I attended a small liberal arts college whose mascot was a polar bear. One of our early graduates (and when I say early I mean class of 1889 early) was an arctic explorer and a polar bear was requested of him by the then athletic director. (Commenting on the extraordinary [?] success of the Bowdoin athletic teams, the director reported that he just ordered a new trophy case for the gymnasium and noted “If we keep on at this rate, the only thing that we will need to complete our trophy room will be a fine, stuffed polar bear skin”). After shooting one near his base camp in 1915, the graduate sent it back to his Alma Mater. It seemed like a good mascot: Imposing. Dominating.
Our biggest rival had, what I consider to be, a more unfortunate mascot: a white mule. I’m not sure who made that decision. Or why, really. (Although I admit it’s possible that mules have some redeeming quality of which I am unaware besides their great work ethic. Actually, now that I think of it, maybe that’s enough…) What I do know is that this mascot gave us great fodder for taunting the rival team at sporting events. “Mules are sterile,” we would chant. (Hey. We were in college.)
According to Wikipedia (so we know it must be true), the word mascot can be traced back to a dialectal use in Provence and Gascony, where it was used to describe anything which brought luck to a household. Informally, it refers to anything used to represent a group with a common public identity, such as a school, sports team, military unit, or brand name. And with many of these groups – especially sports teams, school, and products – it becomes the face and marketing tool of the whole organization.
Often times mascots and nicknames are used interchangeably (as is the case for the Portland Beavers), but they are not always the same. Take UNC, for example; they are called the UNC Tar Heels, but the mascot seen cartwheeling around at all the sporting events is an anthropomorphized Bighorn Ram.
The same is true for our newest collegiate affiliation. Having accepted a position at Virginia Tech, Tim is now a Hokie. “What the hell ‘s a Hokie?” you might ask. (And rightly so.) At Virginia Tech, it’s an angry looking maroon and orange turkey. Yes. A turkey. I know I’m new in town, but it seems abut as bright a choice for a mascot as a mule.
In any event, there are Hokies are all over town and we’ve taken to shouting “TURKEY” as we drive by them in the car because, as Eleanor will tell you, “This is a turkey town. That’s what my dad says.”
(When my parents were here, they went a a little mission to find as many as they could. I think the near 100 degree heat got the better of them before too long, but I hear tell that it was fun nonetheless.)