Recapping DU’s Top 10 Incredibly Terrible Mascot Screw-Ups Since 1998

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The University of Denver has a long and utterly shameful history of mascot-related mistakes over the last 20 years. Each of DU’s Chancellors since 1998 has stumbled badly in this arena, and the more they try, the worse it seems to get. With this awful 20-year track record, careening between bumbling and failure, many of us can now surely feel secure in the knowledge that DU knows exactly what it is doing when it comes to this subject. The screw-ups read like a comedy and taken together, serve as a veritable, multi-year case study of incompetence —  how NOT to handle University mascots and associated identity issues.

On a serious note, as DU alumni and sports fans, all of these stumbles have a cumulative effect on us — the alumni, students, fans and the wider community.  Over time, these screw-ups erode our trust in the DU administration on matters of school identity.  To demonstrate this erosion, we shall begin in chronological order, and where you see a link in the story, hit it to go deeper!

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1998-1999: Screw-up #1 THE MYSTERIOUS MURDER OF DENVER BOONE

Denver Boone, DU’s Disney-designed mascot, had already served DU for 30 years when it was mysteriously dumped from the official mascot post by otherwise-popular Chancellor Dan Ritchie in 1998-1999, with no public explanation. Many reasons were rumored, from claims that female athletes were offended, to claims that Native Americans were offended, to claims that was it was Ritchie himself who was offended. But none of the reasons were made officially public by DU at that time. Thirty years of Denver Boone simply vanished overnight…

1998-1999: Screw-up #2 IMPOSING A MEANINGLESS MASCOT

In Boone’s place, the Ritchie regime didn’t substantively consult with the DU community on a replacement. Instead, they went to a local design firm and soon imposed on us the “Ruckus the Red-Tailed Hawk” mascot, and his evil twin, the stylized Redhawk logo that appeared on DU uniforms and merchandise from that era. The DU administration had written a tiny line of type on its website to help launch the new mascot: “Red-Tailed Hawks were present overhead when the Pioneers settled Colorado” as their lame rationale for the new Hawk mascot. But of course, that half-hearted rationale wasn’t particularly well communicated, and when people saw the new mascots and logos in real life, they could easily see that hawks obviously had little to do with the DU nickname, Pioneers. The fact that Ritchie had rounded up $85 million for a new athletic center bearing his name certainly muted the initial public reaction, which was mostly confusion at first. But that confusion would be followed by eventual failure…

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1999-2002: Screw-up #3 THE FAILURE OF THE FIRST RUCKUS 

The initial cowboy-hatted Ruckus the Red Tailed hawk mascot costume was crude, heavy and scared little children so terribly that it failed quickly. It was soon jettisoned by the administration, although I’m sure they were miffed when almost no one picked up on the arcane internal symbolism of the red vest, a sartorial tradition started by then-Chancellor Henry Buchtel at the turn of the 20th century and often worn by DU Chancellors since then. The print version of that Ruckus was also quickly kicked to the curb, along with the costume.

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2002-2008: Screw-up #4 THE FAILURE OF THE SECOND RUCKUS 

Smarting from the first Ruckus failure, DU soon changed Ruckus to a hatless hawk that was immediately derided by the DU fan base as the “chicken hawk” and “creepy”.  It hung around for a few years, but even then-Chancellor Robert Coombe agreed that “it never caught on.” Between 2006 and 2008, Peg Bradley-Doppes, the then-new athletic director, did the right thing by largely banishing the second Ruckus costume to a closet in Magness Arena, where it probably still hangs in shame next to the first failed Ruckus costume.

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1999-2006: Screw-up #5 THE FAILURE OF THE RED HAWK LOGO 

The Red Hawk Logo (above left) was so stylized that many people didn’t even know what it was for years. DU fans even gave it a derisive nickname of its own: “the jelly donut”.  By 2006, Bradley-Doppes finally put this Ritchie-era failure out of its misery and gradually replaced it with the “Arched Denver” and “DU Interlock” letter athletic word marks and monograms that we see today (at center and right, above).

2006-2008: Screw-up #6 CHANCELLOR COOMBE RE-BANS BOONE

In 2006 and 2007, a student-led “Bring Back Boone” movement was raging on campus, as students sought a familiar replacement for the void created by the failed Ruckus. With campus enthusiasm high for a return of Boone, then-Chancellor Bob Coombe rained on the parade — fearful perhaps of losing a proposed mascot vote if Boone was included. Accordingly, in 2008, Coombe wrote his famed “Open Letter”, where he officially axed Boone’s return for “diversity” reasons. Coombe may have angered a lot of Boone fans with his decision to call the mascot “polarizing” without any data to back up his claim, but to his credit, he did throw a small bone to students and alumni, by releasing the Boone image to them to use ‘as they wish’. Perhaps Coombe never imagined that a new Boone mascot costume would later be constructed with student and alumni backing, which debuted in 2009. He also closed his by letter saying “DU would always be the Pioneers.”  We hope he was at least right about that claim, but we’re not sure how long “always” is these days…

 2008: Screw-up #7 DU DROPS THE BALL ON BOONE TRADEMARK

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Since commissioning it from Disney Studios back in 1968, DU either never bothered to trademark the Boone logo or failed to renew it. Either way, it isn’t trademarked today. That’s one of the reasons Coombe “released” the logo to students and alumni back in in 2008. Since then, DU has since lost out on Boone mascot-related merchandise revenue, which in the 10 years since Coombe released the image, might have been hundreds of thousands of dollars. Instead, student and alumni-produced ‘Boonewear’ has helped to fill the void…

2013: Screw-up #8 THE ‘MURAL-GATE’ INCIDENT

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You can’t make this up. DU literally painted over part of a large full-color mural in the Ritchie Center concourse, in order to obliterate the Boone character that was part of the original mural. In fact, the school had erected the mural only a few months earlier, after soliciting a significant four-figure donation from a single alumnus with a promise of portraying Boone. And after obliterating Boone and replacing the Boone image with that of a DU skier, DU didn’t even have the decency to return the money to the donor. This really happened (!) and it was stupid at an unmitigated level. It was also disturbingly Orwellian…and perhaps a precursor of further “white-washing” to come.

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2013: Screw-up #9 THE MASCOT SEARCH DEBACLE of 2013

In 2013, DU publicly announced a search for a new mascot. Months later, a humiliated DU had to end the search due to its own ineptitude. By then, DU had spent at least $60,000 (and possibly much more) on this horrible mistake, after cobbling together a rambling, fractious 76-member mascot committee and conducting 45 focus groups and 15 open forums with the DU Community to gain input.

It is notable that throughout the process, DU would not allow Boone to be among the consideration set to become the “new” mascot. To make things worse, one of the student ringleaders of the mascot committee was caught red-handed suppressing a Clarion poll before the election, likely afraid that Boone write-in votes would win the poll and steal the thunder from the upcoming mascot committee vote. But the mascot committee could not stop the Denver Post from running its own front page poll in 2013, in which Boone was a landslide winner.

The same student ringleaders of the mascot committee then produced three mascot options (an Elk, “Jackalope”, and a Mountaineer) and asked the DU community to vote online from among the three choices in the depths of that summer. The choices were each so laughable and entirely unrelated to DU that they split the 8,000+ votes, with none of them earning enough votes to earn school endorsement. DU didn’t even have the guts to report the official voting figures, and behind closed doors, the DU Board of Trustees reportedly shot holes in the ringleaders’ ham-handed approach and ended the process.

It all ended in an embarrassing shower of bad national and local press/social media fallout, raining down on DU and firing up alumni and sports fans to halt donations and ticket purchases. At the same time, DU was suffering more public media beatings from firing its popular hockey coach, as well as from a law school discrimination scandal.  It took Coombe’s 2014 departure from DU and four more years for that mascot fiasco’s stink to fade…

2017: Screw-up #10 SNEAKY MASK POLICY RE-RE-BANS BOONE 

This holiday season, when the DU students were away, DU made its newest step on the mascot-related banana peel,  with a blatantly disingenuous mask policy. With this new anti-Boone policy now in place and the small anti-Boone, anti-Pioneer forces emboldened, we can only speculate what might happen next.

Will they ban the Boone image as well as the costume?

Will they repeat the mistakes of the past and give us another bad mascot that people can’t visually connect with the Pioneer nickname?

Or will they go all the way and dump the 93-year old Pioneer nickname, too – slicing off the common thread that ties generations of Pioneers together in a proud shared identity?

The answer to these questions may depend on how much we, the DU Community (and the Board of Trustees), allow them to get away with. Remember, we, the DU alumni and sports fans are the ones who have the deeper emotional ties, the longer affiliations, and the more extensive memories. Do not forget that we have voices (and wallets) and a serious role to play in shaping the future of our school’s identity.

In the meantime, we want to take this opportunity to thank the many people who have funded, built and supported the unofficial Boone mascot costume since 2009. We also thank the many DU students, male and female, from a range of diverse ethnic backgrounds, who have proudly worn the Boone costume over the years, despite blistering heat inside and the occasional assault by opposing fans and overzealous security forces. These students have continually delighted fans in Magness Arena, on campus and all over the United States, as Boone has cheered on the Pioneers. The joy, pride and spirit the Boone character has brought to the DU community will always be treasured, no matter what horrible decisions the DU administration has made and may continue to make in the future.

With the mascot track record you’ve just read about, you’d think the smart, highly-pedigreed academic leaders at DU might have learned something by now…but perhaps not.

If this identity-related incompetence bothers you, please let the administration know how you feel. Send it to alumni@du.edu, and be sure to copy your email to boardoftrustees@du.edu and tell your DU friends.  Remember, if you don’t complain, we’ll likely get their next mistake….

Go Pios!

Puck Swami is the Internet Moniker of a long-time DU fan and alumnus. He shares his views here periodically at Lets Go DU.com