Like the game itself and the fans in the stands, team mascots are an integral part of the college sports experience. Jumping around stadiums and arenas, doing push-ups for each score ... mascots are a fan favorite, as much a part of the scene as players and coaches.
But who are the men and women behind those mascot masks?
Steven Solberg, the mascot coach at Purdue, explains that most mascots are students. In fact, if you want to become Purdue Pete, you have to enroll at Purdue full-time and go through a rigorous tryout process.
And previous experience?
“Some guys were a mascot in high school,” says Solberg, "but most guys have no experience.”
One of the students who portrays Arizona State’s Sparky the Sun Devil — many schools have several students who don mascot costumes at various times — says that as a child he was taken to ASU games donning a clip-on tail, devil horns and carrying a foam pitchfork. After becoming a mascot in high school, he counted down the days to tryouts for Sparky.
“I knew I had to prep mentally and physically,” said Sparky, who keeps his real identity a secret.
The tryout process for mascots varies, but it's a lot more than just jumping around. Finding someone who has all the necessary skills is vital.
"Reliability is huge,” said Alex Cramer, Arizona State’s game presentation assistant manager. “I have to be able to count on the students assigned to work each event and trust they will represent Sun Devil Athletics and the Sparky brand in a professional yet fun manner.”
Florida's mascot coordinator, Casey Reed, said the Gators' tryout process involves a panel of five judges to evaluate both returning and new mascot candidates.
"The final team is made up of eight to 10 members, and all must be full-time University of Florida students," Reed said. "Members are expected to earn a 2.5 semester and overall GPA while maintaining full-time student status."
The candidates are judged on their situational improvisation, use of props, their dancing and are asked to do a number of exercises to test their creativity, professionalism and ability to think on their feet. They also have to know the mascot's personality. Then the candidates are interviewed in groups to assess their time management skills and commitment level.
Most mascots need to be in incredible shape, too. How else could they do push-up after push-up and run up and down stadium stairs in full mascot get-up?
Maybe the most important traits of a wannabe mascot? Solberg said good body language and a fantastic personality are critical.
“The individual needs to be able to embody the sarcastic character of Sparky and be highly engaging with the fans despite not being able to talk,” Cramer says. “A perfect combination of those traits is difficult to find, but I think we do a great job of coaching students up in the program.”
Feelin’ in this fly uni pic.twitter.com/o5QlTBAXm8— Sparky The Sun Devil (@SparkyArizonaSt) January 26, 2017
Cramer said Sparky and other college mascots often attend hundreds of events each year. “It is a big-time commitment. They put in a lot of hard work,” Solberg says. “They put a lot of time and energy into it, so it’s something to be very proud of.”
While the selection process, the busy schedule and finding a place to change into character can be difficult, Sparky insists that representing ASU and living through a unique college experience makes it all worthwhile.
“Even though there is tunnel vision with the mask on, it gives you a broad sight that you will never forget,” Sparky says. “It is the most amazing feeling.”