rouse teams to victory. Guess that explains all the sloppy underage drinking that goes on at these schools’ games.
Banana Slugs: University of California, Santa Cruz
If you’ve ever happened upon a banana slug sliming its way across the forest floor, you know that this bright yellow, shell-less mollusk is just about the most unthreatening creature imaginable. And that’s just how the UCSC student body likes it—according to the school’s official website, “The students’ embrace of such a lowly creature was their response to the fierce athletic competition fostered at most American universities.” Even when some teams petitioned for a new mascot in 1980—a sea lion—the majority of students continued to back the slug. Hippies.
Mule Riders: Southern Arkansas University
The SAU mascot is a man in Wild West garb riding a mule—a bit more “I’m trekking through the Grand Canyon” than “We’re gonna kick your butts in this football game.” The icon reflects a long-standing Southern rural tradition: in the early twentieth century, young men often favored mules as a reliable mode of transportation. One day in 1912, four football players rode these animals to a dinner at their coach’s home. As they entered his yard, he called out, “My mule riders!” And thus was born this school’s now-antiquated team name.
Orange: Syracuse University
When your school color is orange, what do you do? You dress a guy up in a fuzzy fruit suit, natch. In 1980, following years of discussions about what Syracuse University’s official mascot should be, a male cheerleader (ahem) designed the first costume for a proposed “orange with appeal”; over the next decade, several successive versions were introduced. In 1990, following a no-doubt intense and compelling debate among Syracuse cheerleaders at a summer cheerleading camp about what to call the mascot, the name Otto came into use. Otto the Orange remained the school’s unofficial mascot until 1995, when Syracuse students organized a successful campaign to legitimize his role as the representative of all Syracuse athletic teams. When life gives you lemons, make oranges.
Buckeyes: Ohio State University
Just because the Ohio State Buckeyes’ mascot has a relatively manly name (Brutus) doesn’t hide the fact that this school couldn’t come up with anything better than a nut—the buckeye is Ohio’s state tree—as the official face of its sports teams. Technically a member of the cheerleading team, Brutus Buckeye has appeared at OSU games since 1965, wearing a fiberglass shell fashioned after the buckeye nut over his head, as well as red pants, a red-and-gray shirt featuring his name and the number 0, knee-high white socks, and black shoes. In other words, kind of like your little brother after he got stuck in part of his Halloween costume.
Cornhuskers: University of Nebraska
The Cornhusker Athletic Department looks at its mascot, Herbie Husker, and sees “a burly, rugged, and confident fellow who is proud of both the athletic and the agricultural traditions of the University of Nebraska.” Outsiders see a human inside another “human,” whose butt chin, gaping grin, and dilated pupils aren’t so much “confident” as they are evocative of a jock who’s taken too many steroids and decided to dress up like a cowboy.
And yet, against all odds, he was named the national mascot of the year in 2006. He must have bribed the judges.
Sooners: University of Oklahoma
In the ninety-some years between the late nineteenth century, when the first settlers arrived in Oklahoma, and 1980, when the University of Oklahoma selected its official mascot, many exciting developments occurred in the transportation industry, particularly the proliferation of automobiles and airplanes. Yet the school chose to ignore all those advancements and, instead of choosing, say, a Ferrari to tear across its football field at home games, decided upon the Sooner Schooner, a covered wagon that harks back to the state’s early settlers. Amid clashing helmets and 250-pound men knocking each other to the ground, two prancing white ponies named Boomer and Sooner guide this adorable vessel around the stadium. Only if OU had substituted unicorns for horses would this mascot be more menacing.
Zips: University of Akron
In 1925, a University of Akron freshman named Margaret Hamlin won a contest intended to designate a nickname for the school’s athletic teams with her suggestion of Zippers, a brand name for rubber overshoes sold by the B.F. Goodrich Company. (Twenty-five years later, the athletic director shortened the moniker to Zips.) Then, to make matters even murkier, the school announced in 1953 that its official mascot would be a kangaroo named Zippy, declaring it “an animal that is fast, agile, and powerful, with undying determination—all the necessary qualities of an athlete”—but only if he wears rain shoes to games, of course.
Fighting Okra: Delta State University
This character is the brainchild of a basketball player and a baseball player, stemming from a discussion in which the former stated that DSU’s mascot should be “mean and green” and the latter proposed okra as fitting the bill. The mascot appeared on the “Okraphobia” episode of the Food Network show Good Eats, is never seen without boxing gloves on, and wears an angry expression, but none of these details detracts from the fact that Delta State University’s Fighting Okra mascot is nothing more than a slimy and largely derided vegetable.
Geoducks: Evergreen State College
A giant, long-necked clam found only in the Puget Sound and into the Strait of Georgia, the three-pound geoduck can burrow three feet deep into the sand. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hide for Evergreen State College sporting events—no, it runs all over the field barefoot, wearing shorts, a bizarre green satin head out of which it may or may not be able to see, and an oversize silver shell. And that’s not all—it sings, too! Sample lyrics of its theme song include: “Siphon high, squirt it out, swivel all about, let it all hang out.” Al Wiedemann, the man who in 1971 convinced the college to make the geoduck its official mascot, must have had his head buried in the sand, too, when he came up with this kooky scheme.
The Tree: Stanford University
The name of Stanford’s athletic teams isn’t actually the Trees; it’s the Cardinal. And a Cardinal isn’t actually a bird; it’s a particular shade of red. It might be lauded as one of the country’s best universities, but Stanford sure is confused when it comes to sports. The Tree came to be in 1975, when students were tasked with choosing the school’s new mascot. During that time, the Stanford band incorporated several prospective mascots into its halftime shows; the Tree was such a hit among sports fans that the band decided to make it a featured performer at the majority of subsequent sporting events. Despite its popularity on campus, the Tree has become synonymous with bad behavior: a female student wearing the costume failed a Breathalyzer test and was suspended from duty, and other iterations of the Tree have gotten into fist fights while on the job. So much for team leadership.