The Stanford Tree
Never has a single tree managed to get itself into so much trouble as has the Stanford Tree. Though the mascot for the prestigious research university is embodied both by a different student and a new design every single year, it always manages to look like somebody who got kicked out of a Christmas pageant for swearing around the children.
Indeed, the Stanford Tree has been the source of some controversy over the years, if only for the fact that it routinely finds itself ranked highly on lists of both the best and worst mascots in the business. Suffice it to say that affections for the Stanford Tree are sharply divided.
Like many mascots on this list, the Tree owes its initiation to growing sensitivity over derogatory characterization of Native Americans in college sports. Stanford discontinued its use of the Stanford Indians nickname under the pressure of student protest in 1972. This same year saw the retirement of associated mascot, Prince Lightfoot.
For the next decade, the red-clad Stanford athletes were simply referred to as Cardinal (in reference to the color, as opposed to the bird). This left the team with no mascot (though in retrospect, nobody would have faulted them for simply going with a cardinal [the bird, not the color]).
Indeed, it was this power vacuum that paved way for the rise of the unassuming tree. In 1975, the school’s marching band openly mocked its university’s failure to select a replacement mascot by auditioning a few of its own, including a French Fry, a steaming manhole, and the very first Tree. Among them, only the Tree generated a true following within the student body. Through a series of subsequent appearances, the Northern California fir gradually rose to popularity. Soon thereafter, the right to design and wear the costume became the object of strenuously fought and occasionally dangerous on-campus competitions.
These competitions might be seen as training for the role. Indeed, volunteering to become the Tree comes with a guarantee that students from Stanford’s arch-rival University of California, Berkeley will occasionally administer a beating. Both the Tree and Cal’s mascot, Oski the Bear, have engaged in frequent altercations with one another. This is largely considered part of the Tree’s job description.
In spite of the Stanford Tree’s four-decade reign at the University, he has yet to earn official recognition by college brass. Neither this, nor the fact that the tree is generally horrible to look at, have prevented it from becoming a beloved institution among both students and alumni.
Peter the Anteater
Peter the Anteater is tough to categorize. He’s definitely funny. But if we had a category for terrifying, he’d be in that one too. This guy is the stuff of childhood theme-park nightmares. When you think about it, anteaters are already a little creepy looking. Make one of those things walk erect at seven-feet tall in basketball shorts and you’re looking at pure pulp horror.
Peter goes back to 1965, when a student vote made the eccentric creature the face of its organization. Inspired by the characters that populated Johnny Hart’s long-running B.C. comic strip, Peter the Anteater is famed for his battle cry. Students and alumni will traditionally join Peter in declaring “Zot!” during sporting events, because, y’know, that’s probably what anteaters would yell if they played sports.
Through much of his early life, the fuzzy and be-snouted Peter was a benign aardvark. Evidence suggests that the once-slender mammal had let himself go quite a bit by the mid-‘80s. The fairly plump incarnation of Peter the Anteater that rallied crowds in 1985 might have made a perfect stand-in for Sesame Street’s Snuffaluffagus.
Fortunately for his longterm health, Pete’s been in the gym a whole lot more in recent years. The lean, muscle-bound mammal is quite the intimidating presence whether on the hardwood or the football field. Don’t let Peter get in your head though. One look at his funky dance moves and you can see that he’s more Michael Jackson than Mike Tyson.
The Fighting Okra
Delta State University
The official mascot of Delta State University is technically a guy known as the Statesman. Though, as statesmen go, this one looks like he fell off a St. Patty’s Day float while contending with a severe case of elephantiasis. Despite the fact that he’s been serving the school for decades, the Statesman never quite captured the spirit or imagination of this Mississippi school’s student body.
It was thus that the students and athletes at this Division II university took matters into their own hands some time in the late 1980s. Seeking a more fearsome mascot to represent their small but excellent athletics programs, members of the school’s baseball and basketball teams kicked around ideas under the stipulation that the new guy be both mean and green.
So of course, they did the only logical thing that one could do. They dressed somebody up as a giant okra.
The Delta State Fighting Okra is, in fact, decidedly more intimidating than the Statesman. Baring a constant tooth-gritting snarl and a pair of junior flyweight boxing gloves, this flowering fruit (I know, I thought it was a vegetable too) is quite the prankster. While the Statesman provides a more traditional approach to supporting Delta U’s athletes, the Fighting Okra is known for somewhat perverse motivational tactics like improving the swim team’s relay speed by training with live alligators.
Though the Fighting Okra is clearly hilarious and absurdly brilliant, he is a point of contention for the university. Whereas the student body voted the okra as their official unofficial mascot in the mid-90s, older alumni often bristle at his silliness. With all due respect, that’s crazy. The Fighting Okra is a mad genius.
Rufus the Bobcat
On the surface, there’s nothing particularly off-the-wall about Rufus. In fact, as a Bobcat, he’s part of a pretty long and uninteresting history of big cat-themed mascots. However, Rufus stands out for being a pretty eccentric cat.
We’ll get to this bobcat’s spotted past in a minute. But first, a little on its history. Way back in 1925, Ohio University’s players were unofficially referred to as “The Nameless Wonders,” which one imagines did not do much for team morale. It was thus that, by way of a meeting of the Ohio Athletic Board, the name Bobcats was selected in tribute to the natural heritage of the surrounding Appalachia.
1960 marked the very first game time appearance of a student dressed as a Bobcat. The team would go on to enjoy an undefeated season, earning the NCAA’s National College Division Championship. Obviously, this meant that the bobcat was a permanent fixture from then on. Still, like the team, the bobcat would spend its first several decades without a name.
In 2006, the name Rufus was selected from a bevy of student submissions. Along with the new name, Rufus got a tougher image. Old photos reveal a somewhat sleepy looking cat likely more content curled up on an old afghan than prowling the sidelines. By contrast, Rufus looks like he’s had way too much coffee.
Rufus established his bad boy image by roaring into his inaugural appearance atop a Harley Davidson motorcycle and reinforced it by savagely assaulting The Ohio State’s goodnatured Brutus the Buckeye.
As the team took the field for a September 18th contest against the Ohio State Buckeyes, Rufus turned his fury on the poor nut. Barreling into Brutus, then grabbing him from behind and beating him about the head and back, Rufus had to be restrained by security.
The offending Rufus—one Brandon Hanning—revealed that this had been his master plan from the start, that he had dedicated a year to service as the bobcat in the interest of ultimately confronting Brutus. Though Hanning was terminated, the long con had paid off.
Since then, Rufus has reformed his ways and is a positively contributing member of society, earning distinction for his work opposing bobcat hunting and endangerment.
Keggy the Keg
In addition to its vaunted academic reputation, this Ivy League community also enjoys considerable prestige in the world of recreational drinking. The capacity of its students for high-volume consumption is the stuff of legend. To say that this is a point of pride for the Dartmouth community seems an understatement when one considers their mascot.
The imaginatively named Keggy the Keg is precisely what you’d hope. It’s a guy (whom we presume is in some state of intoxication), dressed in an empty keg with googly eyes and a pair of gloves that he almost certainly stole from Mickey Mouse’s locker. Though Keggy is just a shade older than a decade (which places him well below the legal drinking age), the path toward his creation was paved in 1971.
It was in this year that the campus recognized the racial insensitivity of its Indian mascot and removed him from his post. Nothing was placed in his stead until 2003, when the Dartmouth Student Assembly conducted a student poll in search of a new icon. Though an anthropomorphic moose placed first in the vote, there was no clear student favorite. Writers at the school’s Jack-O-Lantern humor magazine stepped heroically into the lurch and offered a mascot that they felt could be at once race- and gender-sensitive but still “unacceptable” enough to properly represent the student body.
Keggy proved wildly popular among the school’s students, who identified closely with his irrepressible and fun-loving disposition. Though an unofficial mascot for the New Hampshire institution—and one who has occasionally been denied entrance into major sporting events—Keggy has received an official endorsement from the Student Assembly and has been referred to by the Dean of the College as an “imaginative and creative idea.”
Texas Christian University
So you’re probably thinking that the TCU Super Frog got his start as an end-of-level bad guy in a Sonic the Hedgehog video game. In fact, this pixelated amphibian has been with the university for quite some time. The school’s 18 varsity teams are known as the Horned Frogs. The most famous of Horned Frogs made his debut on the cover of the school’s very first yearbook way back in 1897.
So in spite of the fact that this guy looks like he stepped straight out of mid-‘90s after-school television programming, he was already a century old by the time Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers was even a thing. It was just after World War II that he made the leap from the TCU seal onto the field. The original costumed mascot was known as Addie the All-American Frog and sported a truly haunting papier-mâché head that was clearly surplus from a recent Chinese New Year Celebration.
Starting in 1949, Addie inspired the Horned Frogs to victory and probably moved more than a few young children to hysterics. In 1977, Addie met the ignoble demise preserved for the least fortunate of mascots. During an overzealous victory celebration, a football player from the visiting Southern Methodist University put a cleat through poor Addie’s face.
It was no accident then, that in 1979, the new, improved and borderline extra-terrestrial Super Frog made his triumphant debut against SMU.
Well, the Frog was triumphant but TCU lost. Considering this was one of 15 consecutive defeats at the hands of their arch-rival, Super Frog could hardly be blamed.
Over the ensuing years, Super Frog has evolved with the fashion, moving from the bulkier form popular in the ’80s heyday of steroids and Arnold Schwarzenegger to the leaner, low-carb inspired look of today.
St. Louis University
Ok. So at first glance, this mascot looks a bit like a vampire bat with mild digestive issues. But he represents the lovable and ebullient spirit of the mythical Billiken, a monkish pot-bellied fella who is said to bring hope and good fortune wherever he goes. The first known Billiken was in fact a briefly popular household kitsch item in the early 1900s.
Its designer, a Missouri art teacher named Florence Pretz, envisioned the smiling and cherubic gnome as a symbol of luck and good cheer. Indeed, well before prowling the sidelines at SLU, the Billiken’s visage graced everything from dolls and belt buckles to candies and hood ornaments.
Its association with St. Louis University began with the man who assumed head coaching duties for the school’s football team in 1910. Though variations exist on who first noted the association, most versions suggest that an individual who frequented the same drugstore as Coach John Bender observed his resemblance to the Billiken.
Whether Bender was flattered by the observation is not known, but what is known is that his team soon came to be called Bender’s Billikens. Information is actually somewhat scarce on the timeline by which the chubby Billiken transformed into the gaunt Nosferatu-inspired creature that roams SLU’s basketball courts today.
Some sources suggest that earlier incarnations of the Billiken mascot more closely resembled the full-figured character of yore. Today, the SLU mascot is lean, stark and possessed of a passing similarity to Kevin Bacon.
If creepy was a category in our countdown, that’s where the Providence College Friar would go. But since it’s not, let’s just call this guy ludicrous.
Students at Providence College have competed under the Friars nickname just about since the school’s founding in 1917. Earliest reports on their sporting tradition tell that their first mascot was a live Dalmatian named Friar-of-What-Ho (because that’s how people spoke back then). What-Ho made his first appearance at a game in 1935 and quickly became adored among the student body. He was the first of four subsequent Dalmatians (known as Friar Boys I through IV) to serve the venerable post.
In 1963, with the widely mourned passing of Friar Boy IV, a new figure was introduced on the sidelines. This first incarnation of the Friar was a jovial, round-bellied padre closely resembling the mirthful Friar Tuck of Robin Hood legend. The original Friar may have been more lovable but he’s got nothing on the new guy for skills.
Some time in the early 2000s, Providence undertook a major redesign and introduced Friar Dom. Borrowing his look from some of history’s best known cult leaders, Dom became the living embodiment of holy terror. Behold, this gape-mouthed nightmare swishing a basketball from half-court.
Decked in a flowing white robe and a disarmingly wide-eyed smile, Friar Dom haunts the dreams of both opposing players and young children alike.
University of Louisiana at Lafayette
The official unofficial mascot for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette is what I imagine prop comic Carrot Top would look like with a really bad sunburn. Cayenne is, in fact, a walking hot pepper capable of making wardrobe changes depending on the sporting event at hand. Easily one of the most unique faces in collegiate mascotting, and also probably one of the easiest figures to spot from an overhead blimp, this fire-engine red piper is said to embody the Arcadian culture of this bayou region.
Indeed, Cayenne is a far more relevant staple at Louisiana games than was its original mascot, a fairly pedestrian bulldog. Starting in 1901 and extending for the first 50 years of its athletics program’s existence, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette competed under this spirit animal. It wasn’t until 1963 that the school finally nodded in the direction of its geographical heritage. The team transformed from Bulldogs to Ragin’ Cajuns. Over the next decade, the characterization caught on. By 1974, the nickname had become official.
While the moniker caught on in a big way, the path to Cayenne was not as straightforward. Indeed, the ensuing decades saw various attempts at embodying the spirit of the Ragin’ Cajun with mixed results. Most attempts were in an animated or illustrated medium, rarely making the leap to the field of play. Predecessors which found themselves on the jambalaya scrap heap include Mr. Cajun and the Fabulous Cajun Chicken.
Finally, in 2000, somebody had the brilliant idea of injecting a hot pepper with human growth hormones and slapping it into a football uniform. In a lot of ways, Cayenne is still playing catch-up with the once wildly popular Fabulous Cajun Chicken. Still, over the last 15 years, Cayenne has succeeded in carving out his own sphere of considerable influence at the university.
Speedy the Geoduck
If you were to read about it on the school’s own website, Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington actually seems quite pleased about the fact that its mascot is frequently cited as among the very worst in all of sports. For a school that averages fewer than 200 spectators at its men’s basketball games, one presumes that Speedy is the athletics program’s greatest claim to fame.
The school’s greatest overall claim to fame is alumnus and Simpsons creator, Matt Groening. Perhaps it’s appropriate that the school which produced one of the great absurdists of our time also created what is probably the most absurd mascot in college sports.
First, you should know that the Geoduck is neither a low-budget vehicle popular in the ‘80s nor a water fowl. It is one of the world’s largest clams, so large in fact that this well-endowed creature can extend its protuberance more than a foot from its shell. Second, you should know that the word is pronounced “Gooey-Duck.” Finally, it is worth noting that the oldest reported geoduck on zoological record lived to be 168 years old!
Speedy Q. Geoduck is on the younger side relatively speaking. History on the evolution of this clam is somewhat scarce but his ill-fitting shiny green and gold costume has a distinct do-it-yourself-fabric-store charm. Evidence suggests that Speedy goes back to the school’s earliest days. Founded in 1967 with a unique disposition toward nurturing (as opposed to competition), the steady, slow, but sure survival of the hearty Geoduck seemed a perfect representation for the school’s eccentric student body.
Today, Geoduck stands as a firm reminder that when it comes to designing a school mascot, there really are no rules.