Misconceptions about Shippensburg University’s mascot, “Big Red,” abound and its relation to the school’s nickname — much like the origin of Red itself — is unclear.
For instance, if one were to stop a random Shippensburg University student to ask him or her what animal he or she believes Red to be, most would answer “a parrot.”
Though this seems incredibly logical given that the university uses a ship as its logo, as well as a nickname that — despite its original intention — alludes to pirates, this student would be wrong. Red is, in fact, a red-tail hawk. One that, mind you, wears a pirate’s hat.
How the university arrived at the idea of a hawk is something that students typically do not question today. Ten years ago, the same was not the case.
That is because in the spring of 2006, Shippensburg University did not have a face, and the reality of Red was still months away. In order to fully understand the events that led to Red’s christening as mascot in the fall of 2006, it is essential to look back to the roots of the university’s nickname, “Red Raiders.”
According to notes from former university sports information director (SID) John Alosi, the nickname was adopted in the 1930s. Alosi also writes that the “Red” in the name was not a reference to Native Americans, but instead, to the color of the uniforms worn by the athletic teams of that time.
The link apparently became stronger over the next couple of decades as the university began to use a Native American caricature as its logo circa 1950.
“…[The logo was] similar to [the logo] used by the Cleveland Indians of that era,” writes Alosi in regard to the emblem’s aesthetic design. “No one knows what prompted this adoption, or if there was an official date of its adoption.”
The logo would evolve, in Alosi’s words, into “a more dignified” version of itself over the years. But in 1993, it was scrapped altogether after a university committee was charged with examining its usage. According to former university president Anthony Ceddia, the use of the logo could no longer be justified.
“The university cannot in one situation speak to the appreciation and respect for others while utilizing an athletic logo that, regardless of our personal feelings, offends others.”
Thus, the boat logo was born. Along with complimenting the university’s popular nickname ‘Ship,’ the boat — or raider — also tipped its hat to Shippensburg’s founder, Edward Shippen. Shippen’s family made a large sum of money in coastal and transatlantic shipping in the days of new world settlement.
The committee did not deem the nickname “Red Raiders” offensive, however, and supported its continued use. The moniker has since been phased out, as the only squad that currently uses it is the football team. Every other athletic team is simply known as, the “Raiders.”
Twenty-odd years passed, and Shippensburg University still did not have a mascot. Other Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education schools did, so Shippensburg’s Student Senate took it upon itself to begin the process of finding a new one.
For better or for worse, the student senate decided to reach out to the student body for ideas, and it got plenty in return.
One of the concepts student senate received was a proposition to change the mascot to an eagle named “Stephen Colbeagle the Eagle.” It was the hope of those involved that the design would gain recognition from Stephen Colbert’s popular show “The Colbert Report.”
Ideas like ‘Stephen Colbeagle’ were a dime a dozen. This left student senate to sift through and find some of the more pragmatic concepts. According to Bill Morgal, current sports information director and former Shippensburg student, when the consensus came back there were two clear-cut favorites.
“The two that were most popular were — from what I recall, Big Red was one of them, but, also, Shippo the Hippo.”
It might be tough to imagine that Shippo was almost a reality from today’s perspective, but the hippo did have its fair share of support.
“There was a strong contingent that did like Shippo the Hippo,” Morgal said.
Such a strong contingent, in fact, that some conspiracy theorists might say the hippo was the rightful winner of the vote. Speculation aside, Big Red ultimately won. Not only did this cause some dissent among the hippo’s camp, but also among the students and community at large.
“I remember at first that (Big Red’s reveal) didn’t necessarily go over well,” Morgal recalled. “I can remember the students being somewhat disappointed.”
Some of that disappointment was rooted in the fact that the hippo did not win, but there was also a lot of scrutiny because Big Red’s design was unoriginal, and did not have a clear association with the school’s nickname. In an article covering Red’s public introduction, former Slate sports writer Mike Spiro listed some grievances about the new mascot,
“Well, it may look exactly like the University of Kansas’ mascot; it may not match our uniforms too well; and it may not have much affiliation with our school at all….”
Other students were upset about Red’s execution. In an opinion piece written for the Slate in 2006, Thom Casey expressed his issue with the mascot.
“We, the student populace, voted for a hawk and instead, we got Woody Woodpecker,” Casey wrote. “I don’t know about you, but I could have bought a better outfit for $1,300.”
Unfortunately, for students like Casey and Spiro, Red would only undergo some minor changes in the coming years. Big Red’s current design is generally the same as it was in 2006. Unlike 10 years ago, attitudes toward Big Red are not nearly as hostile. The disgruntled students of years past have graduated, and incoming ones most likely just thought Red was a parrot the whole time — or possibly, they just did not care.
Whatever the case may be, Red’s presence on campus is expected — even if it is not necessarily wanted. Its suit might not necessarily be groundbreaking in its design; its mannerisms may serve no other purpose than to be goofy; and the only relation it has to the university might be that it is red, and wears a pirate hat; but as Mr. Spirio put it best,
“Despite many oddities, a mascot, in the end, is better than nothing at all.”