"Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam...."—BREWSTER HIGLEY, 1873
Ralphie does not simply wander into Colorado's Folsom Field; Ralphie arrives. Ralphie does not just lead the football team onto the field as a side-show; Ralphie is the show. Ralphie, a 1,000-pound American bison, is the nation's preeminent college football mascot, although not the most aptly named; Ralphie is a she. Her act is wild and crazy, and you'd better catch it while you can. Real live animal mascots are going the way of the flying wedge.
The reasons are several: a mascot may be on the endangered-species list (like Boston College's bald eagle); or it's hard to find someone willing to care for or feed it (Florida A&M's rattlesnake); or the critters aren't stadium-broken (several schools with artificial-turf fields out-and-out ban animal mascots). The trend is toward dressing someone up in a Muppet-like suit and turning him loose in the stands. But Miss Piggy doesn't quite have the same èclat as, say, Ragnar, the former Arkansas mascot, which one night ate a wild coyote that invaded his pen, leaving only a small patch of fur as testimony to what pugnacious porkers can do.
September 9, 1979
There is something about a live animal that stirs loyalists. Besides, how can a team be for real if its mascot is a fake? Not to worry in Boulder. One thing opposing teams realize very quickly is that Ralphie is the genuine article. When the band breaks into Glory, Glory, Colorado, 50,000 fans puff up with pride as Ralphie thunders the length of the AstroTurf field. Then she wheels and heads back upfield, stopping only to menace the opposition's bench. Finally she stampedes back into her trailer. Once she missed the trailer and headed out toward where the deer and the antelope play. The scoreboard immediately flashed: RALPHIE, COME HOME. She did. A good thing, too. Ralphie is so popular she once was elected homecoming queen. Which is why Colorado has a big problem on the eve of the 1979 season.
After 12 years, Ralphie I is retiring. Ralphie II was introduced at the last game of the '78 season. "She was awful," says one university official. "She didn't do anything. Just stood there. She might as well have been a cow. I understand they are now trying to teach her to run."
The smart money says that when Colorado needs a win badly, Ralphie I will be back, in the manner of Kate Smith singing God Bless America in the Spectrum before crucial Philadelphia Flyer games. "Ralphie's willing," says Associate Athletic Director Fred Casotti. "After all, a buffalo is so ominous, What could be a better mascot? I mean, some guy riding a horse isn't a helluva lot."
That, of course, draws protests at places like USC, where Traveler III, a white Arabian, is revered. At one game USC wouldn't allow Texas Tech's black stallion, Happy VI, to perform on the dubious ground that one horse was enough for any stadium. Back in the friendlier confines of Lubbock, Happy VI is ridden crazily around the field on his own rubberized track whenever the Red Raiders score. Once, back in the days when cannon fire accompanied the ride, an official yelled to the Tech coach after such a performance, "Remount and reload, we have a penalty."
The University of Arkansas doesn't welcome rival animal mascots, either, perhaps for fear the fur might fly; its razorback—actually, razorbacks are nearly extinct and the school is making do with a mixed-breed hog—may be the meanest mascot in captivity.
Once, in a budget cutback, Ragnar's predecessor, Big Red III, was shipped off to an animal exhibit in Eureka Springs. Mike McDonald, an assistant trainer for Arkansas, recalls, "The thing went crazy. We had to jump behind trees to avoid being gored. Somebody broke a fence post over Big Red's head and the thing never flinched." It took four hours to get him into a cage. Two weeks later Big Red escaped and, after several months at large, broke into a barnyard near Barryville, Ark., where an irate farmer shot and killed him lest he molest a prize sow. That afternoon Arkansas suffered its only loss of the 1977 season, to Texas, 13-9.
When it comes to mascots, the fiercer the better. After all, the idea is to create the illusion of invincibility. The University of Texas has the right idea with its Longhorn steer, Bevo X. Never mind that he is slightly tranquilized before each game. Never mind that all he does is stand around. Never mind that his detractors call him Bevo the Cow. He looks wild. Once Earl Campbell crashed into Bevo in the end zone. Because Campbell got up after the crash, and Bevo, who had been lying down, kept lying down, the collision was ruled a draw. Nobody mentions in front of Bevo X that Bevo I ended up as steaks at a football banquet.
Some other animal mascots have met untimely ends. Once a Baylor bear got his collar and chain wrapped around his neck when he tried to climb to a tree limb. He choked to death. The cynical called it suicide, in view of Baylor's 0-10 record that season. Baylor bears are called "Judge." A recently retired one doted on his customary touchdown Dr Pepper, the arrival of which would make him "nearly go berserk," according to a former trainer. The school's two new cubs are kept on 7 Up.
Houston's Shasta IV isn't particularly surly, but she and her cougar predecessors have been hard to keep petal-fresh. One time, Shasta I was allowed to fly with fans to an away game. The odor emanating from her cage didn't make her a big hit with fellow passengers, and since then Shastas have usually ridden in trailers. Once delivered, however, a cougar can be a most practical mascot: before a 1975 game in Miami's Orange Bowl, Shasta III guarded Houston equipment being held in a locker room that recently had been burglarized. Nary a chin strap was taken.
At Texas A&I the mascot is a javelina, a wild pig indigenous to the area and an intrepid fighter. In 1929 two javelina mascots were allowed free run of the campus. But one of them attacked the school president, R. B. Cousins, and bit him on the leg. Since then, Texas A&I mascots have been caged.
Sometimes mascots aren't what they appear to be. North Carolina State students sent $150 to an animal dealer for a wolf. After it was on campus for a while, it was discovered to be a coyote. State now dresses two sheepish students in wolfs clothing. At Tennessee the mascot is Smokey IV, a bluetick hound. His donor, the Rev. W. C. Brooks of Knoxville, says Smokey is not temperamentally suited for his job. "They set off some firecrackers close to him when he was very young, and he has been scared to death ever since," he says.
Generally animal mascots lead pretty cushy lives. Mike IV, the LSU Bengal tiger, has an air-conditioned cage. Seven years ago, when word spread that he had been in a highway accident and was bleeding heavily, the people in Crowley, La. immediately offered to give blood. Mike made it without them.
The Georgia Bulldogs' current bulldog mascot is Uga III, who, during games, occupies a huge air-conditioned "fireplug" doghouse. Uga's father and grandfather are buried under the Sanford Stadium scoreboard. Uga I's tombstone reads: DAMN GOOD DOG. The epitaph of Uga II, who presided when Georgia won two SEC championships and appeared in five bowl games, is: NOT BAD FOR A DOG.
Mascot-napping is as American as, well, the American bison. While Army boasts that its mules have never been heisted, despite many attempts, Navy goats have often been swiped. All the mascots are vulnerable, even Ralphie. Air Force cadets nabbed her a few years ago, and she suffered the indignity of being dressed up like a buffalo burger and paraded around the field.