The word ‘mascot’ originally came from French - ‘la mascotte’ translates to a lucky charm. A French opera by the same name popularized the term in France in 1880 and the word travelled across the Atlantic the following year.

While a few sports teams and universities in the US utilized mascots already in the early 1900s, their use became more widespread in the 1930s. Mascots can be anything from real dogs to stuffed animals, inanimate objects or people dressed in costumes. Eagles, bears, lions and tigers are some of the most popular choices.

Besides bringing good luck, universities and colleges use mascots for entertainment purposes, to create unity and to foster team spirit. Each mascot is supposed to display some characteristics that correlate with the school or the team it represents.

Here are some of the unique mascots of American schools.

The Billiken - Saint Louis University

This mythical Buddha-like statue is one of the oldest school mascots, as it was created and named by Florence Pretz, a Missouri art teacher, in 1908. The Billiken became affiliated with SLU’s football team around the 1910s - it was said to look like the university’s football coach John Bender. Today “being a Billiken is a way of life” for the students of Saint Louis University. This means being yourself while fully accepting others and serving them as best as you can.

The Banana Slug – UC Santa Cruz

In a sea of mascots representing strength and resilience – such as hawks, dogs and panthers – the slow Banana Slug of the University of California Santa Cruz really stands out. This slimy, shell-less yellow mollusc is relevant to Santa Cruz as it lives in the nearby redwood forests. It also showcases the softer values of the university: that athletics should be for everyone and participating matters more than winning. The Banana Slug has been the school’s official mascot since 1986.  

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Gus the Gorilla – Pittsburg State University

The Kansas-based Pittsburg State University has something no other school in the US has: a gorilla as a mascot. Gus the Gorilla was the brainchild of an art student in 1923 and was adopted as the official mascot two years later. The initial ferociousness of the gorilla has softened over the years – he even found a girlfriend in 1952, Gussie the Gorilla. Gus has become so popular that he now has his own set of gorilla emojis available through the Apple Store.

Brutus Buckeye – Ohio State University

As Buckeye is the official state tree of Ohio, selecting this tree’s brown-yellow nut as the mascot of Ohio State University made perfect sense back in 1965. The nut got his first name, Brutus, shortly after a campus-wide “Name the Buckeye” contest. Nowadays Brutus Buckeye appears in 500 annual events around the university and the community of Columbus. He has also been the school’s push-up champion for 49 years: a hard nut to crack, literally.

The Masked Rider – Texas Tech University

Starting in 1936, you could sometimes see a masked person riding around with a horse during the football games of the Texas Tech University. Nobody knew who this quickly disappearing ghost rider was. They clearly made a big impression though, as the Masked Rider was made the school’s official mascot in 1954. Shortly after that, the university started selecting one student per year to be the Masked Rider: he or she gets to represent Texas Tech in more than 300 annual events.

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About the Writer: Mirva Lempiäinen is a US-educated freelance journalist from Finland. After calling New York City home for about a decade, she now resides on the French-Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.