Editor’s note: To maintain the anonymity of the students who fill Jonathan’s big feet, the two students traveling with the teams this weekend will be known as Chuck and Augie, after the Storrs brothers who in 1881 donated 170 acres of their farmland to establish the forerunner of UConn.
Thousands of UConn fans flocking to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, to support the men’s team and to Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., for the women’s team, will show their pride by what they wear this weekend. But the most visible show of Huskymania is also the most secretive.
Jonathan is the most recognized and photographed symbol of the Spirit, Pride, & Traditions Programs that also include the cheerleading and dance teams. However, while the cheerleaders and dancers are easily identifiable both on and off the court, Jonathan’s identity is deliberately unknown.
“I look at it as being Batman,” says Augie, one of four students who alternate to fill those big feet this year, about keeping his primarily nocturnal extracurricular activities a secret. “Anyone in Gotham could be Batman. Any one person at UConn can be Jonathan. I feel like a superhero.” This weekend, Augie will be in Nashville with the women’s team.
Adds Chuck, a junior who previously served as a mascot for a minor league baseball team: “Obviously your mom and dad find out, but they’re the only ones who really know. You’re carrying this humungous bag [with the costume inside] back to your dorm. You just say, I’m working with the basketball team.”
During annual tryouts for the role of Jonathan, Toya Ambrose, head coach for Spirit, Pride, & Tradition Programs, hopes to find an individual who projects energy and confidence while interacting with fans and wearing a costume that presents some physical challenges.
“The feet are very big, and hard to walk in, and there’s not much peripheral vision in the head,” Ambrose says. “They have to walk up and down a lot of stairs and move through the crowd. They have on-the-spot challenges, and need to use whatever is in the environment to create funny scenarios. For example, if they are walking past the cheerleaders with megaphones, I’d expect them to do something cool with it, like play it as a guitar.”
One constant role for Jonathan is posing with fans in front of a camera. Ambrose challenges students inside the suit to develop creative ways to pose, such as pretending to propose to a female fan. There are also some restrictions. Although fans may be eager to get a shot of Jonathan holding their baby, the mascot can’t accept because it would be too dangerous, given the limited vision from inside the head.
Chuck says he decides on what his interaction with the crowd should be based on whether he is approaching children or adults. A universal mascot rule is that they do not speak, so if a fan has food in his or her hands, Chuck will stare at the food and pretend to take it away. On the court, Chuck will walk up to a game official and use his tail to polish the basketball he is holding during a time out.
“Sometimes I mimic people,” says Augie, who has a background in theater from high school. “If someone is not clapping, my goal is to make them clap. I just learned to be big and over the top.”
The physical demands of performing for two or more hours in the heavy, warm Jonathan costume are a constant challenge. During half-time, students inside the costume usually take the opportunity to cool down before returning to the court.
“When I know I’m going to be Jonathan, I don’t work out, since that’s my cardio for the day,” says Augie. “It feels like I’m wearing a full ski suit, and goggles and helmet. I drink a lot of water and try not to eat much before. I bought a squirt bottle to be able to drink with the head on.”
On the 10th anniversary of UConn becoming the first university to win both the men’s and women’s NCAA Championship, March Madness in Storrs is peaking once again, as Kevin Ollie ’95 (CLAS) and Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma lead their teams this weekend into the Final Four, the fourth time both squads have reached the final weekend of the college basketball season.
During the NCAA Tournament, as well as in some arenas during the regular season, mascots find some restrictions on their ability to interact with the crowd, as well as new challenges on the court.
“There are different rules at each facility. It depends on the stadium security,” says Chuck about limited movement around the arena for mascots. “At Buffalo [for the men’s first round games], I couldn’t go into the stands at all.”
During the women’s Final Four, there may be a “dance-off” between mascots from opposing teams, where Jonathan’s over-sized feet restrict smooth dance steps. Ambrose recalls a previous Final Four competition when the female student inside the Stanford Tree mascot threw off her costume to free her movement and revved up the appreciative crowd. The Huskies face Stanford in Sunday’s semifinal game.
Augie, who also is trained in dance, says he is looking forward to the competition, noting that he might have a more difficult challenge should the highly anticipated match-up between the unbeaten Huskies and Notre Dame come to fruition in the women’s championship game on Tuesday in Nashville.
“I’m really excited there is a mascot competition,” he says. “But it will be tough against the Fighting Irish mascot. He’s a person [not a costumed character].”