I have a lot of pride for my alma mater; “Tribe Pride,” if you will. Lots of people might not know exactly where The College of William and Mary is, but they know it’s an ancient, possibly-prestigious institution of higher learning. (It’s the second-oldest school in the country, behind only Harvard). Not one, not two, but three U.S. Presidents went there; a fourth served as school President, and a fifth, George H.W. Bush, spoke at my commencement ceremony. It’s happening.
At the same time, there’s a slight inferiority complex. W&M isn’t quite “elite.” It’s typically ranked 40th or 50th on the “best colleges in America” lists. It has the stigma of being a public school. And it’s not as old as Harvard.
And now that they’ve changed their mascot — in an unnecessary yet spectacularly laughable process apparently geared to sell T-shirts — they’ve proven beyond reasonable doubt that they do not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Harvard, or Stanford, or, dare I say it, UVA.
Some backstory: prior to the 1950’s, W&M’s nickname was the “Indians.” (The Brafferton Building, one of the original structures in the W&M front campus, was built as an Indian school in 1723). But there was grumbling, so the nickname was changed to “Tribe,” and that seemed hunky-dory with everyone — a little odd, yet completely unique to college athletics. And our logo (below) was pretty kick-ass, too.
But in 2006, the NCAA started looking at colleges’ uses of Native American nicknames. A lot of schools like Florida State (Seminoles) and Central Michigan (Chippewas) were investigated, but were ultimately validated and vouched for by representatives of the actual tribes they represented. Other schools, like Illinois (Fighting Illini), were allowed to keep their nicknames, but had to retire their mascots (Illinois’ Chief Illiniwek was deemed “hostile and abusive” and was retired in 2007).
But the NCAA went balls-to-the-wall-politically-correct-micro-management in W&M’s case. They were fine with “Tribe.” However, they ruled that the two feathers on our logo “could create an environment that is offensive to the American Indian community.” (!) The College appealed, and lost. So they whipped up a new, feather-free, uninspiring logo (left) that debuted in 2007 to, presumably, very little fanfare.
It must have been around this time that the College began discussing a new mascot. Nickname and mascot aren’t always synonymous, and they weren’t in W&M’s case. When I was there, the closest thing we had to a mascot were a guy and a (hot) girl wearing buckskins, walking around the field and maybe elevating general pep levels a skosh.
In 2001, the geniuses at the College introduced Colonel Ebirt (as in “Tribe” spelled backwards), a green-and-gold frog wearing a tri-corner hat. Yikes. Ebirt was retired in 2006, basically around the same time as the whole Two Feathers Fiasco.
So all the pieces were in place for a new “re-launch” of the William and Mary “brand.” The people who brought us Colonel Ebirt were ready to try and catch lightning in a bottle a second time. In 2009, an official mascot selection process began online. Over 300 ideas were submitted; in December, that list was whittled down to five:
1. The Griffin. A mythical creature with the head of an eagle and and the body of a lion.
2. The King and the Queen. William and Mary themselves.
3. The Phoenix. The school had apparently used it as a symbol on several occasions throughout its long history.
4. The Pug. William and Mary owned them.
5. The Wren. A play on the name of Sir Christopher Wren, the English architect who designed the iconic Wren Building, the oldest academic building in continuous use in America.
Whoa! Did that selection committee kill it, or what? How could they possibly be expected to pick just one of those five amazing mascots?
(I will say this: I kind of dug “Wrens,” and I would have been okay with it not only as our mascot, but our nickname as well. Wanna know who came up with that idea? W&M government professor George Grayson — father of Keller. Read his op-ed piece from 2007 in which he makes his case. And see how many avian puns you can spot.)
Long story short: the College shocked everyone by announcing that the winner was… the Griffin. And then they really started acting like a bunch of hacks.
On April 6 — the same day the flesh-and-blood, there’s-a-student-inside Griffin made his debut at William and Mary Hall — the College released this video on YouTube of President Taylor Reveley internally debating the merits of the five finalists before picking up his phone and saying “Get me the Griffin!” You’ll also enjoy the second-rate production value, and the gray skies in the exteriors that really bring out the beautiful natural colors of the College’s campus.
The press release was equally horrific:
“The Griffin has joined the Tribe,” said William & Mary President Taylor Reveley, who unveiled the new mascot Tuesday during a campus-wide event in William & Mary Hall’s Kaplan Arena. “With its arrival, we now have a mascot that unites strength with intelligence, recalls our royal origins, and speaks to our deep roots in American history… When you put it all together — the grace, agility, intelligence and strength — the Griffin really embodies everything we were looking for in a mascot.”
Huh? What was all that about historical roots and royal origins? Athletic Director Terry Driscoll explained:
With the head of a bald eagle and the body of a lion, [the Griffin], like William & Mary, also links the history and heritage of the United States and Great Britain. The bald eagle is the national symbol of the United States and William & Mary is the alma mater of a nation. The lion represents the English Monarchy. In 1693, King William III and Queen Mary II created the College by Royal Charter.
The one dictum hammered into me in all my hours spent in Marketing classes (my major) was: keep it simple. Avoid “clutter.” Any mascot that requires 75 words to explain its relevance fails miserably in that regard. Which might be why, in 1978, a movement to make the griffin Stanford’s mascot failed. Instead, they chose the El Palo Alto tree, which is on the school seal. Unconventional and/or eccentric? Probably. Iconic? In hindsight, most definitely.
But the worst was yet to come. It arrived in my mailbox last week, in the form of the Summer 2010 alumni magazine. On the cover was the actual mascot pointing heavenward. Inside were two pieces that made me feel as though my alma mater was less one of the most heralded universities in America, and more of a PR firm.
In his quarterly letter, President Reveley gushed about the Griffin (“every time the beast has appeared on campus, hearts and minds have melted”), disclosed Ebirt’s whereabouts (“[he is] now living happily in the islands”), and reiterated what for him was clearly a priority in the selection process (“[it] looks great on T-shirts”).
Even more intelligence-insulting was the feature article, “Meet the Griffin,” which read like a poorly-written, not-that-funny piece from The Onion. Here were some of the lowlights:
– “In an exclusive one-on-one interview with the Griffin, he discussed his role on campus and why he loves his job… ‘My favorite part of the job is going around campus acting like I know everybody, and rubbing the Provost’s head.'”
– “Although he was embarrassed when he knocked over a glass while meeting the Board of Visitors, he says, ‘No one can get mad at the Griffin.'”
– A “mascot profile” sidebar, including his likes (high fives, chest bumps, and doing the robot), favortie song (“One Tribe” by the Black Eyed Peas), and favorite movie (Sergeant Cheerleader).
– His rate sheet ($50/hour on campus; $250/hour for private events).
What. A. Disaster.
Look, if you’re hell-bent on keeping the nickname “Tribe,” more power to you. But if you’re going to do that, and want a sideline-roaming mascot to boot, there’s no need to be so fucking serious about it. Since anything remotely Native American-themed would be nixed (hot blondes in buckskins “doing that Squaw thing,” for example), there isn’t really anywhere to go — in the literal sense — with the word “Tribe.” The idea of the King and Queen duo was actually an inspired one. Like Harvard’s John Harvard-pilgrim, or Stanford’s Tree, it’s simple, and requires no explanation. It shifts the focus from the semi-controversial “Tribe” to the more benign, and decidedly more romantic, “William and Mary.” And think of the uncharted frontier available to two mascots. They could dance with each other. Play catch on the sidelines. Use one another to stage sick alley-oops. It would mark a paradigm shift in mascot-related antics.
(My Plan B: take the Ebirt experiment in a different direction until we have something resembling the “Big Red” blob mascot of the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers [also simple; universally adored; inherently fun]).
Instead, there were way too many Chiefs, and not enough Indians (Zing!). So, we ended up with an overly complicated mascot that tried to be all things to all people and, with the exception of being green and gold, ended up making no sense to anyone.
I guess you could say William & Mary really showed their true colors.
At least they’ll sell a lot of T-shirts.