Under most circumstances, starting a new job is a pretty solitary activity. Maybe a couple friends text you the night before to wish you luck, and you’re welcomed on your first day by your new boss and the HR lady. Some of your new coworkers introduce themselves, and if you’re lucky, they ask you if you want to come with them to lunch or drinks after work. Under no circumstances are you celebrated by tens of thousands of cheering fans, unless you’re being inaugurated as president. Or, unless you’re Que. It’s not clear whether Que understands he has a job, though. He’s an English bulldog.
More specifically, Que is an all-white English bulldog, bred from a special line of all-white English bulldogs with the title of Uga X as his destiny. He sits atop the University of Georgia’s multimillion-dollar collegiate sports empire, and he was collared (the position’s version of “coronated”) in front of a crowd of nearly 93,000 screaming people ahead of the university’s football game against Georgia Southern last fall, in the same stadium in which his nine deceased predecessors are interred in one of the end zones.
— Georgia Bulldogs (@UGAAthletics) November 21, 2015
Uga X and his ancestors, in addition to a handful of other mascots across the country, are part of a unique collegiate sports tradition in the United States: live canine mascots, which straddle a divide between revered organizational figureheads and beloved companion animals. Uga is arguably the most nationally famous of the group (Uga IV had a role in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and walked the premiere’s red carpet in a specially tailored tuxedo; Uga V got his very own profile-boosting Sports Illustrated cover in 1997, which proclaimed him the nation’s best college mascot), but he’s by no means unique when it comes to how ardently the school’s football fans love him and the many ways in which that adoration makes his life genuinely, if wonderfully, bizarre.
Reveille IX of Texas A&M University, a rough collie, and Smokey X of the University of Tennessee, a blue tick coon hound, are also members of this collegiate pup pantheon, and because of the random ways in which most live canine mascots have come to be part of their respective universities, each tradition is distinct and deeply idiosyncratic. Uga I, for example, caught the eye of Georgia head football coach Wally Butts when his owner brought him to sit in the stands at a football game in 1956; Reveille I was a mutt some TAMU students hit in a car and brought back to the dorms in 1931; Smokey I was submitted to a Tennessee Pep Club mascot contest by a local pastor in 1953 and chosen by the crowd at a football game because he howled every time they cheered. Bulldog mascots at Mississippi State University started in 1935 when the head football coach acquired a dog named Ptolemy to inspire his players; subsequent dogs would take the name Bully.
The canine mascot traditions, like many things about college football fandom, are most intense in the South. Professional sports’ slow expansion into the region encouraged interest in the college game in the mid-20th century, and the fact that many states in the area are still totally unserved by pro teams has helped calcify that interest into a regional obsession. After all, why would a Birmingham resident choose to emotionally invest in the far-flung Atlanta Falcons or New Orleans Saints when the Alabama Crimson Tide and Auburn Tigers are both accessible via a relatively short car ride? On top of that, the South tends to be home to many of the nation’s most highly sought football recruits, and the hometown stars and consistent fan support attract top coaching talent. The amount of money southern universities are often willing to invest in football staff salaries to bolster their mind-bogglingly lucrative teams probably doesn’t hurt, either. Being a college football fan in the South is, above all, a lot of damn fun. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a University of Georgia alumna from an extended family whose members have attended nearly every Southeastern Conference school at one point or another.)
Not only are college football teams more accessible in the South than their professional counterparts, but they’re a regional point of pride in a place whose obsession with its own identity can verge on the fanatical and stray into malevolence. That makes everything that touches the football programs turn to gold – including the dogs, who are among the primary faces of the teams for the schools that have them. College football players have four seasons of NCAA eligibility and the most talented among them regularly leave for the NFL after only three, which makes it impossible to build the long-term, brand-name stars like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning that are hallmarks of professional sports. In place of those franchise heroes, other traditions take up the mantle, and it’s a lot easier to pose your toddler for a Christmas card photo next to a domesticated dog than next to Mike, LSU’s tiger, or Nova, Auburn’s War Eagle. That accessibility makes fan interest in football dogs particularly strong and the treatment of the dogs all the more royal.
Charles Seiler, Uga X’s owner and a member of the family that has been the steward of UGA’s mascots since the beginning of the tradition in 1956, thinks Uga might have some idea of his role when it comes time to prepare for a game. “Around Thursday when I start washing his car and packing his bag, and he gets a bath and all that, he knows he’s going and you couldn’t make him stay – if I turn around and look, he’s already run to the car to try to get in.” And yes, Uga has his own car: a Suburban provided by Athens Chevrolet in Victory Red, a special shade that can only be ordered when GM is producing batch orders for fire station vehicles. Uga’s official vehicle also has a special license plate, which bears the dog’s title and roman numeral. Availability of these plates has been guaranteed to the Seilers and their dogs by the Georgia Secretary of State through Uga XL, which, at the current rate of mascot retirement, should last the university until approximately the year 2196.
The most famous canine mascots are often kept by a private family, which is the case with the aforementioned dogs at Georgia and Tennessee, as well as the University of Washington’s Dubs and and University of Connecticut’s Jonathan, both huskies. In several cases, a portion of the care and handling duties are then handed over to a student committee or members of a designated campus Greek organization, but everyday life for most of the dogs resembles that of particularly fussed-over family pets. Smokey X is even kept as mostly an outside dog – Charles Hudson and his wife, who inherited the tradition from Hudson’s family, insist Smokey prefers it, even though he comes inside to sleep and socialize. That makes Texas A&M’s tradition in particular all the more fascinating – Reveille IX lives in the dorms and goes to class every day with her student handler. Think of her as the People’s Princess of the group.
Although Texas A&M isn’t a military school in the same way that the service academies are, the school’s Corps of Cadets is its oldest student organization and one of the campus’s largest and most visible. Reveille (or Miss Rev, as she’s affectionately known to alumni and fans) is a cadet general, which makes her the corp’s highest-ranking member. That position affords her some privileges, including a new sophomore Mascot Corporal every year, who is singularly dedicated to her care as part of Company E-2, the corp’s mascot division. According to Gavin Suel, the cadet chosen to look after Miss Rev for the 2016-2017 school year, winning the job is an enormous honor and not a simple task. “There’s an eight-week official tryout process where we go to a special library on campus that has old archives and old newspaper articles and things like that, and we study all the past Reveilles. We’re on Reveille IX right now, so there’s eight previous Reveilles. We’re expected to know and be tested – and give a speech on – a new Reveille every week.”
For cadets in Suel’s position at A&M, that’s just where the devotion begins. The university community has a level of access to Reveille that is totally unique among major college football’s famous mascots, canine or otherwise; Suel escorts Reveille on an average of four to five official appearances per week, grooms her every morning and brings her to class with him every day, as long as it’s not too hot outside. There, she can greet her adoring public at her leisure.
Suel repeatedly emphasized that Reveille’s comfort was of the utmost importance as the Queen of Aggieland, which was a common theme among the handlers I spoke with. Charles Seiler, for example, ensures Uga’s new vehicles (he gets an upgrade every two to three years) are equipped with a special oversized gas tank usually reserved for trucks used in parades, which allows for continuous air conditioning while the dog does his pre-game meet-and-greets with fans, perched in the back cargo area with the Suburban’s tailgate open while fans stand next to him for photos. Both mascots are also given special consideration when flying to away games; Miss Rev only flies first class, according to Suel, and Uga, accompanied by Seiler, has a reserved spot on the football team’s chartered planes and is last to board, after everyone else takes their places.
Not only is this obsessive attention to detail good for the lore of each mascot’s tradition, but it’s something that fans expect for the dogs, who, over time, start to feel like honorary family pets in hundreds of thousands of households. At Texas A&M, where Reveille’s regular presence on campus means scores of people have their own memories and photos with her, Suel says she takes to the role naturally. “The first word that comes to mind is “diva.” She knows what she wants and she knows she can get it, because she’s the queen. But she’s also extremely sweet and playful and friendly.” Sherylon Carroll, A&M’s Associate Vice President for Communications, echoed that sentiment. “I think the thing that’s beautiful about Reveille is everyone has their own personal Rev story because people have an opportunity to engage with her. There’s not a lot of mascots where you have an opportunity to have your own personal story.”
Charles Seiler, Uga’s longtime owner and handler, agreed. “The reason dogs are so popular is they’re approachable. You can’t go up and pet an alligator, you don’t want to go pet a tiger, and Bevo [The University of Texas’s live longhorn mascot] is cool, but I don’t think you’re allowed to pet him. I think people relate to something they could have in their living room. We’re pretty lucky in that respect. I’ve got people that will come to me and do [a photo with Uga] every year, and they have every year on their wall, all the way through the dogs.” In a region with a singular obsession with college football, having an adorable, huggable mascot that can indeed be adored and hugged in person makes a fan’s bond to a team all the more intimate.