At the Corner, a West Virginian writes that residents of his state are tired of being stereotyped as a bunch of hillbillies. If that’s true, the state could go a long way toward reducing the problem by getting rid of its most visible symbol, the love child of Jed Clampett and Davy Crockett that is the official mascot of West Virginia University. At least the university has the decency to be defensive about it: “In its seven-decade run, the mascot has kept steady with changing perceptions of the state, morphing from a moonshine-swilling, bib overall-wearing hillbilly punch line into the more noble, buckskin-wearing depiction of Mountaineer pride and purpose it is today.”
WVU is not alone in ditching hick-signifying overalls as part of an image update (though the current Natty Bumppo ensemble does not look much better). For 30 years the University of Nebraska’s mascot was a hefty, overalls-clad farmer known as Herbie Husker, who, for all his bulk, at least had more character than Nebraska’s previous mascot, the anodyne suburbanite Harry Husker. A few years ago, Herbie was given a makeover that included slimming down (with the occasional episodes of backsliding that most dieters encounter) and Sex and the City-style visits to the hair salon and fashion boutiques.
The New Model Herbie also lost the ear of corn from his pocket. This last change was in keeping with the 1995 decision to rebrand Nebraska’s athletic teams as simply the Huskers, since “Cornhuskers” sounded too Midwestern. (The AP wrote at the time: “The Cornhuskers nickname, begun in 1902, seems, well, corny, to too many football recruits. [Not as corny as your jokes, pal ...] Huskers, however, was just fine, so officials have been cutting the corn from printed materials and logos. ‘We’ve found that Cornhuskers and Herbie, the mascot, just don’t sell outside of Nebraska,’ Athletic Director Bill Byrne said.”) Whatever they call the team, it has to be better than the nickname that Nebraska squads went by in the late 19th century: Bugeaters.
In general, college mascots have been going steadily downhill in the age of marketing. My alma mater, Columbia, used to have a couple of moth-eaten but fairly realistic lion costumes, one male and one female, that the athletic department would drag out of storage a few times a year. Now they have a hideous, cartoonish lion, complete with Viagra tail and stupid name. At Penn, the mascot used to be a student who dressed in a Quaker outfit; then the image consultants took over, and they went from a human mascot to one of those plastic-head monstrosities, and then from bad to worse with the current preppie Pirate. (It could have been worse: “In the 1920s, a proposal was made to change the Quaker mascot to the Penguin, but the students found the animal was too weak as a representative.”) Much as it pains me to praise an Ivy League rival, I have to admit that Dartmouth has the conference’s coolest mascot, even if it is unofficial: Keggy.