Behind the Mascot: 8 Great Stories About Strangely Named Teams

Getty Images
Getty Images

Your favorite sports team or alma mater's mascot is probably some sort of big cat or bird of prey, and that's fine. Your tattoo is right; the Tigers totally rule. However, there are quite a few more esoteric mascot choices out there, like a color of a certain disposition or a set of punctuation marks, all of which can still cause fans to well up with pride. Here are the origins of some of our favorites from this arcane set:

1. University of North Carolina Tar Heels' Rameses the Ram

A quick trip to Chapel Hill will reveal lots of great bars and live music venues but surprisingly few wild rams walking Franklin Street. So why is the school's mascot a ram? In 1924 cheerleader Vic Huggins decided the school needed a symbol. The stellar football team of 1922 had been led by the punishing running play of Jack "The Battering Ram" Merritt, so Huggins decided that a live ram would be the perfect mascot. Huggins had Rameses shipped in from Texas for $25, and when the Tar Heels beat heavily favored VMI in Rameses' first appearance, the ram became something of an institution. Perhaps the least believable part of this entire story is that it involves Carolina winning a major football game, but records show it's entirely true.

2. Philadelphia Phillies' Phillie Phanatic

 In the late 1970s the Phillies' mascots were two 18th-century siblings named Philadelphia Phil and Philadelphia Phyllis, but the duo did little to attract families wary of Veterans' Stadium rough-and-tumble image. In an effort to find a more family-friendly mascot, team officials commissioned design firm Harrison/Erickson, who also designed Muppets and the Montreal Expos' beloved Youppi!, to craft a gentler symbol for the team. Thus, in 1978 six feet of green fur, curled tongue, and gyrating belly were born to signify the rabid passion of Philly's fans without drawing attention to the more beer-soaked aspects of the Vet.

The Phanatic has since become one of baseball's most popular mascots, but since this is a Philly sports story it can't have a totally happy ending. Former team vice president and current part owner Bill Giles wrote in his autobiography that he made a key blunder when commissioning the design. Given the option of buying the Phanatic costume alone for $3900 or the costume and its copyright for $5200, Giles didn't shell out the extra $1300. This decision turned out to be an expensive mistake: five years later Giles and a group of investors bought the team and eventually purchased the copyright from Harrison/Erickson for $250,000. [Image courtesy of silverscreentest.com.]

3. Oakland A's Stomper the Elephant

  Benjamin Shibe, who is credited with inventing the machinery to mass-produce standardized baseballs, owned the then-Philadelphia Athletics from their inception in 1901. In the early days of the franchise, New York Giants manager John "Muggsy" McGraw derisively said that Shibe had a white elephant on his hands since the Athletics couldn't compete with the existing Phillies of the National League.

Instead of shying away from the taunt, legendary Athletics manager Connie Mack embraced the white elephant nickname, even going so far as to give his old friend McGraw a stuffed elephant when the Athletics met McGraw's Giants in the 1905 World Series. Although eccentric owner Charlie Finley replaced the elephant with a live Missouri mule named after himself in 1963, the elephant mascot was restored in 1988, and Stomper debuted in 1997. With his high OBP and the great defensive range factor he gets from his trunk, Stomper is surely a favorite of current A's general manager Billy Beane. [Image courtesy of PhiladelphiaAthletics.org.]

4. University of North Texas Mean Green

 It takes a special player to get his number retired by his alma mater, but only a real legend's nickname becomes his school's mascot. The vicious play of football star "Mean" Joe Greene, perhaps best known to many casual fans for winning Super Bowls and bumming a Coke off a kid in a commercial, may have given rise to the school's current moniker after years of playing with a less-than-inspired green Eagles mascot. According to one story touted by the university, Sidney Sue Graham, the wife of sports information director Fred Graham, called Greene "mean" following a brutal tackle during his late-1960's career at the school. She then began calling the entire smothering defensive unit the "Mean Green," and although Graham initially dismissed his wife's newly coined phrase, he eventually used it in a press release that caught on with reporters. [Image courtesy of UNT.edu.]

5. New College of Florida [ ]

That's not a typo. The New College of Florida's unofficial student mascot is actually the null set. After hearing rumors of this unique mascot but not being able to find any hard evidence on it, I placed a call to the school's Office of Public Affairs, where the very friendly staffer informed me that while the 746-undergraduate college founded in 1960 doesn't officially have a mascot, it's fair to say that students adopted the null set early in the school's history as a sly wink to its lack of athletic teams. Although the school now fields competitive teams in sailing, ultimate Frisbee, and soccer, the [ ] still seems almost as clever; one can't afford to be all that picky when searching for a mascot based on set theory.

6. Georgia Tech's Ramblin' Wreck

 College sports fans know that Georgia Tech's mascot is the Yellow Jacket, a tradition that dates back to at least 1905. However, anyone who's been to a home football game at Bobby Dodd Stadium at Historic Grant Field in Atlanta has also seen the official mascot of the student body, a 1930 Ford Model A Sports Coupe known as the Ramblin' Wreck. The phrase "ramblin' wreck" dates back to at least the 1890's as part of the school's fight song and may have stemmed from a description of the entire student body traveling from Athens to Atlanta to watch a football game against the University of Georgia.

According to the school paper The Technique, the application of the term "ramblin' wreck" to cars first occurred in the early 20th century to describe makeshift vehicles built by Georgia Tech engineers during projects in the South American jungle. By 1927 the 1914 Ford of Dean of Men Floyd Field had taken on iconic status as a Ramblin' Wreck.

The current Wreck was purchased in 1961 by Dean of Students Jim Dull, who found the Wreck parked near his apartment building. This new Ramblin' Wreck led the Yellowjackets onto the field for their home game against Rice on September 30, 1961 and has done so for every home game since. [Image courtesy of GaTech.edu.]

7. Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons' Guy Made of Pistons

 Technically, this one is the logo, not the mascot, of the Detroit Pistons forerunner that played in Fort Wayne, Indiana from 1941 to 1957, and I can't find an official name for him. But really, your life is better for having gazed upon him. The team was originally owned by industrialist Fred Zollner, who also owned a large foundry that made automotive pistons, hence the team name. To that extent, the Pistons nickname and the logo make sense. Upon closer scrutiny, though, the logo raises a host of questions: what sort of terrible foundry accident created this piston monster? Why did it spare only his hands and feet? Could he beat the Tin Man in a game of one-on-one? Why is he happily dribbling that ball rather than using science to repair his missing body? We'll never know; since 1996 the Pistons' mascot has been Hooper, a black horse. Because, you know, pistons create horsepower. Even a guy whose entire head is a piston could probably come up with pun that's a little less forced. [Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

8. The University of Akron Zips' Zippy the Kangaroo

 If you saw Zippy win the 2007 Capital One National Mascot of the Year award, you probably wondered why Akron had the gloriously befuddling combination of the Zips nickname and a kangaroo mascot. Surely there was some internal logic there, right? Not at all, which makes Zippy all the more intriguing.

After a campus-wide contest to name the school's athletic teams in 1925, freshman Margaret Hamlin won ten dollars for her suggestion of "Zippers" after a popular rubber overshoe of the same name made by local company B.F. Goodrich. The nickname remained the Zippers until 1950, when it was shortened to the Zips.

As for Zippy the kangaroo, she became the mascot in 1953 after student council advisor Dick Hansford recommended the idea. According to school's website, Hansford proposed the idea because he enjoyed a contemporary comic strip featuring Kicky the Fighting Kangaroo. This combination of combining the name of a popular rubber shoe and a popular cartoon character deserves more exposure; we can only hope that somewhere out there a fledgling college is naming its teams the Crocs, complete with dancing Marmaduke mascot. [Image courtesy of ChippewaGolfClub.com.]

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Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys. His last contribution to mental_floss explored strange college bowl game sponsorships.

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From Ear to Eternity: When Mike Tyson Bit Evander Holyfield

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Focus On Sport/Getty Images

As the 16,000 spectators began filing out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, following a night of fights on June 28, 1997, MGM employee Mitch Libonati noticed something strange on the floor of the boxing ring. He later described it as being roughly the size of a fingernail, with the texture of a piece of hot dog or sausage.

It was no concession stand remnant. It was a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Wrapping the morsel of flesh in a latex glove, Libonati hurried backstage, where Holyfield was conferring with officials and doctors after his opponent, Mike Tyson, had been disqualified for biting him on the left ear. In all the commotion, Libonati wasn't allowed inside the room. But Michael Grant, one of Holyfield’s training partners, accepted the ear fragment on Holyfield’s behalf.

Libonati’s discovery was the climax to one of boxing’s most controversial and bizarre evenings, one in which "Iron" Mike Tyson—the most famous fighter of his era—meted out a savage reprimand for what he perceived was dirty fighting on the part of Holyfield. The ear-biting far exceeded the brutal underpinnings of boxing and added to Tyson's reputation as a frenzied combatant both in and out of the ring.

 

Mike Tyson’s collision with Evander Holyfield had started when the two were just teenagers. On the amateur circuit, they had sparred together—not quite knowing the heights each would achieve, but understanding the other would be a formidable obstacle if they were to ever meet as professionals.

Evander Holyfield (L) had success against Mike Tyson (R) early on.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Tyson was a prodigy, having won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1986 at the age of 19 and dominating the division up until an upset loss to James “Buster” Douglas in Tokyo, Japan, in 1990. Holyfield was the lighter fighter at cruiserweight (190 pounds), moving up to the heavyweight division in 1988 and gaining respect for his trilogy with Riddick Bowe.

Long before that fateful night in 1997, Tyson's personal life had started to overshadow his accomplishments inside the ring: An allegedly abusive marriage to actress Robin Givens darkened his image in the media and ended in a very public divorce after just one year. In 1992, a rape conviction sidelined the fighter for more than three years while he served out his prison sentence.

When Tyson returned to the ring, he rattled off a string of wins against fighters not quite at his level, including Peter McNeeley, Buster Mathis Jr., Frank Bruno, and Bruce Seldon. Holyfield had stepped away from competition in 1994, but as Tyson knocked off inferior opponents, talk of a bout with Holyfield intensified. Finally, the two met in Las Vegas on November 9, 1996, with Tyson a 17-1 favorite over the semi-retired Holyfield.

Holyfield would prove his doubters wrong. Through 11 rounds of action, he outmaneuvered and outclassed Tyson by negating his opponent's power with movement and volume. Holyfield also landed headbutts that were declared unintentional, but to Tyson seemed deliberate. Before the fight could see a 12th round, Holyfield knocked Tyson down and earned a technical knockout victory.

 

While it was an undoubtedly disappointing moment for Tyson, an upset in boxing virtually guarantees a lucrative rematch deal. Both men agreed to meet a second time, with Holyfield earning $35 million and Tyson getting $30 million. Tyson’s camp, however, insisted that the referee from the first bout, Mitch Halpern, not be booked for the second, because Tyson felt he failed to call the illegal headbutts. The Nevada State Athletic Commission didn’t want to be seen capitulating to Tyson’s demands, but Halpern stepped aside voluntarily. So referee Mills Lane took his place.

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) first met as amateurs.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Before a huge crowd full of A-list celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and a then-record 1.99 million households that had purchased the event on pay-per-view, Tyson and Holyfield met for a second time at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on June 28, 1997. While Holyfield took the first round, Tyson appeared fit and adaptive, and came out blazing in round two. Then, just as Tyson had feared, Holyfield’s headbutt struck him again.

The clash of heads opened a cut over Tyson’s right eye, which threatened to obscure his vision as the fight went on. It also opened a reservoir of frustration in the fighter that would manifest in a spectacularly violent way.

Coming out for the third round, Tyson had forgotten his mouthpiece and had to go back and retrieve it—a foreshadowing of things to come. His aggression was working against Holyfield, but with 40 seconds left in the round, the two clinched up. Tyson moved his mouth so it was near Holyfield’s right ear. With his mouthpiece still in place, he clamped down on the ear, ripped the top off, and spat it along with his mouthguard onto the canvas.

Holyfield jumped up in the air in shock and pain. Referee Mills Lane was initially confused by what had happened until Holyfield’s trainers, Don Turner and Tommy Brooks, yelled out what Tyson had done. Lane called for a doctor then told Marc Ratner, the executive director of the athletic commission, that he was going to end the fight. Ratner asked if he was sure. Seeing Holyfield was bleeding from his ear but otherwise ready to fight, Lane waved the two men back into competition.

Incredibly, Tyson bit Holyfield a second time, this time on the left ear, before the round ended. This time, Lane was aware of what was happening and had seen enough. Before the start of the fourth round, he disqualified Tyson.

 

That was far from the end of it. Realizing he had lost the fight, Tyson grew incensed, shoving Holyfield from behind and pawing at the security guards who had stormed the ring in an attempt to restore order.

After the bout, Tyson didn’t appear to be overly contrite. He explained that he was frustrated at Holyfield headbutting him without being penalized, and said he had lost control.

An emotional Mike Tyson reacts to his disqualification loss to Evander Holyfield.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

“Listen,” Tyson said. “Holyfield is not the tough warrior everyone says he is. He got a nick on his ear and he quit.”

Tyson believed his retaliation was justified. “This is my career," he said. "I’ve got children to raise and this guy keeps butting me, trying to cut me and get me stopped on cuts. I’ve got to retaliate. What else could I do? He didn’t want to fight. I’m ready to fight right now. Regardless of what I did, he’s been butting me for two fights. I got one eye. He’s not impaired. He’s got ears. I’ve got to go home and my kids will be scared of me. Look at me, look at me, look at me!”

Two days later, Tyson issued a tempered apology in an effort to minimize the consequences, but it was too late. In addition to losing his boxing license in the state of Nevada, Tyson was fined 10 percent of his purse, or $3 million, which was thought to be the largest fine in sports at the time.

 

Tyson could never entirely shake the stigma of his actions. When a lucrative bout with Lennox Lewis was being planned in 2002, the fight ultimately ended up taking place in Memphis, Tennessee; Nevada refused to restore Tyson's license following a press conference brawl between the two men.

Tyson ultimately continued competing through 2005, when he lost his last bout to Kevin McBride. Holyfield retired in 2011. Earlier this year, the 54-year-old Tyson expressed a desire to return to the ring. The fighter once known as "The Baddest Man on the Planet" is scheduled to fight Roy Jones Jr. on November 28, 2020. Yet Holyfield, now 57 years old, remains a possible future opponent.

The two have occasionally interacted in public in interviews, with Tyson expressing remorse and Holyfield admitting he briefly thought about biting Tyson on his face right back. The pair even filmed a spot for Foot Locker in which Tyson “gave” Holyfield the missing piece of his ear.

In reality, Holyfield never did get his ear back. After Mitch Libonati handed it over to Michael Grant, the piece somehow fell out of the latex glove while being transported to the hospital.

Many fighters talk about leaving a little piece of themselves in the ring. It’s usually metaphorical. For Evander Holyfield, it was simply the truth.