When you clicked this link, you thought you were getting a list of mascots. And that will come. But first, you get a coming-of-age tale. Paradise lost, innocence squandered, you get the picture.
While I was growing up, one of the two teams my family cheered for went through an identity crisis. From the mid-1960s through the mid-’80s, the Tulane Green Wave employed a sack-like creature called the Angry Wave to patrol its sidelines. The Angry Wave was, according to my father, Peak Mascot. But before I was born, he had been largely replaced, first by a Poseidon-like creature and then by a bizarre pelican whom students tried and failed to officially name “Pecker”. We called him that anyway, and my father continued to sport whatever off-brand angry wave merchandise he could find. Although that ferocious sack never patrolled the sidelines in my lifetime, I knew from a young age that this bizarre, agitated stream of water had just the kind of panache for which every mascot should strive.
I tell you this to explain what my mindset about mascots was when I began covering the NBA in 2011. I loved them. I found them endearing. I had no gripes with their existence at all. But that winter, the Minnesota Timberwolves hosted a “mascot birthday party” promotion, in which other teams’ mascots traveled to Minneapolis to celebrate during the halftime show. (By this, of course, I mean that other teams boxed up their spare costumes and FedExed them to the Target Center for a pack of reckless Minnesotans to don.) Anyway, as I was walking from the media room to the court that night, I was ambushed and cornered up against a wall while this demonic pack danced silently. At that point, at age 24, I lost my long-held innocence with respect to the terror that mascots can inspire. From that experience stems this list, which is largely arbitrary but loosely based on the two sentiments I feel most strongly toward mascots: Primal fear and an appreciation of absurdity.
(One note: This list only includes humans in mascot costumes, which excludes the likes of Uga, Mike the Tiger and other living creatures. This is an exercise of catharsis for me, and frankly, I’m a lot less scared of Mike than I am of the average anthropomorphic costume.)
10. Brutus Buckeye (Ohio State)
They named a tree nut after Julius Caesar’s assassin. Let’s just pause there for a moment. O.K., you’ve reflected? Good. Brutus is a feat of great creativity, the result of an excellent team name and a long-ago naming contest. Props to the student who named him for taking alliteration to the next level. He could have been Bruce, or Brian, or Bob, or Bart or Ben. There were so many B names to get through before Brutus, and yet, someone named Kerry Reed got there. It was genius; Brutus was Caesar’s close friend, the last person you’d pick to commit an atrocity, just as the last mascot you’d pick to do evil would be an anthropomorphic tree nut. Stay ready.
9. Sparty, Michigan State
As far as mascots go, it’s difficult to incorporate a human face into a headpiece. Why not just have a costumed human, along the lines of the West Virginia Mountaineer? Michigan State, though, does it well in the case of Sparty, an ancient warrior with an excellent eyebrow waxer and a strong chin. Sparty’s dimensions are a tad more realistic than the average mascot’s—his head is long but not so bulbous—and his muscles are bizarrely lumpy, to the point that they almost look like fat rolls. Bravo!
8. Big Red, Western Kentucky
Big Red is, well, a big, red blob. He was designed in 1979 and meant to, supposedly, symbolize the spirit of Western Kentucky fans. That’s where the terror comes in: This is a university who feels as if its fans’ collective spirit is a furry red creature with some serious jaw problems. What could be wrong with these people? What might they be capable of? Big Red is really just a constant, cheery reminder that we have no idea what sort of darkness lurks within these fans’ souls.
7. Otto the Orange, Syracuse
He’s a fruit! In a hat! A fruit with legs! Otto first and foremost should make you thankful all other fruit lack legs, as he seems like he’d be hard to wrangle and eat. That said, his spot on this list is a result of sheer novelty. Even I struggle to fear him. There’s a sneaky level of depravity here, though: Otto is one of three mascots on this list who might cannibalize his own kind at a tailgate.
6. Keggy, Dartmouth
Dartmouth banned its Indian mascot in the early 2000s, and Keggy soon became the unofficial replacement. It’s a concept so unoriginal, it’s almost original, and really, what better reaction could there be to an insensitive mascot? Beer is the one thing all college students can get behind. Well, beer and free food, but mostly beer. It’s a shame Dartmouth isn’t better at sports, because Keggy deserves a much better platform than his current one.
5. The Fighting Okra, Delta State
This is also an unofficial mascot—Delta State’s teams are the Statesmen—and it’s really too good to be true. I cannot think of a less fearsome food than okra. It’s bland and has a ton of fiber, and the geniuses at Delta State were like, Yeah, let’s blow it up and give it opposable thumbs and boxing gloves. The Okra also gets extra points for its lifestyle; various reports describe it as popping up on campus at random times to antagonize students and professors.
4. The Stanford Tree
I can vividly remember the first time I saw the tree in person, at an NCAA hoops regional in 2014. It’s mesmerizing. I don’t think I blinked while I watched it dance at halftime. Anything with that kind of power over a person, you have to afford a kind of fearsome awe. The mascot is a member of the Stanford band and represents El Palo Alto, a redwood tree that is featured on the logo of the city of Palo Alto. In doing some research, I came across several justifications of the choice that stated that “trees are important in Palo Alto.” Trees are important everywhere, people, and the Stanford Tree gets extra points for being so absurd that people defend it by acting like Northern Californians need more oxygen, or something.
3. Albert and Alberta, Florida
Florida gets big-time points for taking two legitimately bloodthirsty animals and turning them into, essentially, your reptilian grandparents. You know those old couples who go to games wearing jerseys that say, when standing next to each other, “Together Since 1952”? This is them, except they’ve emerged from the Everglades.
2. Pistol Pete, Oklahoma State
Pistol Pete is the stuff of nightmares. He is unoriginal and a very strict interpretation of Oklahoma State’s team name, the Cowboys. There is really nothing special about him apart from the fear he engenders. Pistol Pete is inspired by the life of Frank “Pistol Pete” Eaton, a cowboy who spent his life trying to avenge his father’s murder. He was said to have been able to throw a coin in the air and shoot it before it hit the ground, and frankly, the fact that Mascot Pete hasn’t yet attempted this before a game is a real letdown.
Pistol Pete’s inclusion on this list hinges on the material of his headpiece, which is made out of a hard plastic. Pete’s expression is frozen while the rest of his body dances about, making him look like some kind of soulless 1950s toy.
1. Cayenne, Louisiana-Lafayette
Cayenne is part-pepper, part-football player, part-demon from hell. He’s … too human. The stem that makes up his hairpiece looks too much like hair, but also too much like a stem. His biceps bulge. He’s wearing shoulder pads. But what’s most alarming about this Satanic vegetable are the strange appendages attached to his arms. They look almost like fire—too much like fire—really driving home that whole “this guy has emerged from the underworld to drag you back with him” vibe. And still, seeing him somehow makes me crave jambalaya, which adds a level of cruelty to the whole proposition.
Honorable mentions go to Minnesota’s Goldy Gopher, because who isn’t terrified of a smiling mid-sized rodent; Middle Tennessee’s Lightning, a blue winged horse; the Oregon Duck, due to its so-close-they-needed-a-licensing-agreement-with-Disney resemblance to Donald Duck; and the aforementioned, now-defunct Angry Wave, which did become Tulane’s logo again in 2016. I’d also be remiss not giving a nod to UC Santa Cruz’s Sammy the Slug, a giant yellow banana slug who was denied a spot in the top 10 due to the fact that his school lacks a football team.