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Weird Mascots in College Sports

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

Big Al is the official mascot for the University of Alabama. Al made his debut in 1980.

The most infamous mascot mystery in the world of college sports is that of the Alabama Crimson Tide. While the nickname itself is enough to raise a few eyebrows, the fact that an elephant parades up and down the sidelines of Alabama sporting events is even more surprising.

Apparently, the idea originated in 1930 after Alabama played Ole Miss in football. A sportswriter wrote in his article recapping the game that an anonymous fan yelled out, “Hold your horses, the elephants are coming,” in reference to Alabama taking the field. The nickname stuck throughout that season, when Alabama won a national championship and for seasons to come.

In the 1960s, Melford Espey, Jr., a then-student at the university, wore an elephant head to portray the mascot. Later, Espey became a university administrator and when the students asked for the costumed mascot to be brought back, Head Coach Paul Bryant asked him to make it happen.

The idea of “Big Al” came from a student named Walt Tart. He and Ann Paige, chair of the homecoming committee, were trying to think of new ideas for the homecoming parade. Tart felt that Alabama should have a mascot like other schools did and reached out to the University of Kentucky to learn more about their mascot costume. He learned that Disney was actually responsible for the design of several college mascots. Tart and Paige contacted Disney to see how much it would cost to design and create the elephant costume.

Since the money for the costume would have to come from the athletic department, Tart and Paige set up a meeting with Bryant, who was not only the football coach but the athletic director.

The two students had prepared a presentation for the meeting and reminded one another to remain professional and not ask for his autograph. During the meeting, the coach joked about the mess an elephant on the field would make before being assured they were speaking about a costume, not an actual elephant. Of course, the coach knew all along and was just having fun. Bryant also said he felt elephants were smart but a little slow. However, the meeting went well enough for Tart and Paige to be awarded the funds for the costume.

However, on the way out, Paige caved and asked Bryant for his autograph and Tart quickly followed her lead. They walked out of the office with the money they wanted and the coach’s autograph.

“Big Al” officially debuted in 1980 at the Sugar Bowl when Alabama played Arkansas. Hugh Dye, a student, wore the costume that game before Kent Howard and Maury Smith took over for the 1980 season.

As for the name “Big Al,” it was decided on by a student vote. At the time, there was a popular DJ who worked a lot of events for the football players named Al Brown. A campaign was started to name the mascot after him, and it succeeded with Brown’s name living on in the Crimson Tide mascot.

In Big Al’s first year as the official mascot, Bryant earned his 300th career win

against Kentucky.

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