Over the past few years, I've traveled to university towns in the nation's heartland numerous times. Although I'm an easterner by birth, I feel at ease in the plain states. But it wasn't until I recently spoke at the University of Minnesota, home of the Golden Gophers, that an observation about the Midwest suddenly jumped to the forefront of my brain. The dots connected.
Who had chosen the mascots at some of these big Midwestern schools? The gopher and some of its regional rivals seemed to be in a category better recognized as annoyances, pests or animals simply destined for road kill.
Let me just admit up front that I am NOT a sports person. My son and husband think it's humorous to throw a team name at me and ask .. no, not where they are from. I'm more hopeless than that. They quiz me on what CATEGORY of sport it is. I'm about 75 percent.
But the mascot thing was way more interesting to me than the sports themselves. Gophers in Minnesota, Badgers in Wisconsin, the Wolverines in Michigan, (is that even a real animal or is it the Chihuahua of wolves?). Illinois State has the Red Birds, (decorative) Jay Hawks symbolized the University of Kansas and University of Ohio trumpeted the Buckeyes. How do you fight a nut, for pete's sake? How do you even make that into a costume the spirit team can wear?
Nebraska's Cornhuskers were perplexing but understandable. But who the heck wanted to go up against a team known for repetitive food preparation? I discovered the Foresters of Lake Forest College. They sounded like an industrious lot, clearing acreage and all, but that didn't seem particularly competitive.
Where I come from back East, mascots are ballsy animals, spoiling for a fight. Tigers in Princeton, Yale had the Bull Dogs, Brown the Brown Bears and my personal alma mater, the Colgate Red Raiders.
Even small schools chose fighters like Bucknell's Bison or the Bates' Bob Cat, animals known for mixing it up. The list went on with spit and vinegar. But what had happened in the Midwest? Was this simply a case of the region's good-natured and understated humility?
Personally, I liked the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Finally, a mascot I could relate to. OK, so maybe it gave Irish descendants like me a bad name, as if we already didn't have the drunken brawling stereotype to contend with. But in my opinion, a drunken fighter doing rope-a-dope still wins out over a badger, gopher, nut or an ear of corn.
When I investigated further, I found many other more appropriate competitive symbols: Braves and Indians, Warriors, Rebels, Marauders, Cavaliers, Cowboys, Crusaders , Knights and Privateers, Raiders and Rebels, Savages and Saxons, Spartans, Trojans and Vikings. There were also smaller but determined mascots, like Hornets and Yellow Jackets. Things you hit with a rolled up newspaper.
Scary bad guys like Devils and Demons proliferated. There were do-gooders too, teams with the Lord on their side; Saints and Bishops, Quakers, Cardinals and hearty Pioneers. I was confused by the Battling Bishops of Ohio Wesleyan. It seemed a little contradictory to be a man of the cloth and put up your dukes.
I personally liked the animals, especially the feline family. There were Tigers, Cats, Bob Cats, Lions, Panthers, Wildcats and then other fierce fighters like Bison, Eagles, Bears, Rams and Broncos. Pittsburgh State had the Gorilla, an animal not usually associated with Pennsylvania or steel.
One of the most perplexing mascots, however, was the "Blue Hose" of Presbyterian College. I prefer to think that this is about colonial stockings and not a garden implement, or worse, a glib sexual reference. This would probably be one of the few sweatshirts my daughter would NOT beg me to buy during a college campus visit.
Weather patterns like Cyclones, Hurricanes and Tornadoes were common. And added to that list of "difficult and uncomfortable mascot costumes" was simply the Green Terror at McDaniel College. The name conjured up images of plagues, nerve gas and Centers for Disease Control.
With a total right-brained lack of imagination, engineering schools, like RPI, and MIT came up with .. yes, "The Engineers," battling rivals with pocket protectors, power strips and duct-taped glasses.
Faced with the complete list of college and university mascots, I began to see the reasoning in the Midwest decision to choose kinder, gentler animals. Maybe if you weren't so full of yourselves, you'd actually psych out the opponent. Perhaps so many smaller schools picked giant-sized, bone-crunching Tomahawk wielding mascots out of a Napoleon complex. How humbling to be badly trounced if you are the Golden Eagles, Wildcats or Razorbacks. Better to low-ball the competitive expectation with, say the humble nature of a Badger, Cardinal or for heaven's sake, a Buckeye. And then -- WHAM -- cut 'em off at the knees.
It was the recent experience of running into my new friend Chip, one of the regulars at my local dog park, that drove home the importance of selecting an appropriate mascot. Usually hatless, he was wearing a baseball cap that said "COCKS" in giant stitching. I knew Chip was newly divorced, and as I moved closer for inspection, I wondered if Chip might fare better in the dating department if he just got a T-shirt and drew arrows pointing at his groin.
"That's quite a hat," I said, figuring I needed to tackle this head on.
"Yeah," said Chip. "That's my team."
"Oh," I said relieved, as I read the tiny print "University of South Carolina" above the cap's brim and bent to pick up the steaming poop my dog had just deposited.
"What a, um, great hat, " I said to Chip, instantly re-evaluating the wisdom of Midwestern mascots.
"Sure is," he beamed.
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