Improving a Classic

Making a Cocky for the world to enjoy

by Melissa Borgerding / Garnet & Black

Four. That’s the number that haunts me. Everywhere I go, I see it, following me relentlessly. You may ask why such an unassuming number has given me nightmares recently, but sharing this information may haunt you as well, so read with caution. 

A recent poll run by Quality Logo Products - an Ohio company - surveyed over a thousand applicants on their favorite mascots in a variety of categories. They asked people to rank the best, worst, most offensive, sexiest, and...unsexiest mascots in the NCAA. And unfortunately, dear readers, Cocky was ranked as the fourth unsexiest mascot in the NCAA. 

Needless to say, I haven’t been the same since reading this. Here in South Carolina, we love Cocky, but to hear that the world does not consider him to be an amazing mascot has shaken me to my core. This is even more of a betrayal given the fact that, until recently, Cocky was loved. He won best national mascot in 1986 and 1994, Capital One Bowl Mascot in 2003, NCAA national mascot in 2009, and was on the Capital One Bowl All-American mascot team in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2008. And now they scoff at the face of God, mocking him. Never before have I been so enraged. Never before have I been so called to action. So today, 08-31-2021, starts my journey to discover who Cocky truly is, what defines him and to improve upon a masterpiece and guide Cocky to ascension.

The first part of this plan is to understand where our mascot comes from, and that story begins way back in the Revolutionary War, with general Thomas Sumter. In February of 1776, months before the start of the war, Sumter was elected lieutenant colonel of the Second Regiment of the South Carolina Line, and was later appointed colonel in 1780. In the war, he led several campaigns, an important one stopping the British invasion of Georgia. During his battles, he was known as the “Carolina Gamecock” for his ferocious battle tactics. British lieutenant colonel Sir Banastre Tartleton claimed Sumter “fought like a gamecock,” and Cornwallis described the gamecock as his “greatest plague.” Cockfighting - similar to dogfighting - was made illegal in South Carolina in 1887, but the sport was still widely known for years afterwards. In 1902, when the South Carolina football team beat Clemson University in a major upset, students made a drawing of a gamecock crowing over a defeated tiger in celebration. This did not go over well with the Clemson kids. The drawing was flown in a parade the day after the stunning victory, which, to no one’s surprise, started a riot between the two schools, and when the newspapers reported them as the Gamecocks, the moniker stuck.

Fast forward to the 1960s, where students made an unofficial mascot known as Waldo. I have only one picture of this thing, and it terrifies me to no end. Then, in 1971, John Nelson, an undergraduate biology student, decided that the school needed an official mascot. So with the help of his mother, Nelson debuted as “The Rooster,” attending football and basketball games until he graduated in 1973. The mascot was a bit rough around the edges, but he was a huge success. In 1974, the mascot was changed to “Big Spur,” an elegant and dashing young gamecock. Big Spur was a hit with everyone and, on a lovely night in 1980, Big Spur fell in love and had a child that would become known as the great and renowned Cocky. 

Now, fan reception was mixed at first (partly due to his horrific appearance), and he may or may not have been booed off the field when he first debuted. But, after a few years working with his father and a few plastic surgeries to fix his more unsightly features, Cocky became the mascot that everyone here recognizes as the wonderful bird he is.

However, let’s take a step back to John Nelson, the student who created The Rooster. He still works for the university, and I figured it would be a good idea to get some information - maybe even some advice - from the man who started it all. So, I sat down with him at Beezer’s, and I asked him to tell me about himself over some subs. 

In 1971, Nelson was a young biology student and member of the marching band. Nelson was inspired by Waldo, a “ridiculous” costume worn by a fraternity kid, the Duke Blue Devil mascot, and even Clemson’s (gasp) mascot. Seeing these mascots, he wanted South Carolina to have something similar. So him and his mom made the costume that would give South Carolina it’s first mascot, the Rooster. The original costume still sits in McKissick Museum, and occasionally is on display for students to look at. While in costume, Dr. Nelson put on a show. He would run around the court or the field, hanging out with the cheerleaders, and was a general nuisance to the opposing fans. Sometimes, though, he even caused a bit too much mayhem. 

When South Carolina played Temple University during the 1970-71 basketball season, Nelson started some playful banter with Temple’s mascot, Hooter. At least, Nelson had thought it was playful banter, as the two couldn’t hear each other very well. When Nelson tried to pull a funny move and yank on Hooter’s tail, Hooter snapped, chasing The Rooster across the court, screaming things I can’t type into this article. 

Dr. Nelson kept the Rooster going strong until he graduated in the spring of 1973; and, soon after the mascot was replaced with Big Spur. Nelson remembers the very mixed opinions on Cocky when he debuted, and he agreed that the costume didn’t look great at the time. When I told him about my little escapade to improve on Cocky, he had some very wise words for me: He said that no student here would find anything wrong with him. Cocky is a masterpiece that everyone here loves, and I’m not going to find people that want to change what many people already see as perfect.

That made me think about what I was doing here. I had set out to learn about Cocky and his predecessors so I could set out and make improvements. I had planned to go out and make a sign, ask people their opinions and try to make this big change to Cocky so that he might finally ascend to the throne he so desperately deserved. But, I never stopped to think about whether that was the right thing to do. In trying to improve a classic, I lost sight of why he was a classic. Sure, some people don't like him, or think he's sexy, and that's their opinion. But we love Cocky, and he exemplifies the best parts of this campus. And that's all that matters, isn't it?

Besides, we know he gets it.