The NCAA basketball tournament: an annual eruption of exciting games, crazed fans and goofy, often perplexing, mascots
Yesterday at the tourney, there were Bruins and Tigers, Tarheels and Jayhawks.
What's a jayhawk, you ask? It's a genetic cross between a blue jay and a sparrow hawk - a rare bird peculiar to Kansas.
Mascots are meant to stir school spirit, unite fans, and if possible strike fear in the hearts of opponents.
So there were the usual ferocious bulldogs and ornery eagles this year, as well as some surprising exotics like toreros and … governors?
So far no fighting state comptrollers.
You know, coming up with a good mascot can be really hard to do. Take the Georgetown Hoyas. Hoya is the Greek word meaning "what" or "such" … what does a "what" or a "such" look like? Everybody's default mascot, a bulldog.
School symbols can also be hard to hold onto.
My school, Illinois, had to get rid of its revered Chief Illiniwek after 80 years because he allegedly offended the Illini tribe (which disappeared 250 years ago).
Stanford used to be the Indians, but their unofficial omnipresent mascot is now a tree.
A tree seems inoffensive enough but it's been thrown out of games for drinking and fighting … yes, mascots do tussle!
Some schools are taking the safe path, going with unidentifiable fur-balls that look like friends of Barney. Some mascots are downright bizarre.
Evergreen State College in Washington went with the geoduck, a mollusk (Look, I'm a mollusk!).
But alas, that too offends some people with its unattractive, some say almost obscene appearance.
In costume, what am I now? A banana slug - a UC-Santa Cruz banana slug, a slimy creature apparently designed to disgust the opposition.
But my favorite school mascot comes fresh from the produce aisle … the artichoke. The "Fighting Artichokes" of Scottsdale Community College. Really!
I asked Artie the Artichoke is he ever wished he were a tiger or cougar or screaming eagle or somebody really nasty?
Artie motioned no. (Artie can't talk, a trait common to thistle-vegetables).
We went to see college president Art DeCabooter, who said students had elected the artichoke their mascot. Why?
"What do you get when you get to the middle of an apple, you get to the middle of a banana, you get to the middle of kumquat? Nothing," he told Geist. "You get heart when you get to the middle of an artichoke. Can you imagine anything more beautiful than that?"
So that's what it's all about: Heart of the artichoke
"I'm almost tearing up," DeCabooter admitted.
But what does the basketball team think?
"We're probably the only fighting vegetables out there, but it's OK," said coach Paul Eberhardt.
Is it better than broccoli or lettuce?
"Without question," he said. "Artichoke's got a little dignity to it. If we were the broccoli or cauliflower I don't think we'd be any good."
His players aren't quite so sure.
One said, "I think we'd do better with a tougher mascot. I didn't even know what an artichoke was until I looked it up [and] I found out it was a vegetable."
The school hired editorial cartoonist Brian Fairington recently to toughen up Artie's image a bit - give him an artichoke make-over.
"At first it sounded like a lot of fun, but as I got into it I realized, this is a challenge," Brian said.
The suggestions were to make him more muscular and more fierce, in a sort of traditional college mascot way.
What he came up with was what you'd get if you injected an artichoke with steroids. You wouldn't want to meet this artichoke in a dark alley.
Students say Artie's pretty scary (in his own way). And that's good for a mascot. Witness the T-shirt that says, "Fear the Artichoke."
And practically the whole campus now seems in the grip of artichoke fever …which makes people do some pretty strange things.
"Here we go, artichoke, here we go! Here we go, artichoke, here we go!" they cheer.
Who knew that as a mascot, as well as a hot party dip, the artichoke would be such a hit?