A moment of silence, please, for Alma Otter, the greatest school mascot who never was (though still could be someday).
The playful mammal would have been the perfect answer to the ugliness that has surrounded Chief Illiniwek, the University of Illinois’ absurd, over-feathered former mascot. It would have set just the right tone: Mascots should be fun. They should be silly. They shouldn’t be self-important. And, most of all, they shouldn’t be one race’s cartoonish depiction of another.
Alas, Illinois students voted 3,807-3,510 last week against making Alma Otter the school’s official symbol. It was a nonbinding referendum, meaning that even if it had passed, the results would have been sent on to the administration as an advisory.
The school has been without a mascot since 2007, when it came to its senses and realized that Chief Illiniwek didn’t quite pair up with a leading university’s stated goal of inclusiveness. Not if, you know, Native Americans were to be included.
A few students tried to fill the void with Alma, a cute otter. Are there any other kinds of otters than cute ones? I didn’t think there were until I did some exhaustive research. All I can say is, don’t Google “sea otters’’ and “baby seals.’’ If you do, you’ll lose whatever innocence you have left.
But the river otter, the kind you might find in Illinois’ waterways, is cute and fluffy! Some of you don’t want cute and fluffy in a mascot. You want your school symbol to be ferocious. You want a mascot to fire up your teams. But there’s no correlation between the severity of a mascot’s scowl and how many games a team wins. Illinois’ football team wouldn’t give less of an effort if its mascot were an otter. You can insert your Illini football joke right about … here.
The best school mascots are the ironic ones, the ones that make fun of the very idea of mascots. Stanford’s unofficial mascot is the Tree, which looks like an art project that went badly wrong for some fourth-graders armed with green felt and Elmer’s glue. And it is awesome. Oh, and the football team has gone to 10 straight bowl games.
So, an otter? Yes, please!
But human nature being what it is, tribal and a few degrees off true north, you could take the most innocent-looking stuffed animal, make it a school’s official mascot and soon alums would be attached to it beyond what would be considered healthy. And before long, that stuffed animal would start growing longer teeth, its eyes would take on a fierce, slightly deranged glaze and it would need regular doctor’s visits to address the excessive foaming around the mouth.
I loved the idea of Alma Otter, but if history tells us anything, it’s that future generations of Illinois alums would have grown so attached to the mammal that they would have fought to the death to keep it around.
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I’ve never quite understood the fascination with school mascots. I know hard-bitten sportswriters who enter a childlike state whenever the discussion turns to mascots. “How about that Brutus Buckeye!’’ they’ll say of Ohio State’s whatever-that-is. You mean the guy dressed up in sweatpants, a horizontally striped sweatshirt with the name “Brutus’’ on it and a massive head that appears to be made of cheap foam? I don’t understand the reverence, but, fine, knock yourself out.
My college worldview was informed by my experience at Northwestern in the late 1970s and early ’80s. In my four years there, the football team won one game and tied another. The tie occurred in the first game of my freshman year, and it was a 0-0 nail-biter at Illinois, meaning it was pretty much a tree falling in a forest devoid of anyone who cared. The lone victory came in the second game of my sophomore year, and it was against Wyoming. Yee-haw! Thirty-one straight losses followed.
So I’ll grant that there might be significant psychological damage here. Perhaps more victories and a healthier college experience, sports-wise, would have me embracing mascots the way many of you do, which is to say, much too enthusiastically. There are parentless children out there who would benefit from the love and attention some alums heap on their school mascots. There are children of alums who would benefit from such love and attention.
For all its fun and furry lameness, Alma Otter isn’t nearly as ridiculous as the Chief was. The Chief had little in common with actual Native American culture, yet that didn’t stop its backers from insisting that it most certainly did. Truth is the first casualty of war.
I’d like to think that Alma Otter will make a comeback at some later date. People will realize that it was created in the spirit that all mascots should be created. A fun spirit. A united spirit.