A walk on the wild-cat side

The Wildcat mascot helps pump up students during Big Blue U at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington , Ky., on Friday, August 23, 2013. Photo by Eleanor Hasken | Staff

Lexington Souers

“And they fought like Wildcats”  

With that remark, Commandant Carbusier, head of UK’s military department at the time, coined the nickname that would become the university’s mascot.

According to the UK traditions website, Carbusier used the term after a 1909 away game against Illinois, which the Wildcats won 6-2. Over time students, fans and media personnel adopted the term and it was finally deemed the official mascot of the university. 

It wasn’t until 1976 that students began dressing up as the Wildcat for sporting events. T. Lynn Williamson, advisor to the UK Cheerleading Program, said the mascot was created by Cliff Hagan, who was Athletic Director at the time. 

The Wildcat used to have spots, but has since traded them in for elaborate costumes and jerseys. 

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The Wildcat isn’t UK’s only mascot. There’s also Scratch, a more child friendly representation of the beloved wildcat. Scratch was created in the 90’s after the NCAA encouraged schools to create kid’s clubs and mascots. 

Williamson said there are four people who alternate dressing as the Wildcat.  Students are selected to tryout and then participate in an interview, planned suit performance and an impromptu interaction in the community.

“To be a mascot, you’ve got to be uninhibited, a little bit crazy, a little bit out there, a little bit daring,” Williamson said. 

Spontaneity is the other key to being a successful mascot, according to Williamson. He said mascots have to learn to react to different situations especially with children, who often love the mascot on TV or from a distance, but get scared if the mascot approaches too fast. Williamson also said being a mascot requires you to be inventive and innovative. 

“Nobody knows who you are, so you don’t get any credit,” Williamson said. “But yet, if the mascot does something wrong, you get in trouble.” 

The mascot has been present at UK sporting and community events for almost 40 years. It was first held by Gary Tanner, and then by Terry Barney, who beat out Tanner after his friends encouraged him to attend tryouts in April of 1978. 

“I ran out of material about a minute and a half in,” Barney said. “So I did it all backwards.” 

Barney was the Wildcat from 1978-1980, as well as being co-captain of the cheerleading squad in his last year as The Wildcat.  At UK, he was a physical education major, and currently teaches at DeSales High School in Louisville. 

“It pretty much changed my life,” Barney said. “It was like being royalty, for me at least.”

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Barney said his goal as the Wildcat was to touch as many people as he could, whether that was giving out hugs and high-fives or performing at games. According to Barney, the traditions have stayed the same throughout the years, including the one armed push-ups, a tradition he’s credited for starting.

“That was the cheerleaders,” Barney said. “Saying ‘Terry, you need to do one armed push-ups.’” 

The tradition of one armed push-ups has come under some scrutiny the past few seasons. Barney said he’s glad the Wildcat finishes each set of push-ups with a one armed push-up. 

“I just wish he would do them all the way to his nose,” Barney said about the Wildcat’s two handed push-ups. 

For 1996-99 Wildcat Gavin Duerson, one-armed push-ups were a part of his game-day preparation, but he doesn’t fault the current Wildcats for their switch. 

“I think they should have kept it. I think that would have been good just because it’s been going on and on,” Duerson said. “But the problem, I think became when they built the new stadium with the big screens, because people could really see just how bad the push-ups had become.” 

He added that his push-ups “probably weren’t the best either,” but that stadium improvements, like the bigger screen, highlighted the difficulties of the one armed push-up.

Duerson said he has many positive memories from his time as the Wildcat. He would attend alumni events, tailgates, schools and hospital visits. He said memories from those hospital visits, like one where a patient who had been in surgery days before “popped right up,” after seeing Duerson. 

The former Wildcat is known for his choreographed dances with the dance team and his proposal to his wife. Excitement aside, Duerson said it eventually becomes a job. 

“It’s super fun and super exciting, but then it quickly becomes grueling and hard work,” Duerson said. “You’re trying to portray like you have all this energy and sometimes that’s the case, but a lot of times you’re pretty exhausted.” 

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Duerson, now Director of Simple Church Alliance, said being Wildcat gives him an instant connection with people once they figure out he was behind the Wildcat mask. He added that his goal as wildcat was to make people laugh and enjoy themselves. 

“I would always take it as my goal to win over the fans, especially fans of the other team. To make people laugh, that was always my thing…” Guerson said. “Kentucky sports can be taken a little too seriously and I think the Wildcat is there to remind people that this is a game and you’re there to have fun.” 

Along with the human mascots, UK has had several live animal mascots throughout the years, with the first one being given to the University in 1921. Blue, UK’s live mascot from 2000 to 2012, lived at The Salato Wildlife Center in Frankfort KY. 

Brent McCarty, Conservation Educator at Salato, believes the Wildlife Center became the home for the live mascot because it was close to Lexington, and because it was better equipped to care for native wildlife. A bobcat, or wildcat, is the around the size of a medium sized dog, and eats about a pound of meat a day. 

“I’ve spoken to a few people who had gone to games a long time ago were the Wildcat was brought out,” McCarty said. “He was on a leash but he was freaking out.” 

The tradition of bringing the live mascot to the games ended after the human mascot was created. McCarty said Blue was friendly and playful, even at times affectionate. 

“Sometimes he was a little too playful,” McCarty said. “He liked to jump up on your shoulders. He could knock you down.”

While UK no longer has an official live mascot, the Salato Wildlife Center does still have two live bobcats.