Mascot Hall of Fame gives furry cheerleaders a spotlight

Purdue Pete, the Purdue mascot, poses on the sideline during an NCAA college football game against Illinois Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Bradley Leeb)
Purdue Pete, the Purdue mascot, poses on the sideline during an NCAA college football game against Illinois Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Bradley Leeb)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Do you prefer Chicago’s Benny the Bull or Boston’s Wally the Green Monster? The deviousness of Arizona State’s Sparky the Sun Devil or the goofiness of South Carolina’s Cocky? Or maybe you’re more traditional, and like Penn State’s Nittany Lion. If you’re offbeat, go for Stanford’s Tree.

Those are among the choices people could have when the Mascot Hall of Fame announces its ballot of six candidates for the hall at a groundbreaking ceremony Friday in northwestern Indiana. After more than a decade of existing only online, the mascots are getting a place to flock together somewhere other than sidelines, ESPN commercials or the Capital One Mascot Challenge.

Sam Weyen thinks the hall shall never see a mascot more lovely than the Stanford Tree.

“What other mascot strikes as much joy in the hearts of fans as it does creepy fear? We have a monopoly on that,” said the symbolic systems major from Suwanee, Georgia, who has been the Tree since February. “I can’t think of a more iconic mascot and one that has been kicked out of so many stadiums as well.”

The Tree is not officially the university’s mascot — it’s the mascot of the band known for its irreverence and has been banned from several stadiums for several years.

Dave Johnson, who was Penn State’s Nittany Lion from 2005 to 2007, believes that mascot should be inducted because of simplicity and tradition. It’s stuck to the same basic look since the 1920s.

“When you think of a college mascot, a lot of these other mascots … they’re kind of gimmicky. They’ve got the inflatable mascots bouncing around, all that type of thing, and they’re limited in what they can do,” Johnson said. “In the ever-changing landscape of college campuses, the lion is always the same.”

The Mascot Hall of Fame will be built in Whiting, a city along Lake Michigan best known for its oil refinery and its Pierogi Fest — a weekend event in July that celebrates Polish dumplings. More than 250,000 people take part in pierogi eating contests, pierogi tosses and polkas.

David Raymond, the original Phillie Phanatic and the hall’s founder, said the city 20 miles southeast of Chicago is the perfect site for two reasons: It was willing to put up $7 million for the building and its 5,000 residents embrace quirky.

“Their brand is the little wacky city that could, so they embrace the silliness of this project,” Raymond said.

Mayor Joseph Stahura said the hall is being financed through tax increment financing and is part of a plan to try to establish the city as one- or two-day tourist destination. A sustainability study says the hall should draw 50,000 visitors a year, he said.

The idea for the hall was sparked by a 2003 incident of mascot abuse. Sports fans nationwide were shocked when Pittsburgh first baseman Randall Simon used a bat to fell one of the four Racing Sausages during a Milwaukee Brewers game in the bop heard round the world.

Simon, who said he did not deliberately try to knock down the Italian sausage, was cited for disorderly conduct.

“We as a group in our office said we really should take advantage of this, have some fun with it, but also promote the fact that mascots sometimes aren’t getting the respect they deserve,” Raymond said.

That led to the creation of a mascot bill of rights , a mascot march in Philadelphia and the creation of the online hall. The inaugural class of the Phillie Phanatic, the Famous Chicken (aka the San Diego Chicken) and the Phoenix Gorilla was inducted in 2005.

To date, 10 pro and seven collegiate mascots have been inducted. The pro honorees include Mr. Met, KC Wolf of the Kansas City Chiefs and Rocky of the Denver Nuggets. The college legends include Ohio State’s Brutus Buckeye, Wisconsin’s Bucky the Badger and Tennessee’s Smokey.

Not all mascots are eligible for the hall, just the fully costumed kind. Raymond said the hall organizers may recognize human and animal mascots eventually in some way. Members of the hall are selected through voting by the public online, lifetime hall voting members (comes with a $50 donation) and an executive committee.

Weyen said even if selected, the Tree doesn’t belong in the hall.

“I would stipulate it has to be outside because trees don’t like to be inside,” he said.