WVU’s mascot and traditions, not to mention the state’s image, are on display like never before.
Written by Laura Wilcox Rote
This story originally appeared in the August / September 2012 print edition of Morgantown magazine.
Wearing heavy, custom buckskins and a real coonskin hat, the Mountaineer carries not just the weight of his mascot’s uniform, but the weight of West Virginia on his back. The tradition began more than 60 years ago, and while the outfit looks nearly the same, the responsibilities of the man—or woman—in buckskins have grown.
The Mountaineer attends approximately 250 events outside the realm of athletics each year, according to Sonja Wilson, the Mountaineer mascot advisor. The position is technically unpaid—mascots receive a tuition waiver for that year—but the experience is invaluable. On April 20, 2012, Jonathan Kimble officially became WVU’s 62nd mascot. Between that day and mid-June, the Franklin native had already made more than 80 public appearances. “In one week, I’ve traveled probably about 2,500 miles,” he says with a smile. “I’ve been to Paw Paw, Marlinton, Parkersburg, Wheeling, Charleston. I’m everywhere.” Over the summer, he traveled to Los Angeles to tape a commercial, went to Texas for a convention, and attended countless parades and alumni events.
The job just keeps getting bigger as the face of WVU’s mascot becomes more and more recognizable across the U.S. This year, the Mountaineer’s recognition will reach new heights as WVU enters the Big 12 Conference and the mascot, clad for adventure, introduces himself to people in Texas, Kansas, Iowa, and Oklahoma. “The Mountaineer is one of the most beloved traditions we have, not only at WVU, but for the state of West Virginia,” says Sonja. “Our Mountaineer embodies our states—strength, character, wisdom. Our Mountaineer is so much more than other school mascots.”
Not just anyone can be the Mountaineer. There’s a rigorous application process that includes essay questions and references. A selection committee—made up of alumni, faculty, athletic staff, and students from Mountain Honorary—looks for students who can handle the responsibility and time commitment as well as be able to speak and write well. “If they’ve been involved in a ton of things before, that really helps them when they get into this job—and it is a job,” Sonja says. “Once you’re the Mountaineer, you’re the Mountaineer whether you’re in the buckskins or not.”
The committee interviews the top 10 contenders. “There are 15 people around you just grilling you for a half-hour,” Jonathan says. From there, four are chosen for a cheer-off at a WVU basketball game. Finalists put on the buckskins and are judged on their interaction with the crowd and ability to handle the gun. From the moment Jonathan took the court, he was hooked. “That’s my favorite thing. I got to every single game—soccer, basketball, volleyball, football. I’m always there anyway, so I know all of the people and I’ve made a lot of friends.”
History and Controversy
Some controversy exists around when the Mountaineer mascot tradition truly began. In 1927, the university had its first Mountaineer, but he wasn’t official. Boyd H. “Slim” Arnold, Mountaineer in 1937, was the first to be recognized by WVU.
Almost all of the mascots have gone on to successful careers. When you hear West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant speak, her tenure as the first female Mountaineer in 1990 often comes up. “She persevered a lot when she was the Mountaineer,” Sonja says. “People would throw cups at her. They would chant, ‘We don’t want a mountain deer. Bring us back our Mountaineer.’” But taunting only made Natalie stronger. Since then, one other female has been the Mountaineer—Rebecca Durst in 2009. Natalie says her stint as mascot helped her become who she is today. She remembers people yelling at her to “get in the kitchen,” and one particular instance when she traveled with the team to Virginia Tech. “They yelled, ‘We want a man!’ I said, ‘So do I!’ You have to use humor,” she laughs.
Before the Mountaineer, Natalie was the mascot for the North Marion High School Huskies, outside of Fairmont. She was Super Dog, wearing a costume made by her mother and dribbling the basketball between her legs, being goofy, and having fun. “I can remember my mom taking me to WVU orientation. She said, ‘You know if they had a funny sidekick to the Mountaineer, you could be it.’ But the Mountaineer was more serious.” By the time Natalie approached her senior year of college, she decided she could do it. She was active in student government and in a sorority and felt confident. After the application process, she was one of the top two contenders, and she won, despite being booed by some in the crowd. “I wanted football season to come around so I could prove myself.”
All summer, Natalie attended alumni events and even worked in the secretary of state’s office. She wanted to represent both WVU and the state. “While there were some people who didn’t like the idea of a woman Mountaineer, some people did. There were many mothers who wanted their children to see this,” she says.
When someone tells you you can’t do something, you’ll succeed if you’re doing it for the right reasons, Natalie says. “That can translate to anything. Do it because you want to do it, and you’ll be successful.” Natalie graduated from WVU in 1991 with a journalism degree and went on to be a television reporter before running for office. She says Jonathan might be up for more scrutiny than recent Mountaineers as WVU enters the Big 12. “He does have a little extra responsibility because it will be the first time other schools are paying attention to us—as a team, as a state, as Mountaineers. They are going to ask, “Who is this guy running around shooting a gun off?”
As each Mountaineer’s term ends, Sonja says, passing the torch is difficult. “It’s hard for them to give that away.” Rock Wilson was the only official Mountaineer to serve three years—from 1991 through 1993. It was totally life-changing. I’m just an average boy from small-town West Virginia, but I always loved the Mountaineers,” the Harrisville native says. He remembers working with 1981 Mountaineer Ed Cokeley’s father putting up hay in Ritchie County, when he sometimes got to work side by side with Ed. “I thought it was so cool to be hanging out with the Mountaineer,” he recalls. “The first thing I did at WVU was try out to be the Mountaineer. For the first three years, I failed. But I was determined.” Then, he says, he was liked so much he got to stick around. “Other than my children, being the Mountaineer has been one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.”
Every five years, a Mountaineer mascot reunion takes place during Homecoming Week. This year marks the 65th anniversary of Mountaineer Week and will include the special reunion. “It’s cool to have 1947 talk to 2012. They just love to share their stories,” Sonja says.
The 1963 Mountaineer, William “Buck” Rogers, hopes to travel from his home in Maryland to attend the reunion this year. He says the Mountaineer of today is much different from the Mountaineer of the 1960s. Born in Sutton and raised in Charleston, Buck studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Virginia before transferring to WVU and getting a degree in mathematics. He was honored to be the mascot in 1963—WVU’s 100th year. “In addition to the sports activities, the state was sponsoring a whole lot of other festivities and occasions to celebrate to which I was invited. I had the privilege of spending a lot of time with then–Governor Wally Barron and his wife, traveling around and doing a lot of events.”
Buck says many of the highlights of his stint as Mountaineer came during football season—as WVU played Oregon, Navy, and Penn State. In basketball, WVU was still in the Southern Conference. In those days, you could fire the musket at indoor stadiums. “I had some interesting encounters with police,” he laughs. “There were no stringent laws like you have now. You’d fire that gun and a smoke cloud would go off, and it scared a lot of people. I guess the police department wasn’t expecting it. Most of the time I could talk myself out of it.”
Tryouts weren’t as intimidating, either. Buck simply saw an ad in the student newspaper and applied. The process wasn’t as involved. One day, he got a call to pick up his buckskins, hat, and rifle. “There wasn’t any real formal training. It was, ‘You represent the state, and you’re expected to attend rallies and all the football and basketball games, and as people invite you to things, if you can work it into your academic schedule, please do everything you can to represent the state.’ Because it was the centennial year, I probably got a lot more exposure than other Mountaineers around that time.”
Buck remembers getting to meet Rod Hundley, the former WVU basketball great who first took the team to an NCAA tournament in 1955. “Rod Hundley was an announcer and he and I struck up an acquaintance. Even when he was an announcer, he was the same Rod Hundley, such a gentleman, and he had a great sense of humor. I think he was also selling Converse tennis shoes. He was a cool dude.”
Rivalries were a bit different in Buck’s day, too. “It was more ‘rough and tumble.’ Every now and then I engaged in physical contact with other mascots.” He remembers chasing the Pitt Panther with a seltzer bottle, among other, more colorful pranks. He also has fond memories of the Navy game, even though WVU lost considerably. Navy was scoring so often that they ran out of powder for their victory cannon. Buck let the opposing team have some of his gunpowder, and as a reward, their fans passed him up and down the stands—essentially crowd-surfing. “It was a great experience for me, but not a great experience for WVU football.”
Buck continues to be an avid watcher of WVU football and says now might be the best time for WVU’s entry into the Big 12. “They now have a coach who, I think, is able to deal with the ‘big-time,’” he says. “For the Mountaineer, the exposure is going to be even more. He’ll be scrutinized, not quite like a politician, but every time he makes a move—in these days and times, there’s always someone with a video camera or an iPhone—someone will be watching. There’s a lot more pressure to behave.”
Jonathan knows all eyes are on him. He’s nervous, but excited. After all, this is all part of his plan, having also tried out three times before finally being named mascot for the 2012–13 school year. Now a graduate student in the Master of Science in Human Resources and Industrial Relations Program, he looks forward to where life will take him. “Going to Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, going to the Big 12—it’s really a historic season for a WVU fan,” he says. “Now I get to be a part of it and give back to the state, too.”
Sonja says Jonathan is in the right place at the right time, with so many opportunities to network and meet new people as part of the Big 12. As the Moutnaineers’ advisor, she knows many of the mascot alumni well. “I think, if you were able to talk to all of the former Mountaineers, everyone would tell you it’s one of the most memorable times of their lives. It’s something they will never forget.”
Buck is certainly still invested. When WVU is playing, he’s trying to find the nearest television. “I’m always very unhappy if there’s not at least one or two or five shots of the Mountaineer during the festivities. I’ll get irate if the Mountaineer is ignored.”
Walk Tall and Carry a Big Gun
The handcrafted rifle carried by the Mountaineer is made by Marvin Wotring Sr. of Morgantown, who’s been making custom rifles for WVU for decades. A 1965 WU graduate, Marvin made the buckskins and rifle for the Mountaineer mascot from 1978 to the late 1980s. Today he continues to make the rifle for the Mountaineer and has handcrafted at least eight rifles for mascots. Each rifle, crafted from West Virginia curly maple, is unique and takes about 65 to 70 hours to make.